UK’s Future Commanding EU Ops hangs in the Balance

Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at Northwood
Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at Northwood. The primary role of the PJHQ, therefore, is to be responsible for the planning and execution of UK-led joint, potentially joint, combined and multi-national operations.

The future of the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in commanding EU military operations hangs in the balance as the UK government prepares to trigger Article 50.

One of the many aspects of the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union (EU) which will need to be negotiated following the expected triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which establishes the mechanism by which a EU member state may leave the multinational grouping, is the future role of the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) joint military command in supporting EU military operations. British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to trigger the Article 50 process by the end of March. Once this process commences the UK and the EU will negotiate the formers’ exit from the latter over an expected two-year timeframe, according to Article 50’s requirements.

Currently, the PJHQ provides a core Operational Headquarters (OHQ) and Force Headquarters (FHQ) for EU-led crisis management operations, according to the PJHQ’s website as part of its Multinational Headquarters (MNHQ) collocated at the PJHQ. Such operations include Operation ATALANTA, the European Union’s Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) ongoing anti-piracy operation which commenced in December 2008 in the Horn of Africa, and western Indian Ocean. However, the PJHQ’s role in support of this, and potentially other EU operations, now hangs in the balance following the 23rd June 2016 referendum held in the UK which saw the country vote to leave the EU.

For the time being, both the EU and the UK MoD expect the PJHQ to continue to play its role in supporting EU military operations such as ATALANTA. A spokesperson from the MoD told that “business continues as usual for as long as (the UK) remains part of the EU.” This was echoed by a statement supplied by the EU External Action service, the EU’s diplomatic service, which stressed that: “the UK remains a member of the EU with all the rights and obligations of a member state until it will leave the EU.” The MoD spokesperson continued that: “As long as the UK commits forces to support EU military operations, the UK and the PJHQ will have a roll to play in commanding elements of those operations.”

The future, it seems, for PJHQ’s role in supporting EU military operations thus hangs in the balance. According to Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of the London-based Royal United Services Institute defence think tank, it is hard to anticipate the role of the PJHQ in supporting future EU military operations at this stage. Once the UK leaves the EU, expected after the two-year Article 50 negotiations conclude: “there will be questions within the EU if a non-member state is in charge of an EU military mission.” Moreover, the UK’s role in any future EU military operations for which the country pledges military assistance could also be limited: “My view is that the EU will not be prepared to grant some formal status with the UK which will give the UK any form of veto over EU military operations.” Similarly, Prof. Chalmers continued, the UK may be reticent to commit military forces to any EU mission which London has no control over. Nevertheless, there could be possibilities for both the UK and EU to work together in future military operations: “You could have joint UK-EU military missions, if the UK is a substantial contributor to such missions.”