Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.

To give Angela Merkel her due, she is responsible for a mini jobs boom. Hanging on her every utterance is a whole legion of pundits specialising in interpreting and imbuing inner meaning to even her most turgid of phrases. To those initiated in the art, Merkel is a towering colossus, an oracle – nay, the leader of the free world. To the uninitiated, she may look like the most overrated ruler to walk the European continent since Richard the Lionheart lost France but still came up smelling of roses. Her latest comments on NATO are a minor classic of the genre.

A German leader saying “we have to fight..for our destiny”, and that Germany cannot rely on the Anglo-American defence shield is strong stuff, enough potentially to give Germany’s neighbours the jitters – and a challenge to NATO’s primacy post-Brexit, surely?

As always, there are at least two interpretations. Firstly, it might have been meant as ‘just’ an electioneering ‘call to arms’ to anglophobic (in a US/UK sense) German voters to gain a mandate to build up EU defence co-operation in opposition to NATO. Alternatively, it could be seen as a way to dress up a welcome commitment by Germany to do more to correct its woeful underinvestment in its own defence via NATO and set an example to other EU states. To cut out the middleman, here is the direct quote Merkel gave to her Bavarian audience in its full Merkurial magnificence:

“And the time where we could completely depend on others are, to some extent, over. I have witnessed that during the past few days. We Europeans really have to take our fate in or own hands, obviously in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain, in good neighbourly relations, wherever possible, with Russia and other countries. But we must know that we have to fight ourselves for our future as Europeans for our destiny, and that’s what I gladly want to do, together with all of you.”

From the full quote, you can see that it is actually heavily caveated and can lend itself to (mis-)quotation by a number of alternate points of view. Nethertheless it does shed some light on Merkel’s thinking.

Firstly, it is interesting (and unhelpful) that Merkel equates Brexit and Trump, and misunderstands both. This betrays the profound and commonly held ignorance of British politics in EU circles. There is no reason why Brexit should make the UK an unreliable defence partner in the way Merkel seems to imply. While EU policy-makers and EU pundits, even those based in the UK, want to claim that UK policy-makers do not understand German politics, it is clear that continental politicians are profoundly ignorant of the ideas and opinions that led to Brexit.

This is not wholly surprising, given that for many years most EU diplomatic engagement was confined to round table discussions with largely pro-EU groups and politicians who were equally ignorant of UK public opinion and hostile to the idea of Brexit. This is an impression that now needs to be corrected. Her comment is also interesting in the exclusion of Britain from the term “European”, in a way that would delight some British Eurosceptics, but in this context is not helpful.

While Merkel‘s sayings are always open to interpretation, the fact she has raised EU defence as a topic in relation to Brexit does invite the question: can we expect NATO to remain the main focus for European defence post-Brexit?

Money talks: woeful levels of EU defence spending have put strains on NATO

The first hypothetical threat to NATO comes not from EU state-builders, but from across the Atlantic. However, the truth is that President Trump may be an unpopular messenger, but is right to say that EU states need to spend more on their own defence. NATO figures show that France spends 1.79 per cent of GDP on defence, but Germany only 1.2 per cent, Italy 1.1 per cent and the Netherlands 1.16 per cent, as set against the NATO target of two per cent. This is not an alliance of equals. The idea that the US would walk away from NATO was always far-fetched, but as there are signs that EU NATO states will now spend more, when they do the US pressure should subside.

The EU’s unfunded defence ambitions

Europe has two global western military powers of any significance, France and the UK. Without NATO and the USA’s military hardware, the EU would look vulnerable to challenge by even a second rate power such as Russia. Without the UK, European defence and power projection would, by default, fall largely on France. This is unlikely to be a satisfactory outcome for all concerned – not least for France, having to shoulder a far larger burden than it does currently.

While the EU has mimicked NATO’s Article V mutual defence clause, and has set up some of its own defence structures, it is more a rhetorical than a real challenge to NATO. When President Hollande invoked the EU defence clause after the Paris attacks, it was hardly reported. The EU27 may find Trump, and his blunt diplomacy, an easy target for now, but they need NATO.

What role for the UK in EU defence, post-Brexit?

The UK’s role in Europe’s continental defence since 1945 is a product of history rather than choice, and a one that came with a heavy economic price. In the post-war years, while Germany and Italy took an undeserved peace dividend, the UK continued to provide Europe with defence via NATO. This role as a defence utility provider to continental Europe to some extent explains the relative underperformance of the UK economy versus Germany in the period.

Leadership in defence does not come with the same benefits that, say, economic or political leadership provides. Unsurprisingly, defence leadership in the EU is not a coveted prize, indeed during the Cameron renegotiation it was a role informally offered to the UK by Poland. The claim of Radek Sikorski, Poland’s Foreign Minister, that “you could, if only you wished, lead Europe’s defence policy” missed the point that the UK had provided this utility for free for decades, precisely because no other EU state was willing or able. This will remain the case to some extent in the future – the EU27 cannot and will not cut off defence co-operation with the UK.

Lastly, suggestions by Nick Clegg that the EU will decide to end intelligence co-operation and put its own and British citizens at risk by insisting on the ECJ’s primacy are ridiculous. We are able to co-operate with states across the world without the need for an enforcing court, and will do so with the EU27.

Corbyn – not Merkel, Trump or Brexit – is the greatest threat to NATO

While the EU and the USA will remain committed to NATO, the UK will remain a key European defence partner – bilaterally, via NATO, and through co-operation with the EU’s own policies – in the same way that other non-EU European states already do.

That leaves the greatest threat to UK co-operation in European defence not as Trump or Merkel, but the possibility that Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would seek to undermine all forms of British defence from NATO, Trident and the Army through to the intelligence services. In that world, NATO, transatlantic defence, deterrence and European defence would all be in grave danger.