The UK may have to pull out of an EU-led military operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the event of a no-deal Brexit, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
Plans to work around a possible withdrawal of British forces from the operation, which is called Althea after the Greek goddess of healing, were discussed by ambassadors of the EU’s remaining 27 member states on Wednesday, according to a diplomatic note of the meeting.
Operation Althea was launched in 2004 as a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina nine years after the war in former Yugoslavia ended. It originally had approximately 7,000 troops.
In recent years, troop levels were reduced to about 600, and the operation is now mainly focused on training the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The mission has a budget of €10.2 million.
Last June, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the UK was sending 40 more troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Through the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship negotiated by Theresa May with the EU, the UK would maintain a contribution to the operation.
But if there is a no-deal Brexit, a separate agreement would be required for UK troops to continue to participate, a Ministry of Defence (MOD) spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
“The UK fully supports Operation Althea and its objectives and will continue to do so after we leave the EU,” the spokesperson said. They added, however, that “in the event of a no-deal Brexit an additional agreement with the EU would be required for UK troops to continue in the Operation. We are open to reaching such an agreement.”
Regardless of whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal, the first effects of Brexit on Britain’s role in the mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina are already being felt.
Command of the operation was transferred on March 29, the day the UK was originally meant to leave the EU, to French Lt. Gen. Olivier Rittimann, an EU official told BuzzFeed News.
“The transfer of command of the Operation was confirmed by a Decision of the Political and Security Committee of 7 February 2019. General Sir James Everard transferred the command of the Operation to Lieutenant General Olivier Rittimann as of 29 March at 12:00,” said the official.
The same official explained that non-EU member states are not in a position to provide commanders for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy missions and operations under the Union’s treaty.
Britain’s continued participation in the EU’s defence and other security-related projects is one of dozens of areas that would be disrupted if the UK cannot agree a deal.
A letter to ministers from the head of the Civil Service, Sir Mark Sedwill, which was leaked to the Daily Mail earlier this week, warned that a no-deal Brexit would disrupt national security and make Britain less safe.
Any sign that the UK could relax its presence in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Western Balkans after Brexit would cause concern in the region as well as with allies.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the republics that made up the former Yugoslavia before it broke up. In a war that began in 1992, more than 100,000 people were killed. The conflict ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords. Part of Operation Althea’s key objectives is to provide deterrence and continued compliance with that peace agreement.
The UK played a key role in the Western Balkans in the 1990s, and has continued to remain active since, championing reforms and EU enlargement in the region.
In the wake of the 2016 referendum, officials have worried that the UK’s interest and influence in the region would be diminished, and the Western Balkans would be losing one of its longtime champions in Brussels.
UK officials and diplomats insist that Britain’s historic policy positions and priorities towards the Western Balkans, including supporting the region’s efforts to reform and join the EU, have remained unchanged.
As part of the UK’s efforts to signal that Britain is committed to the region in the long term despite Brexit, it hosted a Western Balkans summit, and has increased development aid and funds for the region. Following discussions with the Foreign Office, the BBC relaunched a news service in Serbia in April last year.
EU leaders agreed last month to delay Brexit until May 22 — on the condition that MPs approve the withdrawal agreement, the legally binding terms of Britain’s departure from the EU. If they don’t approve it, the UK has until April 12 to put forward another plan or face crashing out without a deal.
The UK’s other commitments in the Western Balkans, including its support to NATO’s mission in Kosovo, will not be affected by Brexit, the MOD spokesperson said.