Brexit and security—a sleeper issue
21 Jun 2016|

The UK is tied into a complex EU security, defence and law enforcement apparatus that might look easy to relinquish, but could be a potential nightmare to re-negotiate. A variety of veteran security and defence experts have weighed in for both the Remain and Brexit campaigns; others have concluded that neither option would really have a drastic impact on the UK’s overall security.

Brexiteers have consistently highlighted EU legislation as an unhelpful constraint (PDF) on Britain’s security, control and, ultimately, sovereignty. This raises concerns for rising nationalism and populism, fuelled by a “little islander” mentality and a desire for increased sovereign control. All of which may serve to undermine the UK in a more globalised world where “togetherness” and trans-nationalism are stronger than isolation.

While counter-terrorism legislation for European countries is primarily a national responsibility, the EU plays a supportive role in responding to trans-national threats. However, EU agencies and mechanisms such as Europol, Prüm convention, European Arrest Warrant and the Schengen Information System have been criticised (PDF) for clunky and bureaucratic processes. Despite this, they function relatively efficiently and have been useful tools for security forces (PDF). The UK’s expertise in intelligence and security sharing has further strengthened these structures. Should the UK withdraw from these arrangements, the EU’s security infrastructure would be significantly weakened, thereby contributing to regional vulnerabilities.

The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels exposed serious practical problems with EU security and intelligence cooperation. Irregular and incoherent cooperation combined with conflicts of interest between member states may undermine a comprehensive defence and security strategy. Information leakage is also a concern; sharing data between 28 member states means the risk of breaches is high.

On the other hand, Britain’s integration into the EU’s security apparatus should be considered as part of a strategy to maintain regional peace and stability and to strengthen resilience. Lord Carlile, the UK’s former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, argues that existing structures have improved cross-European cooperation significantly in areas of policing, jurisdiction and intelligence, thereby improving regional resilience considerably. Other high-profile security experts agree.

Reservations on increased intelligence sharing among member states should be addressed and dealt with through new procedures to improve information security and mitigate the risk of information falling into the wrong hands. Developing existing EU structures is a more constructive way of fixing problems and mitigating the UK’s concerns while also enhancing regional security.

When it comes to defence and diplomacy, Britain’s membership of the EU hasn’t affected its position as one of the strongest negotiating countries in the region. Nor has it affected diplomatic sovereignty or autonomy to make decisions regarding defence and security policy. British military participation in the Iraq coalition in 2003 wasn’t restricted despite broader EU opposition.

While Britain’s close strategic relationships with NATO, Five Eyes and US may not necessarily be compromised in the event of a Brexit vote, the view that NATO will prop up UK defence and security is problematic. With the US focusing more on relationship building in Asia and the Pacific, NATO may not be as involved in day-to-day European security operations as it has previously. EU agencies and offices might find that they shoulder more responsibility to provide an effective European security network. Britain should be involved to influence and derive benefit from this network.

A post-EU Britain would bear the burden of creating a new stand-alone security apparatus. Scoping out new bilateral agreements with various EU members would be costly, timely and, potentially, unreliable. The Lancaster Treaties signed in 2010 between Britain and France are one example of the type of arrangement that hasn’t substantially improved information sharing between France and the UK.

International security challenges require a coordinated response. NATO’s intervention can only go so far; political engagement is necessary to achieve successful solutions. Reaching agreements and instituting change might be more difficult and even less efficient for the UK outside of the EU. Historically, the Union has been integral to Britain’s international diplomacy, most recently in securing an agreement with President Rouhani in Iran.

The nature of the security threats currently facing the UK and Europe are wide-ranging and varied— some of which, like transnational terrorism, have been a consistent problem for a sustained period of time. Other geopolitical developments—the resurgence of Russia, the rise of China, large-scale migration to Europe, and civil war in the Middle East—will test Europe’s political and economic resilience. Along with the US’s ‘rebalance to Asia’, the EU faces myriad challenges.

The UK’s involvement in Europe’s security is pivotal. Retreating from the Union would fragment and weaken Europe’s defence and resilience capabilities. It also risks a firm response from Europe towards the UK, damaging trusted relationships built over the last 40 years, which would be detrimental for future security and intelligence cooperation. A weakened Europe and an isolated Britain is a dangerous prospect—one not in Britain’s interests.