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Understanding the security implications of Brexit

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 09:00

Professor Emeritus Malcolm Anderson, Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh, analyses the grave implications for the security of Britain and Europe. He notes that Brexit poses specific and general threats to internal and external securities of both the UK and the EU, and highlights that Brexit might have a serious impact on Europe’s intelligence gathering and Britain’s internal security arrangements with EU, which could potentially call for more hard work in countering challenges effectively

There are two aspects to Brexit and European security – what leaving the EU will mean for UK security and what impact it will have on the remaining 27 members of the Union. There is as yet little firm ground on which to speculate about the impact for two main reasons.

First, we do not yet know even the broad outlines of the UK government’s negotiating position after it invokes article 50, let alone any indication of the shape of the final agreement between the EU and Britain. UK ministers, but not the Prime Minister, have indicated a preference for “hard” Brexit, namely leaving the single market and negotiating mutually agreed access. Since immigration, and therefore free movement of EU citizens, is the main political issue for the UK, this is the probable but, by no means certain, outcome.

Second, security is a very broad field, covering many issue areas from nuclear deterrence to neighbourhood security, including all policies which keep us, or allegedly keep us, safe. Some have little to do with Brexit, and others will be affected by it. There can, however, be unforeseeable consequences.

In addition, both internal and external securities tend to merge under the impact of globalisation, new technologies, and specific developments such as terrorist outrages and cyber-crime. Governments, including the UK government, continue to treat external and internal security separately, although the strong connections between them have implications for Brexit.

Although the EU is increasingly active diplomatically, the development of a common external defence and security policy has been slow and hesitant. It may well accelerate when the UK leaves the EU because Britain has been the most resistant of member states to any European integration in this field. In internal security the EU has established a series of instruments in the field of justice and home affairs, and the UK government has opted into 35 of the most important.

In external policy, the new UK Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, has insisted that Brexit will not modify the British commitment to European security. The UK nuclear deterrent and its commitment to NATO will continue, but so will British reluctance to intervene out of area after the unsuccessful intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. A recent parliamentary paper stated that “The UK’s ability to project military power would be largely unaffected (by Brexit), and any military shortfalls could be compensated by bilateral arrangements. Ensuring the success of Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations remains in the UK’s interest, but outside the EU, the UK could choose to continue its participation in CSDP operations as a third party state.” But there will be a political downside. The UK would have less or no influence over the development of CDSP. Within NATO, the probable rapid increase in German defence capability, as envisaged by a recent official report, will make Germany, together with France, key European partners for the United States.

No significant changes in cooperation between security services are likely since specialists in this field insist cooperation depends on what the parties to cooperation “bring to the table” (the intelligence which they have which others want). However, it also depends on political goodwill and how well existing channels of communication work. In this respect, Pauline Neville-Jones, a former Chairman of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee and Minister of State for Security and Counter Terrorism, issued what is probably an over-emphatic warning that Brexit would put valuable bilateral relations at risk as well as cutting the UK off from key multilateral forms of cooperation. In this field, governments cooperate when they must, and when they want to.

Existing arrangements in internal security – membership of Europol, Eurojust, European Arrest Warrant (EAW), access to the Schengen Information System and other matters must be re-negotiated. British law enforcement authorities are persuaded of their value. The EAW and Europol are particularly appreciated by the police. According to Sir Hugh Orde, former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), if the UK left the EU, to replace the EAW it would have to renegotiate 27 different extradition agreements and create a bureaucratic nightmare. This would leave the UK more exposed to terrorism, human trafficking, cyber-crime, drugs and child pornography.

Both specific and general threats to security are posed by Brexit. If the Northern Ireland border becomes an EU external border and systematic controls on persons and goods are re-imposed, this would put the Northern Ireland peace process at serious risk, with the possible revival of Republican violence. The UK government has declared that these controls will not be imposed but it is difficult to see how they can be avoided in a hard Brexit. The possibility of secession by Scotland creates a further layer of uncertainty and other European countries could see this as a threat to their own integrity and security. The most serious threat to security is general political and economic instability, and the possibility that countries outside the EU such as Russia, and even the UK, will attempt to exploit divisions between member states for their own advantage and to advance their own policy objectives.