Why Brexit is about security

Security has not been a central feature in the Brexit negotiations so far. But this does not mean it has not played a role. Most attention has been spent on issues connected to trade, the financial settlement, citizen’s rights, and the Irish border question. But in the background, concerns about future UK-EU security relations have emerged, and it is clear that the way in which the UK and the EU give shape to their future security relationship will impact European security at large. Both sides have an interest in maintaining close security cooperation, but the dynamics of Britain’s divorce from the EU can interfere. It has already done so in at least three ways.

The talks almost got off on the wrong footing, due to security. The UK’s notification letter, activating article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, linked the outcome of the trade talks to future security cooperation in Europe. It did not go down well in EU27 capitals, where the belief took hold that the UK was seeking to leverage its substantial weight in security terms to influence the outcome of the trade discussions.

In the summer of 2018, security intervened in a more detailed way. It became apparent that one of the consequences of Britain’s decision to leave the EU and the single market was that it would no longer have automatic access to the EU’s Galileo navigation satellite system. While important for civilian purposes, its high-precision signal is deemed critical for contemporary military operations. Besides, the UK has been one of the main proponents and financiers of the system.

The EU took a very legalistic approach – no doubt cheered on by industrial lobbies in some of the member-states –  and said that single market regulations prohibit the UK’s future use of the system. The case of Galileo demonstrated that trade issues could not easily be entirely separated from matters of defence and security.

A third way in which security intervened is through the dominance of the Irish border question in the talks. As negotiators and analysts pored over the minutiae of different models that could prevent a hard border (or not), the overarching reason for doing so was at times forgotten. The fragile peace along the Northern Irish border could fracture if physical border infrastructure would have to be re-erected following Brexit. To remind everyone of the brittle nature of the peace, a car bomb went off in Londonderry in January 2019, and in March 2019 multiple letter bombs claimed by the ‘new IRA’ were sent to locations in London.

So security has played a role, and that will only increase as we approach the second phase of the negotiations. After all, the United Kingdom has Europe’s second largest military, a vast diplomatic and intelligence network, and is a nuclear power and  a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Besides, Britain’s core geopolitical interests will not fundamentally change after Brexit. Great Britain remains an island off the coast of the European continent. Similarly, whatever happens, the UK has a strategic interest to remain involved in Europe’s security institutions, and to cooperate closely with its neighbours. To some this might suggest that security will be a straightforward issue in forthcoming talks, but it will fundamentally depend on the outcome of the discussions over Britain’s withdrawal agreement. An acrimonious divorce triggered by a No Deal Brexit would spell bad news for EU-UK security relations. It is almost unimaginable that security cooperation would not be negatively affected by a breakdown of the talks leading to Britain’s chaotic departure from the EU.

It is therefore worth considering those areas where European security would be negatively affected should a comprehensive security agreement not be reached.

Of paramount concern is the necessity to agree a data-sharing arrangement. As it stands, the UK will no longer accept judicial oversight from the European Court of Justice. This means data-sharing between the UK and the EU27 will become problematic in the event of a No Deal Brexit: the UK will not be deemed “equivalent” under the EU’s stringent data privacy regulations. The UK will no longer have automatic access to Schengen Information System databases which contain information on criminals and terrorists, or be part of the European Arrest Warrant. It is in both sides’ interests to ensure a suitable alternative arrangement is found so that law enforcement cooperation can continue as frictionless as possible. But that may be complicated following a No Deal.

Furthermore, an acrimonious divorce would weaken Europe’s strategic coherence. Increasingly, Europe is becoming a geopolitical space for Chinese-American great power competition. The United States and China are exploiting cleavages among EU member-states to vie for geopolitical advantage. Whether that is through China’s 16+1 dialogue with Central and Eastern European states and the One Belt, One Road project, or through the US administration’s assault on multilateralism and its increasing emphasis on bilateral relations with European countries. In that context, Brexit – and particularly a No Deal variant – weakens European cohesion when it is already being challenged.

Following Brexit, the UK could be inclined to develop closer ties with the United States on security, at the expense of Europe. One area that particularly comes to mind is sanctions policy. The UK, France and Germany have often acted in close coordination to push EU foreign policy forward. Their cooperation has been instrumental on issues like the Iran nuclear deal, and they have acted in unison on Russia sanctions policy. As a third country, the UK has set up an autonomous sanctions regime disconnected from the EU’s institutions. Now that US and European sanctions regimes appear to be diverging – the US has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear agreement, and the US Congress is considering new Russia sanctions – a No Deal Brexit could lead the UK to orient itself more towards Washington and its sanctions regime,  adding to a transatlantic rift. Potential divergence between British and EU sanctions policies would come at a cost to the EU, as much of the information and intelligence regarding the crafting of EU sanctions policies so far is supplied by the UK government and its institutions.

This could also negatively affect EU-NATO relations. The UK traditionally played the role of Europe’s bridge to the United States; this helped to strengthen transatlantic cooperation and facilitate productive EU-NATO relations at the working level. As security ties between the US and the Europe become more fraught, Europe’s main military powers, France and Germany, are increasingly looking towards the EU rather than NATO, including on capability development. Increasing tensions between the two organisations have already been raised by the leadership of NATO. After Brexit, but also in response to the chill in transatlantic security relations, the EU is likely to move forward on European defence; through PESCO, the European Defence Fund and development of the concept of “strategic autonomy”. It would be a deeply unhelpful outcome of Brexit if it led London to focus exclusively on NATO, while continental Europe doubles down to build EU autonomy.

The UK was never a warm supporter of deeper EU defence integration, but it is sensible to ensure that the UK remains plugged into EU capability development initiatives. Ultimately, Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy suggests that the US will be less concerned with security developments in Europe, from perhaps those connected to Russia. But just like continental Europe, the UK is affected by state fragility in Europe’s south and the challenge of irregular migration. Its ‘China challenge’ is also different than Washington’s.

It is in Britain’s interest to ensure it can contribute to security discussions that are primarily European in nature.

A final, overarching concern is that after Brexit the EU will be strategically less capable. It is impossible for it not to be if a country with Britain’s strategic clout, diplomatic network and military capabilities leaves the club. The UK, for instance, has a global mindset and imbued the EU with an awareness that security developments far from home – for instance in the South China Sea – could affect Europe. Though other member-states share these concerns about security issues further afield, without the UK’s strategic input in EU foreign policy discussions, the EU risks becoming increasingly focused on its immediate neighbourhood, paying less attention to global geopolitics. Though formal participation in EU foreign affairs council meetings is not likely to be accepted by the 27, a new framework for structured coordination between the EU and UK on foreign and security policy issues is desirable.

In short, security does and will continue to play a role in the Brexit negotiations. The main risk is that an acrimonious divorce could sour discussions to develop a strong and comprehensive EU-UK security partnership. It is in both the British and the European interest that this does not occur.

Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands.

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