Professor David Galbreath on: Security in, secure out: Brexit’s impact on security and defence policy

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Security and defence

Professor David Galbreath, Professor of International Security,  Associate Dean (Research)

A more secure Britain?

On the morning of 21 March 2016, terrorists struck Brussels airport and metro system in coordinated attacks to intimidate and demoralise. Opponents and proponents of Brexit grabbed the events to prove their point: outside we are less coordinated against a transnational problem, while inside we are subject to the challenges of free mobility that the EU’s Schengen zone presents to a borderless Europe. The UK already maintains its own borders and remains outside the Schengen zone; however, the UK has been a victim of ‘home grown’ terrorists, such as the 7/7 bombers, as well as the long history of IRA attacks.

Presently, national military and police intelligence networks are not dependent on the EU, though they may be enhanced by the EU, such as through Europol. Cooperation with other European security institutions is not determined by membership of the EU. For instance, Europol has strong working relationships with many external international partners, such as Canada and Norway. Brexit would not threaten intelligence and cross-jurisdiction cooperation. At the same time, it is equally the case that police and security agency work would be made no easier through Brexit. As might be expected, the necessities of national security are asserted whether a country is an EU member or not. Being in or out may have major effects on many areas of life, but national security is unlikely to be one of them, at least in the short term.

Why is this the case?

Traditionally, the most developed areas of European policy have been in areas involving the single market, in terms of trade, goods, services and more recently finance. As a result of several hostage and terrorist events in the early 1970s, the so-called TREVI group was established between member-state interior and justice ministers in 1975. The focus of the group was counter-terrorism but eventually extended to other areas of cross-border policing. From the Maastricht Treaty (1993) until the Lisbon Treaty (2007) this area of policy sat within the so-called Third Pillar of Justice and Home Affairs (latterly referred to as ‘Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters’. Of the three pillars, the Third Pillar was the most inter-governmental and thus not orientated towards further integration. While the Lisbon Treaty abolished the pillar system, policing and judicial affairs have remained, by and large, inter-governmental platforms of policy cooperation and coordination. In other words, the European Commission has not sought to intervene in national policing and judicial systems, unlike say the Council of Europe (an altogether different international organisation from the EU).

Rather, European cooperation in the areas of policing has often been problematised by differences between national agencies and policing cultures. While Europol is established to coordinate member-state responses to cross-border activities such as drugs and organised crime, there are considerable national barriers, rather than EU barriers, to further cooperation and presumably a more effective approach.

In as much as counter-terrorism remains the primary concern for member-states, the EU has a limited role to play in terms of providing a space for national governments to come together to agree on the terms and conditions of the threats of extremist politics. However, there are other organisations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who also have a counter-terrorism mandate in Europe and beyond. The EU is one arrangement amongst many that seeks to enhance cooperation in security and judicial matters. At the same time, the EU is the only organisation that seeks to eliminate the barriers to cooperation as it has done in many cases for trade, labour and currency. One might argue going forward that the nature of the EU’s integration makes for a more orchestrated response to trans-national threats to the UK and Europe. Let us look at this in more detail.

Trans-national threats and UK security

If we look at the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), we can see that the UK government and security agencies are concerned with issues that threaten the region, if not the world. In addition to highlighting traditional defence policy, the SDSR also highlights combating extremism and terrorism, cyber-attacks, serious and organised crime, and threats to infrastructure. As these issues have developed over time, the UK has worked together with the EU, as well as other partners, to establish institutions and agencies that offer a more coordinated approach to what are essentially trans-national problems. In all of these cases, the myriad threats to UK national security come from abroad and are not aimed at the UK alone. As world politics has become more trans-national, so has the way that the UK and the EU do security.

What are the implications of this? Policing, intelligence and military officials have seen the EU become an important part of their portfolio since the 1980s. As the foreign policy scholar Professor Christopher Hill has argued, European policy has become ubiquitous for UK departments and agencies as they seek to engage with the problems that face the UK and Europe. To see this as simply the EU intervening in UK policy areas across the board is misleading because this is to ignore the effort that successive UK governments have taken to enable the EU to do regional security better, especially in areas that do not concern territorial defence (the preserve of NATO). As world politics has changed, the EU has become an important part of the UK’s ability to shape regional security policy.

Yet the EU itself lacks weight in dealing with difficult policy areas such as refugees, the Middle-East peace process, a resurgent Russia, trans-national organised crime or climate change. Across these areas the EU member-states have deemed that they themselves are responsible for responding to crises, to the effect of showing the EU as a poor regional security actor.

However, I would go further to say that the EU provides an opportunity for further cooperation and, even in some cases, integration of security policy for issues that threaten the UK and Europe. National security imperatives will go beyond the political rhetoric of Brexit and beyond.

Brussels, Britain and Brexit

The attacks in Brussels press us to think about whether Britain would be more secure and resilient to crises in or out of the EU. The leader of UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, responded to the bombings by saying that the free movement of people also means the ‘free movement of Kalashnikovs’. Home Secretary Theresa May responded in Parliament that European policy, intelligence and military cooperation are important for Britain’s own security, pointing specifically on numerous occasions to European Arrest Warrants as a prime example. As already discussed, the reality is that being in or out of the EU may have little impact on Britain’s national security, though it would most definitely have impacts on other areas. Such an argument was set out by Sir Richard Dearlove who has said that Brexit would have a negligible impact on UK security, other than it would enable limits on the number of EU citizens coming into the country (as Britain already has independent control of its borders for all others).

However, the focus on national sovereignty versus EU member status is misleading because in an ever-increasing globalised and trans-national world, the benefits of both are lower. Perhaps even more importantly for the UK, the main sources of political violence are those who are born and raised in Britain. While there is a trans-national quality to their indoctrination, their threat to public safety is not impacted by debates about borders. They are very local problems that will not cease with the settlement of the Brexit referendum.

In conclusion, the EU has been a nascent security actor on behalf of the UK and its other member-states for more than three decades. I have argued here that international terrorism, as well as many other security issues, are part of much larger trans-national threats that require a trans-national response. As it stands, the EU does not have a robust response to many of these problems and thus Brexit would have marginal short term effects on the UK’s ability to protect itself, in either direction. However, it is equally clear that the Euro-Atlantic Area needs a more robust coordinated response to such threats. With a changing political atmosphere in the US, and a NATO that has been fighting successive war after war in the Former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and North Africa, the alternatives to the EU are becoming less and less able to take on such a robust response to such threats.

The UK thus will decide whether it will be at the centre of this development along with France, Germany, Italy and other EU member-states, or on the periphery seeking to balance a national approach with a trans-national approach for trans-national problems.

This blog post is part of a new IPR Series – all related to the BREXIT debate and the EU Referendum. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in May 2016. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Security and defence


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