The United Kingdom heads into the summer facing complex, unprecedented political dilemmas. The prospect of a no-deal hard Brexit is looming. Candidates for the vacant position of Conservative party leader, and by default, prime minister of a nation of 70 million people, have been encouraged by the recent European parliamentary elections to declare their support for Brexit at all costs. Behind the scenes, among Britain’s security establishment there is likely to be a very different emphasis as they seek to preserve European security partnerships and arrangements of high value. What is at stake for the UK’s national security post-Brexit?
It will be crucial that the UK maintains its close security cooperation with the EU post-Brexit. Security experts might have to listen to political rhetoric that suggests that the UK can go it alone, or rely upon the United States for security partnership in an insecure world. But the reality remains that the UK is positioned in western Europe and has inextricable security links with its current EU partners. More importantly, the threats they face are the same and this will not change any time soon.
Following the 2018 Skripal poisoning case, the EU placed sanctions on Russian suspects and made an €11.6 million contribution to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the EU’s commitment to the UK’s security.
The EU is crucial for the UK’s cyber security, including date protection and for counter terrorism, including overseas policing. Europol, the EU’s police agency is vital, as is Eurojust, which facilitates judicial cooperation. The EU maintains pan-European databases and the European arrest warrant. To continue to benefit from these mechanisms, the UK needs to continue to accept European Court of Justice authority and power, a difficult fact for hardline Brexit Conservatives, and something that crosses the red lines set out by outgoing prime minister Theresa May.
There are new security developments in which the UK security establishment will be keen to see the country remain an active participant. The European Defence Fund has a €13 billion budget in place for 2021-2027. The European Defence Agency was set up in 2004 and promotes pan-European cooperation. The EU’s Annual Review on Defence was established in 2015. And the European Peace Facility funds joint missions and work in Africa. British Security professionals will see that it makes no sense for the UK to miss out on these benefits. Equally, it would make no sense for the EU to lose the considerable weight of British participation, expertise and financial contributions.
Participation in European security and defence projects might become more important to the UK post-Brexit than it is now. In order to avoid becoming a vassal state of the United States, the EU remains the UK’s best bet, with so much infrastructure already in place, the shared threats and, most obviously, geography providing the logic for continuing close cooperation. To strengthen London’s hand in pushing back against American demands, the EU stands alone as the UK’s best political ally.
The UK, if it chose to pursue security cooperation outside the EU bloc, would need to negotiate treaties and agreements with other powerful European states. This would be a tricky option as comparable states, such as France and Germany, would push back against what they will see as the hard Brexit hyperbole of the new prime minister, presuming a hardliner is chosen based on a promise of a swift and decisive British exit. EU member states do not want exiting the EU as a painless option, mindful as they are of discontent with EU bureaucracy among their own populations.
It is inconceivable that powerful EU member states would agree to the UK picking and choosing only the EU benefits that suit their electoral promises. The EU holds a much stronger hand than the UK in negotiations, and will continue to, at least until one party can command a majority in the House of Commons. Humiliation for a new prime minister in Brussels could be fatal for the Conservatives in Britain and might lead to a further delay in the UK’s exit from the EU, a general election and further polarisation of British politics. Beyond the politicking, Britain’s diplomats and security experts will hope that vital coordination with the EU will be protected.