“The government now recognises that the European Union is an important defence and security player, and that is certainly not something that we heard from the leavers, including some current ministers, during the campaign.”
The government has made much of Britain’s contribution to EU security in recent policy papers. The argument has been that Europe depends on Britain’s security capabilities, and that the UK could manage on its own if negotiations fall apart. But in an interview with Prospect, senior defence and security expert Malcolm Chalmers warned that failure to co-operate in this area could also have grave implications for the UK.
The deputy director of respected think-tank RUSI suggested Brexit may put the UK’s security at risk: as “some of the most serious, and indeed growing, threats that we and other European countries face right now are in relation to cyber-security, both from organised criminal actors and from non-state terrorist groups”—both threats that “continue to develop very rapidly”—“very close co-operation” will be “critical” in securing our security in these areas on departure from the EU.
The government has recognised that agreeing a close security relationship will be key in the negotiation of Brexit. Ministers have emphasised the crucial role the UK plays in EU defence—and have even faced allegations of using British capabilities as a bargaining chip. In her recent Florence speech, the PM highlighted our “outstanding capabilities”: “we have the biggest defence budget in Europe… We have a far-reaching diplomatic network, and world class security, intelligence and law enforcement services,” she said.
While stating that the UK “will continue to offer aid and assistance to EU member states that are the victims of armed aggression, terrorism and natural or manmade disasters,” the government has made it clear it believes the EU needs us.
However, the comparable role the EU plays in our security has not always been fully recognised. Currently, the UK enjoys a close security relationship with Europe, with some of the best intelligence sharing and counter terrorism cooperation mechanisms in the world. Shared systems to identify who is crossing EU borders and help dismantle cells financing jihadist networks were revamped in only July—and the EU is a key player in safeguarding our fundamental rights and privacies.
Chalmers said that co-operation on these matters may continue: in the government’s recent defence future partnerships paper, the “language is very sympathetic with further co-operation with the EU” and focuses on a “range of issues in terms of how we would relate to the common foreign and security policy mechanisms after we've left.” But still certain risks cannot be ignored.
Worryingly, the government “hasn't confronted some of the likely reduction of the UK influence in those areas where other EU countries will now be meeting and deciding in our absence.”
Chalmers also pointed out that security relations will remain ambiguous until details of a deal are worked out. “Relative prioritisation” of a foreign policy partnership with the EU (compared, for example, to the US) “will depend to a large extent what the economic settlement is.”
“If we have an economic settlement which has something close to the single market and customs union in the long-term, then that makes it much, much easier to have common sanctions policies for example."
And if we have a hard Brexit? “If... our economic relations with the EU look pretty similar to the economic relations between the US and the EU, then that will have a consequence on a foreign policy level—because foreign policy is not simply about the military instruments…. these other instruments are very important [too].”