On June 23, Britain will hold a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who heads the anti-Brexit campaign, has claimed that leaving the EU will isolate Britain, harm its national security and increase the likelihood of conflict in Europe. But Sir Richard Dearlove, the former director of MI6, has maintained that “the truth about Brexit from a national security perspective is that the cost to Britain would be low”. In fact, the former top intelligence official argued, leaving the EU could result in “important security gains”.
Britons, it seems, are undecided. The Economist reports that 41 percent of those polled wish to remain in the EU while 40 percent want to leave; the rest are unsure.
Since the inception of the European Union, Britain has adopted a half-hearted approach towards participation in the European project, having negotiated opt-out agreements on some of the Union’s central policies. London refuses to have its monetary policy set by the European Central Bank and therefore has not adopted the Euro, nor is Britain part of the border-free Schengen area. The motives for Britain’s reluctance to commit itself to the full European experience lie in maintaining autonomy and sovereignty.
However, despite its hesitancy, London has cooperated constructively with Brussels on common foreign and security policies, which at times has increased its influence on the world stage. One such example is the imposition of EU sanctions on Russia in response to developments in eastern Ukraine.
Collectively, EU trade with Russia is worth more than €209 billion, accounting for roughly half of all Russian trade. But trade between Britain and Russia alone makes up less than 10% of this figure. By working with EU member states, Britain has amplified its relatively weak bargaining position and has helped bring along countries that may otherwise have resisted efforts to sanction Russia, such as Hungary, Greece and Bulgaria. As such, the EU has provided Britain with a platform to pursue key foreign security policies.
In the case of Russia, a united European Union is undoubtedly more effective at checking Russian influence than independent states would be. This aspect of strategic policy has been reiterated repeatedly in Washington, where the anti-Brexit campaign has received bipartisan support from both foreign policy hawks and doves – a rarity. American support for Britain remaining in the EU was voiced publicly by President Obama during his visit to London in April.
But is Britain itself safer in the Union? Or is it Europe that is safer with Britain?
Recently, Europe has faced significant security challenges – an influx of migrants from war-torn countries have arrived at its borders; Islamic extremists have struck repeatedly at the heart of the continent; and Russia has annexed territory in Ukraine, fuelling conflict. Brussels’ response to each of these challenges has been found wanting.
In eastern Europe, it is NATO that has been tasked with the role of reassuring EU member states – Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – that they will not succumb to a fate similar to Ukraine. NATO has increased the frequency and size of its military exercises and stationed more troops in eastern European states.
Similarly, NATO has taken up the task of patrolling the Aegean Sea to deter and intercept people-smugglers en route to Europe.
Although the EU has accelerated its military cooperation in the past decade, Brussels remains unwilling to engage in collective military operations, even when confronted with security threats in its own backyard. This reluctance exists despite the recent establishment of 18 EU Battlegroups – rapid-reaction forces designed to serve in peacekeeping, peacemaking or humanitarian roles. The group is yet to see any military action.
In this sense, the EU cannot be relied upon to protect Britain’s security interests. Time and again Brussels has proven itself unwilling or unable to organise coordinated responses to Union’s most pressing security concerns. Rather, Britain’s security policy relies on a combination of unilateral measures and cooperation with NATO members.
Anti-Brexit campaigners also argue that Britain benefits from EU-based intelligence-sharing agreements and institutions – such as EU INTCEN and Europol – leaving the bloc, they argue, could compromise national security. However, given the reported failures of the European intelligence community to share information, particularly in relation to terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the effectiveness of these institutions is questionable.
Even if Britain were to leave the EU, it could negotiate intelligence sharing agreements on a bilateral basis. In fact, given the current mistrust between core EU members and those on the periphery – particularly certain former Soviet states – a bilateral intelligence sharing arrangement may be more effective than one based on EU mechanisms.
Britain is also party to the UKUSA Agreement, which is the foundation for an intelligence cooperation community comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and Britain, known collectively as the Five Eyes. This is the most powerful intelligence-gathering community in the world and will be unaffected by a Brexit.
Fundamentally, Britain’s intelligence services will not be left in the dark if the country chooses to leave the EU. Instead, the result would be akin to institutional disruption. Whether or not the disruption of renegotiating intelligence arrangements is more or less complicated than continuing with the current EU-based arrangements is difficult to say.
THE DANGER OF A DOMINO EFFECT
While the current debate is focussed on the impact of a Brexit on Britain, the repercussions of a potential Brexit are likely to be more significant further afield.
In almost every major European country Eurosceptic parties are on the ascendancy, many of them with far-right leanings. A Brexit would serve as confirmation of the underpinning sentiment upheld by these movements, giving them momentum to pursue their anti-EU agendas.
In fact, this momentum is already building. Just last week, an Ipsos poll conducted in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden found that 45% of those surveyed think their country should hold a referendum on EU membership. Anti-EU sentiment in Italy, the bloc’s third-largest economy, is particularly strong.
The Ipsos survey revealed 58% of Italians favoured a Brexit-style referendum and 48% of those polled would vote to leave the EU. These figures are reflected in the surging popularity of the Five Star Movement – an anti-establishment, Eurosceptic party that last week overtook Prime Minister Renzi’s Democratic Party to become Italy’s most popular. If Italy were to leave the Union along with its $2.2 trillion economy and 60 million people, all bets would be off.
Ultimately, London’s participation in powerful and influential alliances outside of the European sphere means that a Brexit would not directly or substantially impact on Britain’s national security. However, a Brexit-triggered domino effect could have a devastating impact on the European project more generally and, in time, on Britain itself.
Simon is the founder of Foreign Brief who served as managing director from 2015 to 2021. A lawyer by training, Simon has worked as an analyst and adviser in the private sector and government. Simon’s desire to help clients understand global developments in a contextualised way underpinned the establishment of Foreign Brief. This aspiration remains the organisation’s driving principle.