The security implications of Brexit
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s implicit threat to condition continued security cooperation with Europe on a Brexit trade deal sits oddly with her otherwise conciliatory tone. Britain’s “notification of withdrawal” letter reads that “failure to reach an agreement” could result in weaker security cooperation.
While May’s move might play well with rabid anti-European readers of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, which include many Conservative members of the British House of Commons, other European leaders take it as an implicit threat. Britain’s role in sharing intelligence and its relationship with Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, “will be part of the negotiations”, May said in debate that followed in Westminster.
“I would like to maintain the level of cooperation we have currently… but our membership will lapse and… (without an exit deal Britain) would not be able to access information in the same way as we would as a member,” she said.
“Our security arrangements would obviously lapse if we left the EU without a deal,” added the prime minister’s spokesman.
May’s comments drew sharp criticism from other officials.
Former permanent secretary to the Treasury Nicholas Macpherson wrote on Twitter that crime and terrorism “do not respect borders” and that the lack of a trade deal was “not a credible threat” to security. “Time to get real,” Macpherson added.
There was pushback by officials in Brussels and Westminster, where Britain’s participation in various policing policies and bodies, such as Europol and the European Arrest Warrant, as well as security databases, particularly the Schengen Information System, the European Criminal Records Information System and Passenger Names Records, is critical.
Despite the controversy, most components of Britain’s and Europe’s security and defence relations do not involve the architecture of the European Union. Britain has always opposed the European Union interfering with the role of NATO and the country participates in several security operations outside the organisation’s purview.
Britain’s “Nine Eyes” alliance, for example, allows the country to share intelligence with various European partners, including France, Denmark and the Netherlands. The Club of Berne, another intelligence-sharing group, includes Norway, Switzerland and EU members.
This might seem quite unrelated to trade negotiations but the fly in the ointment is the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the lynchpin of the European Union’s judicial architecture. After a trade deal is agreed to, the ECJ would play a key role in resolving any dispute between Britain and the European Union over regulation. May is determined to end ECJ jurisdiction in Britain but will have to at least accept it playing an indirect role in future proceedings.
This is where political grandstanding by Brexiters meets its limit. Brexit Secretary David Davis has already had to eat his hat. He will no doubt have to do so again in the months to come.
There is also a broader picture to consider. Since entering the White House, US President Donald Trump has engaged in dramatic militarisation of US policy in the Middle East, largely without the consultation of American allies in Europe. The United States is intervening in Yemen more forcibly than before and backing Saudi policy. Yemen is facing a huge humanitarian catastrophe, with two-thirds of its population in need of aid.
The escalating military activities are occurring with no sign of diplomatic initiatives or future peace talks. The US Defense Department has asked the White House to remove restrictions on providing military aid to Gulf allies that are fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Unspecified US special operations forces are operating in dozens of countries in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.
These policies could produce even more radical Islamists, undermine humanitarian relief and destroy any hope of economic reconstruction, the effects of which will be far more devastating in the Middle East, the Sahel and Europe than in the United States.
Meanwhile, with relations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and EU leaders having grown increasingly more sour and German concerns that Turkey is spying on German-resident Turks, there is an increased need for European leaders to present a united front against the Turkish president.
With all this in the backdrop, Brexit negotiations are serving as a distraction. There are far bigger security challenges confronting Europe and Britain on their south-eastern borders.
The Brexiters are heading for a sharp collision with the real world. Their belief that Britain needs to take back control and break free of the shackles of external influence will be shown for a grievous misunderstanding of Britain’s history, identity and security needs.