The UK will vote on 23 June to determine whether it remains in or leaves the European Union. Political discourse in Britain is dominated by the subject. What would a vote to leave mean for British national security?
Let’s put the issue in perspective. The key pillar of UK national security, globally, is British membership of NATO. That is not at issue on 23 June, nor are the other key pillars of national security – the British nuclear deterrent; professional, flexible and responsive armed forces; world-class security and intelligence services; an influential diplomatic service; a joined-up CT strategy and a coherent cyber plan; etc. No one reading last year’s National Security Strategy would think that British membership of the EU was a key part of it.
And the British security and intelligence agencies will be very careful not to get their ties caught in the shredder of the EU debate. They have some critically important relationships with sister agencies in EU countries. But these relationships are essentially country to country, and as with security relationships with non-EU allies, they are not dependent on or facilitated by the EU as an institution. The job of the British agencies will be to keep Britain as safe as they can by keeping these relationships in good shape, regardless of the referendum outcome.
But the vote will still have implications for UK national security. Of course there is a whole set of arguments to be had about whether British exit from the EU (“Brexit”) would damage the British economy and so to the UK’s ability to fund the key pillars of its National Security Strategy. A vitally important issue, but one perhaps better left to economists and politicians than to security specialists.
However, while NATO is not being voted on, that does not mean the attitudes of the UK’s NATO allies to a possible Brexit are not relevant. Central of course is the attitude of the U.S., which has given out pretty unambiguous and bold messages about the undesirability of Brexit. The U.S. fear is that Brexit must weaken the UK’s influence over European security, for example the UK’s stiffening of European attitudes toward Russian interference with its near neighbours and elsewhere. I think there is also an American respect for the influence that the British security agencies and police have on their European counterparts: the British understand their European counterparts more intimately than the Americans do, and British proposals to enhance EU partners’ security capabilities play better with European allies.
The attitude of competitors like Russia doubtless mirrors the anxieties of our allies. Russia would welcome Brexit precisely because of the belief that it would damage the coherence of European responses to Russian actions. Brexit would not just mean that Britain was out of the EU club. It would be a further, and massive, boost to anti-EU nationalists across Europe. The EU’s potential loss of coherence would present all sorts of opportunities to its difficult eastern neighbour.
One needs also to remember that European security is not just about security and intelligence agencies. Policing is vital, and here the EU has had a more crucial role. An example here is the Prum system by which EU countries automatically share fingerprint and DNA data. The UK originally opted out of this but had to think again in the light of the ISIS attacks on Paris last year. Clearly, this is an example of where the EU helps European policing and that is a matter not just of containing serious criminality but terrorism too. Incidentally, having a Brit in charge of Europol for the last few years has only been good for European security and could not have happened, presumably, if Britain were not in the EU.
And mention of “European security” should remind us that if Brexit degrades European security, that becomes a threat to British security too. To state the obvious, British people are all over the continent, in numbers: some have settled down to retire in Spain, others permanently or temporarily live across the EU to work, still more prowl the tourist attractions of Rome, Paris, Prague, etc. Even if – a big if – Britain were considered too tough a target by ISIS, British people will still get killed in ISIS attacks on the continent – as happened in Paris. So British people, like British business, in Europe will be more at risk if Brexit damages the security of EU countries.
If Brexit happens, we in Britain will not all wake up the next day to a suddenly more dangerous world. The cornerstones of western security will remain. But our key allies will feel a bit less comfortable, and our enemies and competitors a bit more confident. European policing will be harder. The trust upon which informal, going-the-extra-mile security cooperation depends will be a little weaker. Do we need this, now?