The impact of Brexit on British security and defence

The impact of Brexit on British security and defence

In spite of likely disruptions in data sharing and further cooperation, it is in the interest of the EU and Britain to remain partners and foster a close security cooperation in order to tackle threats related to organised crime, terrorism and cyber warfare.

Security challenges are currently evolving around trans-national terrorism, cyber warfare and regional issues such as conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Given the cross-border nature of terrorism and cyber-related threats, defence and security cooperation between countries is ever more important. Therefore, leaving the European Union (EU) raises numerous concerns which both Britain and the EU will have to assess.

British defence

Guaranteeing homeland security is primarily in the hands of domestic intelligence services and security services that includes the police and armed forces. Defence and security cooperation within the EU is carried out under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) on an inter-governmental basis.

In terms of military capabilities, the United Kingdom (UK) continuously meets The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s requirement of spending 2% of the country’s GDP on defence. Furthermore, former Prime Minister David Cameron set defence as one of his strategic priorities, by committing to invest more than £178 billion in capabilities, including doubling investment in equipment to support Special Forces, and significantly increasing the size of deployable Armed Forces.

Brexit and defence

The British Armed Forces as well as British intelligence services are among the best in the world. Both David Cameron and current Prime Minister Theresa May have emphasized the importance of maintaining and strengthening UK’s defence and security services, and committed to further investment plans. However, the defence budget is highly sensitive to the economic environment. With the current economic outlook, even 2% of the British GDP may be lower than expected.

In addition, the fall in the value of the pound will further impact defence and security. Given the close cooperation between the UK and the United States (US) on defence and security matters, a large part of procurement in the UK is done in dollars, which is subject to the weak pound.  Therefore, it is fair to conclude that Brexit will affect British defence indirectly.

The UK’s contribution to EU security operations is very limited. The UK ranks as the fifth largest contributor to military CSDP missions and seventh when it comes to civilian CSDP missions. This is partially down to CSDP missions being primarily civilian or policing missions; military operations are usually carried out by NATO, or via bi- or multilateral cooperation. Therefore, withdrawal from the CSDP itself is not likely to impact either security in the UK or cost savings for the UK.

British security and intelligence

The British intelligence services are among the best in the world with decades of experience in countering threats. Increasing investment in intelligence agencies was a key strategic priority for former Prime Minister David Cameron. To counter terrorist attacks similar to the recent attacks on Paris and Brussels, David Cameron announced an investment of £2.5 billion and the employment of over 1,900 additional staff in counter-terrorism, focusing on strengthening the capabilities of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), MI5 and counter-terrorism police and investing in equipment such as the British designed unmanned aircraft. Similarly to the Armed Forces, intelligence services are also highly sensitive to cost reductions.

Brexit and security cooperation

Military operations represent only a small portion of security cooperation within the EU. Security related cooperation involves intelligence cooperation, data sharing through a security network and infrastructure of the EU. Without further agreements, the UK will lose access to crucial platforms that tackle organized crime, cyber threats, and terrorism – fields that are exclusively transnational and cross-jurisdictional phenomena.

Yet, the UK has other platforms, such as bilateral agreements with France as well as Germany and the “Five Eyes” intelligence cooperation including Britain, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The latter is a global platform considered more valuable than any other intelligence cooperation within the EU.

The most significant security-related tools of the EU are the Europol and the European Arrest Warrant. Next to an information database, Europol also provides a platform for operation coordination to tackle crime and terrorism, vital to address cross-border threats.

At the moment, transferring DNA and fingerprint information takes minutes; once the UK leaves the EU it will take months. Furthermore, without access to the European Arrest Warrant, extradition of suspects and criminals to prosecute from EU member states will be more complicated and take even longer. Furthermore, the UK will lose access to formal procedures, peer-to-peer training and informal exchanges provided for instance by Eurojust and the European Anti-Fraud Office.

Conclusions and future implications

During her tenure of Home Secretary, Theresa May pointed out that access to EU intelligence databases make Britain safer. It is likely that the UK will seek to cooperate with the EU on security matters as well as continue to share intelligence – it is a matter of the type of deals negotiated between the two parties.

However, losing membership will mean that the UK will lose its seat at the table where major decisions on security are formed. The UK will no longer have an impact on the CSDP and future security decisions related to intelligence sharing. The UK can still have an impact on the security and stability of the European continent via NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

This will be a different kind of relationship; as a non-EU country, the UK will be left out of socialization within the EU, and consistent diplomatic and potential working relationships may be difficult to build.

Categories: Europe

About Author

Orsolya Raczova

Orsolya specializes in the Central Eastern European region and European defense issues. She previously worked for the European Central Bank, the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, and a Hungarian think tank. Orsolya holds an MSc in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics.