Brexit effect on security in the UK

Brexit effect on security in the UK

The downstream effects of Brexit, and particularly a no-deal Brexit, have harrowing consequences for the safety of Britons. If there is no deal on 29 March, the UK’s counterterrorism and policing operations risk being significantly burdened by borders and hindered by restrictions on intelligence sharing.

Transnational security threats  

As Britain’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU nears, policing and counterterrorism operations hang in the balance. Critical agencies are cautioning lawmakers that the UK will become less safe as a result of a no-deal Brexit, pointing to the loss of shared EU information as the main concern. If EU-wide databases are no longer available to UK authorities from London to Greater Manchester and beyond, there is a considerable threat to the safety of the general public. Essential security measures, including extradition across European borders, could become more difficult, and the exchange of DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registrations would be put at risk. In response, they have set up a £2.4 million ‘safety net unit’, in case such a situation occurs. This will mitigate the risk but is only a temporary backstop. The threat of criminals taking advantage of these intelligence loopholes remains high.

Policing and Northern Ireland

A no-deal Brexit also threatens to destabilize the fragile peace established in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. The debate over what will happen to the Irish border after Brexit is one of the most significant points of contention amongst security professionals. If there is a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are risks that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 could come undone and the sectarianism and violence last seen during the Troubles could reemerge. As the Londonderry attack shows, the New IRA is still a viable threat to security, and a hard border risks further isolating an already divided city. As a precaution, one thousand police officers from England and Scotland are being deployed in case there is violence stemming from a no-deal Brexit.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is aiming to recruit more than 300 extra officers by 2020 after they received £16.5 million in Brexit funding. Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin says the majority will be spent on ‘frontline policing in and around the border communities.’ At the moment, the only noticeable difference when crossing the border is the road marking: yellow in Ireland and white in Northern Ireland. This is something that Irish officials such as the Consul General of Ireland in Edinburgh, Mark Hanniffy are keen to express. With the establishment of a hard border, and lengthy customs inspections slowing the daily flow of trade and commerce, these communities risk being further isolated than ever.  

What will remain?

As shown by the New Year’s Eve stabbing attack in Manchester and the car bomb in Londonderry, there is a persistent and insidious risk of lone-wolf and small-scale attacks. However, the UK has critical security agreements that will likely remain intact after Brexit. One of these is the ‘Five Eyes’ partnership amongst the English-speaking nations of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand, often hailed as one of the most integrated intelligence operations in the world. Collaboration through NATO will also continue and GCHQ, MI6 and MI5 are likely to retain close bonds with their European counterparts. These kinds of bilateral arrangements would not be affected by even a no-deal Brexit, as they are constructed at the national level, separate from the EU. As Theresa May and members of her cabinet like to mention, the UK is leaving the EU, not Europe, and will hope to play an even larger role in global affairs now that it is unshackled from Brussels.

The risks of a no-deal Brexit

The risk of a no-deal Brexit seems quite high after Prime Minister May’s Brexit deal was defeated by a margin of 230 MPs. There is a low chance of any other legislation passing through Parliament, which means Brexit might be reversed, or a softer deal could emerge through an Article 50 extension lasting into June. Either outcome will harm counterterrorism and policing efforts, and the precise terms of the UK-Brussels relationship will remain uncertain.

Counterterrorism and policing is something that both sides, Leave and Remain, Tory and Labour, can agree is important to the nation. The only risk is whether they can act in a fast and decisive manner to ensure that information is shared and intelligence officials have all the tools they need to protect the nation. If not, there are significant weak spots that terrorists and other criminal elements will be keen to exploit from the moment the UK leaves on 29 March.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.