Within the dimensions of international power and security, there appears a clear narrative of European loss if Britain were to leave the EU. Indeed, a European context shows our armed forces to be strong, capable and well-equipped; our intelligence services are mature with deep global connections; our diplomatic service is ranked among the best in the world—the EU would see off notable capabilities and assets. Less clear, then perhaps, is what the UK itself would lose from turning its back on the European Union.
This article serves to highlight some possible implications of Brexit regarding the UK’s international standing and security capability. I do concede that, from the position Britain is currently stood, some arguments to follow may appear far in the horizon. But this is no reason to turn a blind eye to what could be at stake. Of course, possibilities of varying degree must be examined when making cognisant decisions; these very choices affect no less than the future of our nation. With this in mind, and looking through the sights of power and security, this article suggests that Britain may well be better off within the European Union.
Purposeful Foreign Policy and Great Power Status
Two factors have been decisive in shaping British foreign policy: it is an island, and it is under twenty-one miles from the European continent. This has left the UK with a choice—a choice to focus on either Europe’s continental geopolitics, or on globalism and merchant empire.
Now, of course, the days of empire are long gone, and the UK can sometimes look uncomfortably lost in its search for a new role. The notion of re-building the Commonwealth lacks credibility. Indeed, affirming itself as a junior partner of the US has been one product of this quest. Yet to prevent continuing decline from its once global super-power status, Britain cannot afford to ignore the factor it was once able to over-look: its geography and proximity to continental Europe.
The UK’s engagement with the EU not only bolsters its position within Europe itself, it strengthens its global position too (as we shall see later, in relation to the US). Following Brexit, France would become the de facto permanent EU representative on the United Nations Security Council, reinforcing its claim to retain its permanent seat. Conglomeration with the EU offers something more than a comparatively mediocre economy and military—both a shade of what they used to be. Often ignored from our viewpoint is what Europeans already think of us as a partner. Our reliability is being questioned by many. European puzzlement: trivial British concerns of reform in the context of Eurozone survival, Eastern European tension, and the crisis of refugees in the Mediterranean. Many of Britain’s closest allies already feel bruised and neglected. The actual result of Brexit could depress our role and influence globally; the process leading to that result risks our reputation and credibility too.
Amplification of Soft Power
When it comes to soft power, acting through the European Union makes use of shared tools and effectively amplifies the political voice of the UK. Although Britain frequently acts in conjunction with the US, a different instrument is sometimes required for a different sound. The EU provides this alternative forum.
The Middle East provides a good case study. Here the US still maintains the most regional power and influence, yet undeniably the EU still performs useful and noteworthy roles. In the case of Israel and Palestine, UK foreign policy is far closer aligned to other European member states than it is to Washington, and in concert the EU propagates a stronger voice over this important issue than what the UK can achieve solo. Sanctions regimes and arms embargoes (as in Syria), terrorist designations and the criteria for arms export control all tend to be decided at EU level. Actually, for many years before United Nations and US involvement, Britain, France and Germany took the lead on nuclear negotiations with Iran laying important foundations for future success. (Although proving vital for concluding deals, the US, unlike the EU, found it difficult to kick-start negotiations due to sour bi-lateral relations with Iran). In the same way, acting through the EU arguably helps alleviate damaging effects of the UK’s own historical baggage in the region (think Mossadegh, and Sykes-Picot).
Within the international arena, pooling UK influence with the EU means admission to a larger aid budget as well as to the largest consumer market in the world. Of course, EU membership does not define Britain’s soft power capability. But to take membership away removes options from the table—an expedient alternative to the US and NATO; a brassier, and more influential voice.
Ability to Influence the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)
The most significant (and most predictable) implication of a British withdrawal from the EU would be the very limited capability that our nation would possess to mould or influence the CSDP agenda going forward. (The CSDP is outlined in Article 42(2): ‘…the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy’). Thus far the UK has been a key driving force behind CSDP’s development: they have been successful in forwarding the perspective that EU defence policy is entirely complementary to NATO. In Westminster’s view, CSDP is just a means to guarantee Europe’s optimal contribution to the demands of the North Atlantic alliance.
Despite relative prevalence, this opinion is not shared by all. The French, Germans, Belgians, and Luxembourgers have all argued that the EU should establish an independent military capability outside the NATO framework. Most recently, the Poles resurfaced an attempt to create a permanent and solely European operational HQ. This prompted the UK government to wield its veto. Importantly, William Hague highlighted what might happen without Britain’s vetoing influence: wastage of resources and duplication of NATO’s structures; increased hindrance to broader cooperation and coordination for defence; and distraction from improving already existing structures.
But beyond being simply complimentary, the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) recognises that the CSDP can offer something that NATO cannot:
The EU ‘can achieve results where others find it difficult to act. CSDP has helped to establish stability in the Balkans, Georgia and Indonesia… In Afghanistan the EU police mission plays an essential role… The EU continues to lead the international effort to counter piracy and protect World Food Programme aid…CSDP operations remains in the UK’s interest.’
If these operations remain firmly within British interests, surely it makes more sense to retain the ability to shape and have a say in the CSDP, assuming our involvement is certain to continue. In other words, if Brexit happened, Britain would be reduced to a mute participant.
Atlanticism, Geopolitics, and Britain’s Relationship with the United States
In a similar vein to the previous segment of writing, Brexit would remove Europe’s chief Atlanticism enthusiast from the continent’s most significant organisation. As a result, Europe could become increasingly isolationist and inward-looking, eventually drifting away from the over-watch of the United States. Whilst the notion of distance between the US and Europe may sound appealing to some, in a time of tension with Russia, a cosy relationship with the Americans seems paramount for a security guarantee to bolster European defence. This should not be taken for granted; Washington already voices dissatisfaction over Europe’s free riding when it comes to defence. Quite simply, were the EU to turn their backs on Atlanticism as a result of Brexit, the United States may find itself progressively unable (and unwilling) to contribute—Europe could be left more and more to their own devices. With problems in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, now is not the time to test the security capacity of our European neighbours with even a slight diminishment of American commitment.
Britain’s exit could shift the whole geo-political context of the European continent. The EU is undeniably one of two columns on which the security and politics of the continent has been built, regardless of its deficiencies. (The other pillar is NATO). It should not go unmentioned that by 2050 the UK is projected to have the largest population in Europe. This significance as an external player could help create a multi-polar Europe, whereby Britain, Russia and Turkey surround the EU, potentially generating a contested space between Asian and US muscle. This possibility hardly conjures images of security and stability.
Without an ability to influence the EU, Britain’s usefulness to the US is likely to diminish and relations might not remain so ‘special’. When it comes to Atlanticism, Washington currently relies on the UK to mould EU defence coordination in a way which will fortify American dealings with Europe. If Britain loses a say in Europe it might just lose its value too, and relations may loosen as a result. The US might just look elsewhere in Europe (perhaps Germany, or France will do?) to satisfy its agenda. (Though, as previously noted, it might even abandon the European defence agenda altogether). This possibility gives pause for thought to those that say: we don’t need to be close to the EU, we are close to the US. Indeed, following Brexit, we may not be close to either.
Security-type Initiatives and Cooperation on Policing
It may become more difficult for Britain to participate in several European defence-orientated cooperatives, including the European Defence Agency (EDA), the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR), and the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). Alternatives to such institutions do exist outside the EU framework. But at a time of security volatility, it just doesn’t seem wise to retract any kind of involvement in communicative forums designed to promote greater security and defence.
In the sphere of policing, integration has seen notable successes. The European Arrest Warrant (EAW), EUROPOL and the Schengen Information System II are good examples. Despite not being a Schengen State the UK is a signatory of the latter: the system is an efficient large-scale information system that supports external border control and law enforcement cooperation in the Schengen States. Granted, the EAW—which provides administrative means for extradition and speeds up the process—has only been issued six times in five years to the UK for terrorism. But regardless of this infrequency, it seems a tool to have, rather than not. As Michael Fallon, the Secretary of State for Defence, noted: ‘It is through the EU that you exchange criminal records and passenger records and work together on counter-terrorism…We need the collective weight of the EU…We need to be part of these big partnerships.’
A United Kingdom
Here we are concerned with the very survival of the UK, as we come to recognise that an exit from the European Union may well undercut our own unity at home.
Scotland has made it clear that it has no intention of leaving the EU. A YouGov poll earlier this March suggested 63 per cent of Scots want to remain in Europe. An overall result to withdraw this June, therefore, may throw the still-raw question of Scottish independence back into the mainstream. A clear contrast in voting patterns between Scotland and England hardly preserves visions of unanimity. The Scottish Nationalist Party leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, advocated last month that Scots would demand another independence referendum if they are forced out of the EU. Of course, the power to hold another referendum remains firmly within the UK Parliament, and Sturgeon is unlikely to put words into action if she cannot be sure of victory. Nonetheless, another dissatisfaction affords more ammunition for SNP’s Westminster-bashing. Leaving the EU would seemingly contribute to the conditions required for yet another independence vote—and separatism brings with it a whole host of issues regarding defence, most notably vis-à-vis Trident.
Concerns may also develop over the Northern Ireland peace-process if Britain were to leave the EU. Like Scotland, 65 per cent of the Northern Irish reject Brexit. Currently the border between the North and the Republic is virtually non-existent. However, if a post-referendum UK aimed to limit immigration it would need to tighten border controls between a European Republic of Ireland and a British Northern Ireland. The story may become one of customs officials and border guards, of checks, and of tariffs. This would represent a sorry regress in the peace-progress and apparatus at Ireland’s border may be insupportable to ultra-nationalists.
A brief note should also be made regarding the efficiency and unity of the current government in Westminster. The Conservative Party has already, it seems, erupted into a civil war over the issue of whether to depart Europe or not. Cameron initially launched the referendum to placate a minority of tiresome Eurosceptics. Yet now the Prime Minister faces more than 120 Tory backers of Brexit (with more to declare) and finds himself in an increasingly thorny situation. (Even a hasty inspection of related news unearths awkward situations within the party: pleas for ministers to remain ‘a united, harmonious, mutually respectful team’; indictments that Johnson ‘is after my job’; defences that ‘the question on the ballot paper is not this politician’s future or that politician’s future’ etc. etc.). The problem, though, is that if Cameron were to lose the vote, the Conservative Party could succumb to a leadership struggle or at least witness augmented divisions. Not only would Cameron be forced to devote attention to internal party divisions, Brexit would necessitate thorough bi- and multi-lateral renegotiations with various EU members. That would be a lot of extra work at a time when Britain faces imperative questions concerning the future of our defence and security.
Let Us Stay in the European Union
Finally to conclude, I leave space for the words endorsed by twelve former British military chiefs of the armed forces:
‘Europe today is facing a series of grave security challenges… Britain will have to confront these challenges whether it is inside or outside the EU. But within the EU, we are stronger… we believe strongly that it is in our national interest to remain an EU member.’