On 27 March, Sir Timothy Barrow, Britain’s Permanent Representative to the European Union (EU), delivered a hand-signed letter by Prime Minister Theresa May to European Council President Donald Tusk that invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union. This initiated Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, which will be completed by April 2019, barring a negotiated agreement to extend the process. Brexit has major economic and institutional implications. Britain’s departure from the EU necessitates a separate trade deal between the UK and Europe, while May’s desire to change Britain’s migration policies calls into question the Schengen Zone’s viability. Brexit could also inspire other nations to leave the EU, particularly if Eurosceptic populism continues to gain in appeal.
However, the PM’s letter to Donald Tusk brought to light the security issues that Brexit could raise for the EU. In her initial 17 January 2017 speech, the Prime Minister implied that UK-EU security cooperation would be subject to negotiation. Her letter to Tusk reiterated this point as she directly linked a successful trade agreement to Anglo-European intelligence and security cooperation. ‘In security terms,’ she wrote, ‘a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened’. May has received criticism for this move, but analysis indicates that it could greatly strengthen Britain’s negotiating position with few long-term risks.
Since the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, European officials have championed intelligence sharing between EU member states to increase Europe’s ability to respond to terrorist attacks. The Schengen Zone creates obvious security complications. Borderless travel not only removes the physical barriers that airport security provides, but also makes tracking specific movements within the zone more difficult. While the Schengen Zone created a unified border policy, no complementary European intelligence agency existed. Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, was created in 1998 to coordinate the action of and facilitate intelligence sharing between EU member states. The growing threat of terrorism drove the EU to establish the Intelligence and Situation Centre (EU INTCEN) in 2012, which today works parallel with the EU Military Staff (EUMS) under the European External Action Service (EEAS).
Europol, EUMS, and EU INTCEN have all removed barriers to intergovernmental, interagency cooperation. In November 2016, the UK agreed to a new Europol intelligence-sharing programme despite Brexit, while intelligence officials have petitioned the British government to remain part of EU intelligence-sharing initiatives after Britain’s withdrawal from the Union. Independently of Brexit, the centralisation of the EEAS has also helped EU governments coordinate their policies.
Intelligence sharing has been a useful tool in the fight against terrorism, both for the UK and EU. European intelligence agencies, particularly the German BND, may have aided Britain and the US in their drone, airstrike, and Special Forces campaigns throughout the Middle East with signals intelligence (SIGINT) analysis. Britain therefore has a clear interest in maintaining its intelligence links with the continent after Brexit. However, the first post to May’s advantage is that British intelligence, and its links with the US, may be more valuable to Europe than British intelligence’s relationship with European agencies. The Anglo-American Special Relationship in the intelligence world has resulted in the Five Eyes intelligence agreement, under which Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada cooperate on SIGINT-related issues. Multiple European nations are currently affiliated with the agreement, but one could imagine President Trump’s distaste for European commitments resulting in a re-examination of these circumstances. Maintaining links with British intelligence therefore carries significant weight for European nations. Thus, May can counter European negotiators’ desire to decrease the benefits of an Anglo-European trade agreement, and thereby deter future departures from the EU, by threatening to withhold intelligence cooperation.
Second, the limited value of intelligence cooperation helps decrease the ramifications of May’s position failing. Despite its successes, intelligence cooperation has questionable overall value. Unfortunately, no simple solution exists to replicate an Schengen agreement for intelligence organisations. By their nature, intelligence agencies are secretive and suspicious of even traditional allies meaning that freely transferring information is uncommon. When information is power, goodwill is less fungible than hard leverage. These same dynamics exist within governments. 9/11 exemplifies this – American constitutional controls and interagency rivalry impeded cooperation between the CIA and FBI, and continues to hamper cooperation between various agencies despite the establishment of the centralised Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Creating more coordination bodies like EU INTCEN or expanding Europol will not increase European intelligence efficacy without a concurrent and unprecedented expansion of EU power. A ‘European CIA’ is impossible without a more formal political union.
Third, the prospects of a formal political union remain low. A political union is unlikely without a unified European military posture. Attempts at creating a common European defence position have failed to date because of the same structural weaknesses within the EU as an entity. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and European Security Strategy ostensibly unify the EU’s strategic actions. Additionally, component organisations like the European Defence Agency (EDA), the aforementioned EUMS, and the EU Battlegroup structure dovetail with initiatives between EU member states outside of the Union’s political structure like Finabel, the Eurocorps, and the European Air and Maritime Forces give the EU the potential to act as an independent strategic force. However, in practice these organisations are little more than coordinating bodies. Analysts predicted that the creation of EU Battlegroups was a prelude to a unified European military, but constituent states have refused to financially maintain the battlegroup structure over time, a practice that does not bode well for an independent European defence force. As such, the British government could reasonably call into question Anglo-European intelligence links. Without greater political unity, such connections have limited overall value, but involving them in negotiations raises the apparent stakes for the European team.
Despite this, May’s negotiation posture still has its risks. One must assess the prospect for greater European political integration after Brexit, as that would not only change the nature of intelligence sharing on the continent, but also Europe’s overall defence posture. Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy thinkers have either predicted the emergence of a united Europe as an independent strategic actor, or the reversion of Europe to its pre-1945 state of competition. Europe defied both expectations – while the EU fostered closer economic and political cooperation between its members, it did not transform into a political union with an independent strategic orientation. But this circumstance arguably arose because of the international structure up until today. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the US remained committed to the NATO alliance and Russia and China showed little signs of increased assertiveness before 2008. In contrast, Russia currently conducts large-scale combat operations in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, while China grows in ambition and resolve in the Pacific. One must also take into account the persistence of international terrorism as a unifying factor.
Concurrently, the US has demonstrated a desire to rebalance its defence commitments under both the Obama and Trump administrations. In particular, President Trump’s comments on NATO come to mind as he has repeatedly argued that, without increases in European defence spending, the US should consider reorienting its European strategic posture. Trump’s recent missile strikes against Assad in Syria may prevent a Russo-American entente, but they do not entail a shift in position on the NATO alliance. Finally, Brexit removes the greatest force against European political and military integration from the EU. This confluence of circumstances – re-emerging great power competition, the terrorist threat, an American rebalance, and Britain’s departure from the EU – presents the greatest opportunity for true European political integration. If this occurs, and if May’s negotiating position does not yield fruitful results, Britain will be faced with a unified Europe that has an entirely separate security policy from the UK’s, and the leverage to deal directly with other great powers in a manner that Britain cannot.
Nevertheless, it is easy to overstate the incentives for, and understate the risks of, increasing the EU’s power. National governments were hesitant to delegate further responsibilities to Brussels even before the current rise in Euroscepticism. Militarily, a united Europe would be faced with a host of interoperability issues, interfacing ex-Soviet and indigenous technologies with Western European systems. Likely, it would take a major event like the dissolution of NATO and Russia’s subsequent invasion of Eastern Europe to prompt a political union. Even in today’s turbulent international environment, one can bet against both those propositions.
May’s decision to link intelligence cooperation with Britain’s trade deal is likely prudent, although controversial. She mitigates the cost of failure for Britain while applying pressure on Europe’s negotiators. Regardless, both Brexit and Trump have shown that unexpected political occurrences remain possible, and in some cases more likely than not. With this in mind, one may have expected the British government to approach the Brexit negotiations with a less aggressive stance. Ironically, this is also unexpected.