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The Brexit effect and why strong neighbourhoods matter

Submitted by on 30 Sep 2016 – 16:10

The United Kingdom is strong only when her neighbourhood is safe and secure, writes Dr Simon J. Smith, Lecturer of International Relations from StaffordshireUniversity. Considering Britain’s long-term security interests from an insider’s perspective, he argues that Brexit might weaken the country’s position in NATO and reduce her ability to influence and guide the future of the European Union

According to Theresa May, ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ Therefore, when the newly-formed British Government decides to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, there will be implications for UK, European and Transatlantic security. In fact, the ramifications of the Brexit referendum are already starting to emerge. To consider this question from a UK-centric position is not only superficial but, paradoxically, also potentially perilous to Britain’s own long-term self-interest.

That there will be implications is certain, yet the extent of those implications may not be fully realised for some time. Threat perception in the international environment is notoriously difficult as the Russian annexation of Crimea and the rise of Islamic State have both demonstrated recently. When it comes to international security, the shadow of the future is always lurking in the background.

In the days leading up to the referendum, many security experts argued that withdrawing from the EU was likely to have little noticeable impact on the UK’s direct security in the short-term. Broadly speaking, this remains the case. The UK remains a strategically relevant actor in the international system. It retains the military, diplomatic and intelligence assets to sustain a relatively high-level of influence on matters of international security and it gains a multitude of advantages from its soft power attractiveness as well.

In addition, the UK possess one of only two ‘full-spectrum’ military capabilities left in Europe, which also includes a nuclear deterrent which the House of Commons recently voted to renew; although this could also be seriously undermined if a vote to Leave unleashed further independence tendencies in Scotland. Even as a member of the EU, the UK is in full control of its borders as it is currently outside the Schengen area. The UK even possesses the right to deny entry to EU citizens under the EU’s 2004 citizenship directive.

However, cracks in this minimal impact argument have already revealed themselves. In July, Trevor Taylor at RUSI raised ‘major doubts about the affordability of the country’s current defence equipment plans’ due to the sharp decline in the pound, post-referendum. This could mean ‘extra costs of up to £700m a year’ for the UK Ministry of Defense. Furthermore, Spain is also increasing its efforts to regain sovereignty over Gibraltar in the wake of the referendum result. This would have, both political and strategic implications, for the UK. It is also something that the United States is watching closely as this could also have strategic implications for them given that Gibraltar ‘is a port for U.S. nuclear-powered submarines in the Mediterranean.’

At the heart of the Leave campaign was a desire to pursue a more global (i.e. ‘liberated from the shackles of EU membership’) economic and security agenda. However, disengaging from European institutions will not, ultimately, support this strategy. The ability to act globally fundamentally depends on stability in our own neighbourhood. It is true that NATO has formed the ‘bedrock of our national defence, and of stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, for almost 70 years’. Yet, security in the UK and Europe is provided for by more than just membership of the NATO Alliance.

In reality, the EU and NATO are two sides of the same coin. Membership in the EU and NATO, as well as crucial bilateral relationships, reinforces UK’s current national security strategy; a strategy that is motivated by the so-called ‘comprehensive approach’ which draws on both civilian and military resources. Moreover, although the integrated design of NATO resulted in former European enemies finding it physically problematic to fight one another after the Second World War, progressive and consistent EU political cooperation has resulted in the Clausewitzian notion that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’ as simply unfathomable – between EU member states at least. In short, the EU has helped provide for security in Europe by evolving both interests and our security cultural identities.

In effect, Brexit may weaken the UK’s position in NATO, and the overall solidarity of the Alliance, just as the UK is now putting all its eggs in one basket. Even when it was a potential Brexit, it had already motivated some in the US to maintain that such a move would considerably reduce Great Britain’s ability to ‘influence and guide the future of Europe… as well as to ‘reduce British influence on the world stage’. Brexit, of course, also poses security questions for France and Germany, not to mention the future of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

The argument that leaving will not have a major impact for the UK, what with the country being a leading military and intelligence provider in Europe, is also fundamentally flawed. The UK is only strong if its neighbourhood is strong. The story of Europe after the Second World War has overwhelmingly been one of integration and institution building. The effects of unravelling this process are not likely to contribute to further stability in Europe over the long-term. The current and longer-term challenges facing the UK (and its Western partners) need a range of tools in the toolbox. Put simply, although the US-UK intelligence relationship retains primacy for the UK, membership in the EU gives the UK unfettered access to even more of these dynamic tools.

In turn, this helps bolster wider European security. The vote to Leave the EU will mean a significantly different relationship with its European neighbours and could unleash processes that may have tremendous negative security implications over time.

Simultaneously, the process of untangling the UK from the EU will necessitate a tremendous amount of political, diplomatic and economic capital that could be better placed mitigating the current security challenges that Europe faces as a whole. Once this is completed, the UK will still need to devote vast resources towards influencing EU policy, although now as an outsider and with no veto powers.

The UK may well leave the EU but it cannot leave Europe. None of the UK’s domestic, regional or global security challenges will become any easier to manage once the UK leaves the EU. Only time will tell if Brexit incentivised a bolder, more outward looking Britain.

We will also have to wait and see if Brexit produces a more integrated EU; including in the area of defence and security. Yet, at a time when the current international order is being severely tested, the UK’s limited resources will necessitate a level and a manner of strategic planning that has not been seen in London for some time.