Brexit and International Security: A Guide for Undecided Voters

DR BEN KIENZLE

The most recent polls for the referendum on Britain leaving the European Union suggest that neither the ‘Brexit’ nor the ‘Bremain’ camps have mustered the necessary support to win today. The still undecided voters will certainly play a crucial role. So, how should these voters take their decision? The most obvious approach is to gather as much impartial information as possible. Admittedly, in the present climate of the referendum campaign identifying such information is a challenging task. However, I argue in this blog post that academic scholarship can offer useful remedies. To be sure, academics have been accused of a clear Bremain bias. After all, a substantial number of academics have come out in favour of Britain staying in the EU. Universities UK, the umbrella organization for British universities, supports strongly the Bremain campaign and, according to The Independent, ‘vice chancellors from almost every major higher education institution in Britain say they are “gravely concerned” about a vote to leave’. At a recent workshop on the security implications of a potential Brexit, which I co-organized at King’s College London, it was difficult to find pro-Brexit security experts. None the less, academic scholars have demonstrated that they are capable of providing much needed, impartial information, as Anand Menon of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative has argued forcefully in a recent article for The Guardian. In a recent contribution to this blog, I have already refuted the arguments by both Brexit and Bremain supporters who have tried to use defence-related arguments in their campaigns.

In this contribution, I will go beyond the narrow focus on military defence. Using basic insights from International Relations theory, I will offer an impartial examination of British membership in the EU in the context of international security. From an International Relations perspective, the EU is basically a very advanced form of inter-state cooperation. And the classical International Relations theories tell us that states cooperate because it is in their national interest to do so. Historically, the main examples of international cooperation are alliances. You do not have to be a military genius to realize that it was easier to defeat Nazi Germany or to oppose the Soviet Union as a block of states rather than each country for itself. However, International Relations scholars also tell us that effective international cooperation always comes with a price tag. Especially for major players like the UK it is very difficult to ‘free-ride’ on the efforts of others. This is, if you will, the fundamental issue of this referendum: whereas the Brexit supporters believe that the price tag of EU cooperation is too hefty, Bremain supporters argue that the benefits of EU membership outweigh its costs.

But what do International Relations scholars consider to be ‘costs’? Too much focus in this regard has been on the misleading figures of the UK’s financial contributions to the EU. More important are costs in terms of national independence. In abstract terms, cooperation always entails some sort of compromise. In other words, if a nation state cooperates with other nation states its narrow national interests will be ‘compromised’ in one way or another. Let’s take an easy example: NATO and its leadership. The Alliance members have accepted that the Supreme Allied Commander Europe is always a US commander. This might be a small price to pay for America’s continuing commitment to NATO, but it is still a significant concession in terms of national military independence. Consequently, (neo) realist scholars believe that strong international cooperation only occurs – and should occur –in the rare instances when (minor) limits on national independence offer far superior benefits in terms of national interests. As the new head of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, Prof. Michael Rainsborough, argued in The Telegraph, ‘What remains permanent in Europe and the world are nation states that ultimately have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.’

There is no doubt that the EU encroaches on the UK’s national independence – every international organization of which the UK is a member does so in one way or another. In economic terms this encroachment is arguably more obvious than in the case international security. After all, in the realm of international security, the EU remains a largely intergovernmental organization, where decisions are still taken by consensus. Most notably, the EU does not infringe the right of the UK – or any other member state for that matter – to take fundamental national security decisions on their own, e.g. the decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003 or the decision about the renewal of Trident. However, research shows that it is also true that many security-relevant decisions in Europe are not taken anymore in the national capitals in isolation, but rather by national representatives in Brussels. Conceptually, this is called supranational intergovernmentalism. Another example where the UK has lost some of its security-relevant national independence is border control. Although Britain has never joined the Schengen Agreement and remains formally in control of its borders – hence the long queues at the border control posts at UK airports whenever we try to enter the country! – the border-free Schengen zone and the free movement of persons in the EU has certainly limited the UK’s ability to control its borders.

However, all these costs in terms of national independence also have clear benefits for the UK. First, EU membership reduces uncertainty. Although the EU might have its shortcomings, at least we know what we have. And this might be better for the UK’s national interests than going it alone in an increasingly turbulent world. As the saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. To be clear, nobody knows what will happen if the UK actually leaves the EU. There is certainly the possibility that the UK will be better off after the Brexit. But there is also a high risk that the UK will be worse off. As the historian Lawrence Freedman pointed out in a recent article for Survival, ‘Extracting the United Kingdom from the European Union is not going to make either body stronger or better able to cope with the current set of security challenges, whether from Russia or ISIS. It could leave both in a much weaker position. With so little clarity on what Brexit is intended to achieve, it is hard to think of a greater test of the law of unintended consequences’.

Second, international organizations such as the EU help to lower transaction costs, as (neo) liberal scholars have argued since the 1980s. What this means in practice will be all too familiar to those readers with small children. As the eminent International Relations scholar Stephen Walt explained in a blog post for Foreign Policy, ‘My kids might like to negotiate every single aspect of their lives, but who has time? And as with most norms, failures in the short-term are less important than success in the long run’. In other words, cooperation with like-minded countries in an institutionalized setting like the EU tends to be much more efficient in the long-term than negotiating new forms of cooperation from scratch, whenever the need for working with other nations arises.

Third, many of today’s major security issues are global in nature. Transnational crime, the proliferation of WMD, climate change, energy security or the rise of China are issues that affect in one way or another most nation states, including the UK. Likewise, the issues cannot be addressed effectively by individual nation states, even the most powerful ones. For instance, if the UK tackles climate change nationally, but China and other major actors continue with their greenhouse gas emissions, British policies will not have a major impact and the UK is still likely to face the consequences of climate change. In International Relations theory, these kind of challenges are known as collective action problems. And the only way to avoid these kind of problems are powerful international organizations such as the EU.

So, what does all this theorizing about security cooperation tell the undecided voters today? Clearly, they should not cast their vote based on an ill-defined gut-feeling but on a fundamental decision about what each individual voter values most: national independence, though without being able to reap fully the benefits of security cooperation with the EU and its member states; or the ability to shape collective responses to common problems, but with less national independence. The ideal solution – full sovereignty and full benefits from cooperation – is unfortunately simply a pipe dream. As all too often in life, we can’t have the cake and eat it too.

Image via pixabay.

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