No news is good news? The field of security & defence one year after the Brexit referendum


On 23 June 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union (EU). This has been widely seen as one of the most important strategic decisions of the UK in a generation. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, Ellen Hallams and Ben Kienzle have brought together researchers from King’s College London and partner universities to reflect upon the potential implications of Brexit in foreign, security and defence matters. The outcomes of these reflections were published in a special issue in the journal Global Affairs. Now one year after the referendum I have re-visited these early reflections to examine the extent to which they are still relevant. Of course, the UK is still a full member of the EU. While triggering the now famous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty at the end of March 2017 cemented the UK’s decision to leave the EU, this will not become a reality until April 2019. So, even one year after the EU referendum, any insights and predictions are still just tentative and we might see the full impact of Brexit only in the years after Brexit has actually happened.

So far, foreign, security and defence issues do not play the central role in the public debates on Brexit that some thought – and others feared – they would have. As Richard Whitman, one of the authors of the Global Affairs special issue, argued in a recent report for the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative, ‘The future of the EU-UK foreign and security relationship has been the subject of relatively little public debate since the referendum.’ Perhaps quite tellingly, only one out of 60 pages of this report were dedicated to foreign, security and defence matters. Yet, although public debates are often important, in the current situation this lack of salience of security and defence issues is largely good news. It means that these issues will not play a major role in the Brexit negotiations that started three weeks ago. And if these issues are neither part of the public debates on Brexit nor the formal negotiations between the UK and the EU, it is unlikely that they will get politicized in any significant way. This, in turn, opens up the possibility that British and EU policy-makers can deal with security and defence matters post-Brexit in a calm and pragmatic way.

Yet, as all contributors to the Global Affairs special issue highlighted, uncertainty is a dominant feature of the Brexit process. After all, it is the first time a sovereign member state makes use of its right to leave the EU. One year after the referendum, this uncertainty is still very much present. However, what we have seen in the security and defence field during the last year is that this uncertainty is largely contingent upon what happens in the other issue areas of the Brexit negotiations. In other words, if the relationship between the UK and the EU turns sour due to irreconcilable differences and conflicts on the most controversial issues, in particular migration, access to the EU’s single market and the role of the European Court of Justice, it may have important knock-on effects in the security and defence field. In a worst case scenario, we could even imagine divergent strategic developments in the UK and EU, with both ending up pursuing opposing strategic objectives.

At present, however, all points towards pragmatic post-Brexit cooperation arrangements involving re-enforced bilateral relations between the UK and individual EU countries and a set of informal arrangements that allow the UK to have an important voice in EU foreign, security and defence policies in exchange for the UK’s contribution of its substantial diplomatic, intelligence and military capabilities to common projects. Despite the rhetoric of a ‘global Britain,’ both British and EU policy-makers are aware that many of today’s major security issues are transnational in nature. International crime, global terrorism, the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, climate change, energy security, or the rise of China are issues that affect in one way or another most nation states, including the UK. And these issues cannot be addressed effectively by individual nation states, even the most powerful ones. Only if the most like-minded states work together do they stand a chance to decrease the risk from transnational threats.

In practice, this means that the UK needs to pay close attention to the security and defence developments in the EU and its remaining member states. As the special issue in Global Affairs made clear, Brexit ‘is likely to reinforce existing trends and dynamics rather than leading to their reversal.’ One of these trends is the continuing integration of EU member states in the field of security and defence, with a more active role by France and Germany, the EU’s most powerful member states. Since the Brexit referendum, the EU and its member states have adopted a number of important measures to streamline the EU’s foreign, security and defence policies. At the time of the referendum, they adopted the EU Global Strategy, the EU’s first major strategic document since the 2003 European Security Strategy; France and Germany have pushed ahead with proposals for closer military cooperation, including an EU military headquarter; and, more recently, the European Commission has published its European Defence Action Plan that will lead to a European Defence Fund worth billions of Euros in the next couple of years. In other words, although an ‘EU army’ remains a pipe dream of EU federalists for the foreseeable future, the EU is getting serious about security and defence coordination. At the same time, NATO, the UK’s preferred international security organization, struggles with the increasingly lukewarm US support under the Presidency of Donald Trump. This is not to say that NATO will become irrelevant anytime soon, but it will be important for the UK, as a European country, to avoid becoming marginalized in the current processes towards greater security and defence cooperation in the EU – yet another key point that the special issue in Global Affairs highlighted.

So, all in all, little has changed since the publication of the first reflections on the security and defence implications of Brexit in Global Affairs. Debates about foreign, security and defence issues have remained confined to the realm of experts and specialized practitioners. As this blog post has argued, this is largely a positive development. No news is good news. Yet, the blog post has also shown that dangerous currents flow below the surface. As Aldous Huxley already observed 75 years ago, ‘The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.’

Image: EUNAVFOR MED Force Commander visits HMS ENTERPRISE (public domain), via Flickr.

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