Brexit and National Security: the Short-Term Second Thoughts

By Jez Littlewood, Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has voted to leave the European Union. The close vote, 52% in favour of leaving and 48% voting to remain, also underlined the regional divisions within the UK. As such the vote to leave may act as a catalyst for dissolution of the United Kingdom itself. Indeed, within hours the First Minister of Scotland has stated a second vote on Scottish independence is very likely.

Both the ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ campaigns made big claims about security with government information noting ‘Cross-border threats mean that it is more important than ever that we have the best possible cooperation with those nearest to us.’ The various claims, even if oversold of subject to scaremongering in the course of campaign are now to be tested in the real world. So what might emerge in the short-term over the ensuing weeks and months?

Political turbulence and fall out is already evident, but it important to note that while the UK will leave the EU the decision is not immediate and the terms of the departure have to be negotiated. Conventional wisdom among EU experts suggests a process of two years under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, but it may in fact take longer depending on when the formal process is initiated.

Profound changes are certainly going to occur; yet continuities will also be evident and history, shared contemporary threats, geography, and institutions will also exert influence on the transitional process in the security realm.

Five dominant national security issues exist, with four of them enduring over the last half century or more. First, state rivalry and geopolitics; second, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; third, terrorism; fourth, espionage; and, fifth, cyber security. These are not discrete issues or mutually exclusive. In fact many are interlinked and illustrate the complexity of the threat environment and the necessity for state-to-state cooperation, awareness, and responses. National security is also based on economic capabilities and performance.

WMD proliferation

In the area of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation very little is likely to change in substance, and the procedures of counter-proliferation may also endure. The common interests of the UK and EU member states in reducing proliferation are too important to be deflected by the transition process now beginning. The treaties and regimes that form the architecture of disarmament, arms control and counter-proliferation – namely the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the export control regimes are largely unaffected by the decision given they transcend the EU and involve more players than the UK and the soon-to-be 27 member states of the EU. While there are specific EU arrangements the UK and EU might, in fact, decide to retain their agreements related to common control lists, information sharing and reporting related to export controls and coordination, cooperation, and liaison on counter-proliferation.

If Scotland decides to leave the UK and become independent there will be an effect on the UK’s nuclear weapons, but that issue will also require months, if not years, of planning to execute. Chemical and biological disarmament will remain a common interest among all parties and the UK-EU split can be managed in a way that does not weaken either of those disarmament agreements.

None of this is to claim there will be no effect on counter-proliferation agreements. But the regimes or international agreements will not collapse and neither the UK nor the EU are going to weaken the agreements overall. They will almost certainly work to retain and enhance as many of the effective practices developed over the last two decades.


On the terrorism front the liaison and cooperation agreements will also probably survive, but there will be some very technical and significant issues to negotiate related to information sharing, access to common databases, arrests, and cross-border collaboration. It is important to remember there is no EU intelligence sharing arrangement; most intelligence liaison and cooperation remains bilateral or small groups of states. The UK and Ireland, together with the interests of France, the Netherlands, and Germany are likely to be important in driving forward any new system. Ireland and the UK because of Northern Ireland and the shared border: France, Germany and the Netherlands because of long-standing bilateral arrangements and simply because shared weaknesses will be points of concern for all parties. Certain processes will have to change be amended in due course, but the substantive requirement to cooperate and share intelligence remains. The interests and security of states in Europe are too interlinked to allow Brexit to derail cooperation.

One potential danger for UK intelligence relates to new threats that emerge as a result of the transition, which will be turbulent. To begin with, as the tragic murder of Jo Cox last week underlined, lone actors remain a threat. Xenophobia and anti-immigrant feelings (and actions) stoked by the referendum campaign will not be easily dampened. The UK can ill afford a newly emboldened right wing extremism movement or actions by lone actors that will exacerbate cleavages in society, but it has to be considered a possibility. Expectations of a rapid change vis-à-vis control of immigration, or new influxes of money available to the UK as claimed by portions of the Leave campaign are going to produce disappointments. Striking out with terrorist violence might appeal to a small portion of an embittered population with actual and perceived grievances. Thus, the UK may have to keep a close watch on how discontent presents itself in the coming months. This will be in addition to the continuing threat from al Qaeda and the Islamic State and those inspired by the narrative and call to violence of such groups. Furthermore, the Northern Irish peace process may also be put under pressure if Sinn Fein pushes its call for renewed consideration of Irish unification and the border issue. Terrorism threats may, therefore, increase for the UK in the next weeks and months.


The intelligence communities of key European players are also going to face additional espionage and foreign interference pressures. There will be denials and no one will admit it, but European states will be attempting to gain a negotiation advantage by determining objectives and red lines during the transition. It happens already in negotiations and within the EU and the pursuit of advantage will add new pressures to intelligence communities already under severe strain and required to work with each other in so many substantive areas. The shift in resources may be small, but is probably inevitable. Being caught could also have major implications. Moreover, espionage activity by Russia, China, and that related to terrorism, and proliferation will not diminish. Similarly in the cyber realm the relentless pressures will not ease and may increase.

State rivalry and geopolitics will be exacerbated by the UK decision. The broader Western alliance will also be affected by the opening of new cleavages, but permanent divisions are not in any Western states interests. The United States may exercise its considerable influence to ensure disputes do not get out of hand or affect the overall stability of the Atlantic alliance. Elections in the US, France, and Germany in the next 18 months will, of course, complicate all this, as will the pending UK leadership contest that unfolds from this morning.

So far, so much bad news. However, mitigating some of the pressures and potential change are geography, history, time and bureaucratic structures. While the UK population has decided to leave the EU, geography cannot be altered. Prior to joining the EU (or then EEC) the UK was a broadly tolerant, open and outward looking state. Its connections to Europe were enduring. That will not change, though the relationship and obligations will undergo significant alterations in the next few years. Common history – not completely forgotten or ignored despite some claims – and common threats will temper some aspects of vocal disagreements and harsh words. Time will also be important. The Prime Minster and the Governor of the Bank of England have indicated that travel, trade, rights, and services will not change today, tomorrow, or next week. No one is talking about forcing people out of the UK or the EU. Over the next few months the positive aspects of much of the UK-EU relationship will be recalled and states with common interests can be imaginative in ensuring the retention of mutually beneficial arrangements. Diplomats and lawyers may develop innovative solutions in the coming months and years. The bureaucracy of national security communities, extensive connections, and common threats and interests should wall off some disputes from national security requirements. History, geography, mutual experiences, and time will probably combine to ensure the continuation of the deep and wide intelligence and security cooperation between the UK and European states.

All-in-all superlatives will accompany analysis of the UK decision. In unfamiliar territory and with an uncertain couple of years ahead things will go awry. However, in the national security world continuities and common interests should not be ignoredor assumed to be unimportant. Things are going to change, but not everything and not today.

(Editors Note: This entry has been cross-posted on the official NPSIA blog. An earlier version of this viewpoint was also posted via twitter @JezLittlewood early June 24. This revised version reflects a few further considerations but is substantively the same.)

BREXIT” by Paul Lloyd is licensed under NC ND by CC 2.0 via Flickr

Categories: Europe and NATO, Terrorism

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