It has been a summer of high Brexit drama in the British press – from revelations about the UK government’s plans for, and all sides’ recriminations about, an apocalyptic scenario in which London and Brussels fail to reach an agreement on their future relationship, to the familiar jostling between the prime minister’s office and the Department for Exiting the European Union over who EU negotiator Michel Barnier should call for an informed response. This week, Prime Minister Theresa May travelled to Africa – and not only to work on her dance moves. Her tour of South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya focuses on deepening economic ties with these countries as part of the government’s vision for a post-Brexit “Global Britain”, an initiative one British official derided as “Empire 2.0”.
The endgame of the Brexit negotiations risks developing into a warped form of checkmate in which no one wins
If the trip signals the failure of the Chequers White Paper – a plan, named for the prime minister’s country residence, to safeguard the crucial UK-EU economic relationship – what are the prospects for a deal on security, the other key aspect of the proposed special partnership? Although there has been plenty of coverage of what everybody from Brussels to Dublin to Edinburgh thinks of the Chequers deal and the White Paper which sets it out, there has been relatively little discussion of its substance – especially on security – and whether this might provide a basis for negotiation between London and Brussels.
The bittersweet truth is that, in a parallel universe where the Brexit negotiations took place in a convivial, trusting atmosphere, the White Paper’s chapter on future security arrangements might provide a strong basis for a deal. ECFR has explored this issue in some depth in “Keeping Europe Safe After Brexit”, arguing that an ideal security partnership might resemble the model in the White Paper’s conclusions.
The paper sets out four requirements for future UK-EU security cooperation, all of which should appeal to the EU27:
- A shared understanding of the security context.
- Protection of shared law enforcement and criminal justice cooperation capabilities, including those involving the exchange of time-sensitive information.
- Continued cooperation on foreign policy, defence, and development, including consultation on the global challenges that the United Kingdom and the EU face, areas in which it is most effective to work side by side, and the creation of capabilities to tackle current and future threats.
- Support for joint action on wider security issues, including asylum and illegal migration, cyberspace, counter-terrorism, civil protection, and health security.
However, the wider conduct of the Brexit negotiations has greatly eroded trust between the sides. This is due to the UK government’s ambiguous position on many issues (as well as its irrationality on some areas related to security cooperation, such as the Galileo satellite project) and to Brussels’ inflexibility on possible future forms of cooperation. As a result, some of the practical measures needed to meet these four requirements now appear unworkable.
To take just one example, the UK argues that the ability to share important information has to be underpinned by UK access to the Schengen Information System and other relevant databases. However, Barnier has argued that this is only possible for countries that do not participate in Schengen if they are willing to pay a fee to do so. Similarly, as a step towards the goal of continued cooperation on defence, the UK has declared its readiness to contribute equipment to future EU operations – only for the EU27 to question the legal basis of such contributions.
The two positions – with the UK requesting flexibility that the EU27 see as potentially undermining their rules-based approach – are fundamentally incommensurable without goodwill on one or both sides. As the tension of recent months makes clear, goodwill is precisely what is most lacking from the discussions.
Perhaps, after the summer break, both sides will come back to the negotiations with renewed determination and creativity to find a way through the impasse, since there is so much at stake for everyone involved. Otherwise, the endgame of the Brexit negotiations risks developing into a warped form of checkmate in which no one wins.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.