Europe or the open sea? Brexit and European security

By voting to leave the EU the UK may lose its voice at a time when the union aims to play a strategically greater role in European defence, security and foreign policy

Winston Churchill, in a 1946 address, described a Europe in which “a vast quivering mass of tormented, hungry, care-worn and bewildered human beings gape at the ruins of their cities and homes, and scan the dark horizons for the approach of some new peril, tyranny or terror”.

Seven decades on, the phrase is hauntingly reminiscent of the mounting flow of refugees arriving to Europe on a daily basis – testing the fabric and unity of a European Union already weakened by the eurozone crisis, the threat of so-called Islamic State, growing regional instability and a recalcitrant Russia.

Churchill used the same speech to call for a structure under which Europeans could “dwell in peace, safety and freedom”. This came two years after a heated debate with General Charles de Gaulle on the eve of the Normandy Landings, in which he said “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea”. This too reflects the dichotomy of the contemporary UK debate on a possible Brexit.

While the UK government has favoured EU mechanisms to address security challenges such as piracy and terrorism, it has kept the EU at arm’s length on many aspects of defence and security. This has included the area of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA); the European Defence Agency; Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and a joint military operational headquarters.

“Out” campaigners argue that as the world’s fifth largest defence spender and economic power, the UK is likely to remain a serious global player in the event of Brexit. The country will continue to serve as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and a key player in NATO. It will maintain bilateral defence treaties, most importantly with France – the only other EU power with full-spectrum military capabilities and a culture of foreign deployments – through the Lancaster House agreement. It will retain its intelligence alliance with the Five Eye nations (US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Brexit would also provide some escape from the diluted, slow-paced world of Brussels decision-making.

It will not all be plain sailing, however, with a number of key factors likely to impact on long-term strategic interests of the UK, along with its EU partners.

First, Brexit is likely to fuel political contagion and further fragmentation in the EU. Elsewhere, far right parties have started calling for their own referenda on the EU. Most worrying is the possibility of France’s National Front – alleged recipient of funding from the Russian government – gaining power in the 2017 French presidential elections. Its leader, Marine Le Pen – apologist of Russian aggression in Ukraine – recently voiced effusive support for Brexit. A resurgence in instability in Northern Ireland is also not inconceivable, where the peace process has rested heavily on Britain and Ireland’s EU membership.

Second, major security threats to the UK and Europe are all cross-border in nature, including terrorism, organised crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and instability emanating from failed states and regional conflicts. Brexit would make much-needed improved cooperation with the EU on security and intelligence-sharing costlier and, at least for a time, more complicated for the UK.

The UK would most probably have to leave Europol, the EU’s under-resourced joint policing agency and would-be intelligence gateway. It would likely be required to renegotiate terms of the European Arrest Warrant, through which it has submitted over a thousand requests to other EU member states since 2010. It would also call into question the UK’s active role in EU maritime missions.

Third, Brexit is likely to dampen attempts to forge a more effective European energy strategy. With the aim of reducing EU reliance on Russian oil and gas and lessening Moscow’s leverage over European powers, these steps have counted on strong British backing to date.

Four, the loss of the UK from the EU would likely equate to a relative decline in soft power on both sides. The EU, as the world’s largest trading bloc, and the UK, as home to the City of London, would find it harder to pull their weight in global terms without one another. This would not only lessen their influence and appeal on the world stage but could also dampen their leverage in seeking to secure support from influential regional powers such as India, China, Brazil and Turkey in areas such as nuclear non-proliferation, regional security arrangements and, in the case of the latter, Europe’s refugee crisis.

Five, in seeking EU support for UK foreign policy objectives, the British government would need to contend with an EU with a narrower set of priorities, leaving France as the only EU permanent member of the UNSC. The UK would cease to be the axis through which non-EU allies, particularly the US, gain an insight into the workings of the EU. The Franco-British relationship could also be weakened, given that the EU is set to remain crucial for French strategic interests.

Finally, Brexit could impact negatively on the UK’s contribution to the EU’s use of economic sanctions, at a moment when they frequently represent the most viable option between diplomacy and military force. The UK has been a long-standing advocate in the EU for the use of sanctions for a variety of foreign and security policy objectives. It has played a key role in some of the EU’s most pressing high-profile sanctions regimes in recent times, including against Iran and Russia.

While UNSC-agreed sanctions would not be affected given the UK’s ongoing international obligations, sanctions implemented outside the UN framework would be impacted most (e.g. those imposed on top of, or instead of, UN measures, such as those used against Iran, Syria, North Korea and Russia). Without the UK in the EU, consensus might be harder to reach on the use (or continued use) of the most politically-divisive sanctions, such as those on Russia. They may also lose some of their bite, particularly in the case of financial sanctions, if the City of London is no longer part of the EU.

Increased instability in Europe, alongside diminished leverage over Russia and other essential partners in international security governance, would not be in the UK’s strategic interests. By voting to leave the EU the UK could lose its voice at a time when the union aims to play a strategically greater role in European defence, security and foreign policy. 

Dr Erica Moret is Senior Researcher, Programme for the Study of International Governance, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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