The perils of inflexibility: European security after Brexit

It is a distinct possibility that Brexit may proceed without an actual deal – that would be damaging for both sides, especially as concerns defence and security

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With less than six months to go before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the sides have yet to agree on the terms of the withdrawal. Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator, said last July that they had concluded 80 percent of the Brexit deal. But the process could still unravel (however often London may claim that this is unlikely). For instance, while the European Parliament will almost certainly vote in favour of the final agreement – not least because Barnier has continually consulted it on the progress of the negotiations – the real test will probably take place in Westminster. Indeed, it is unclear whether any form of deal can make it through the British Parliament. Therefore, there is a distinct possibility that Brexit will proceed without a withdrawal deal – perhaps “by accident”, as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently put it.

In this scenario, the UK would leave both the customs union and the single market; free movement of people between the EU and the UK would end; and the country would no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). There would be far-reaching effects for many sectors. Teresa May’s slogan that “no deal is better than a bad deal” may be true from her political standpoint, but it is certainly false in many other domains, including security and defence.

In internal security, police and judicial cooperation could come to an abrupt halt if the UK was excluded from the ECJ’s jurisdiction and the EU data protection system. The UK authorities could lose access to information-sharing mechanisms such as the Europol network, the Schengen Information System, and the Passenger Name Record database. Furthermore, they could be excluded from the European Arrest Warrant and the European Criminal Record Information System. This disconnect would considerably undermine not only UK but also EU efforts to fight organised crime and terrorism.

In defence, a no-deal Brexit would jeopardise UK attempts to reach an Administrative Arrangement with the European Defence Agency, thereby compromising political, military, technological, and industrial cooperation between the sides. This would affect future UK participation in the newest European defence initiatives, such as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence – particularly given that the agency has an important role within their governance structures. And a no-deal Brexit could also hinder EU-UK cooperation within the framework of the European Defence Fund. The UK’s exclusion from these initiatives would block both sides’ access to significant budgetary and military resources, inhibiting capability-development projects that require high-end technology, especially those in aerospace.

A no-deal Brexit would compromise political, military, technological, and industrial cooperation between the EU and the UK

The UK’s exclusion from the customs union and the single market could also weaken the European defence and security industry. The country’s application of World Trade Organization rules would introduce tariff barriers that affected UK-EU trade in services and goods. Non-tariff barriers such as quotas and rules of origin would raise costs and hamper supply chains. This is why many mainland European aerospace, defence, and security companies with a significant presence in the UK have repeatedly emphasised the need for a deal – without which they could relocate to other European countries or otherwise reduce their UK investments. British firms in these sectors have the same concerns.

In the long term, failure to reach a withdrawal agreement could result in the gradual differentiation of UK and EU policy, regulations, and standards in the cyber domain. A no-deal Brexit could hamper future coordination of EU and UK policies on data protection, privacy, critical infrastructure protection, and cyber expertise. Should its collaboration with European agencies and data security authorities end, the UK would probably find it harder to counter cyber security threats.

In a similar vein, should recent efforts such as PESCO result in significant EU defence integration, a no-deal Brexit could lead to increasing divergence between UK and EU defence policies and military capability requirements. Whether this divergence would lead to competition in some areas would depend on the political atmosphere the negotiations had created.

More broadly, the damage from a no-deal Brexit would likely take years to repair, and could even preclude further negotiations for some time. Regardless of the sides’ efforts to mitigate these problems – be it through time-limited agreements in key areas or other measures – the costs to the UK and the EU would be high.

Therefore, reaching an agreement should remain a high priority on both sides of the channel. To demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with the EU after Brexit, London should be more flexible with its red lines and consider the possibility of extending Article 50. Brussels, for its part, should recognise that the UK cannot be treated as just another third country, especially in security and defence. Although the EU has good reason to maintain a firm stance in its commitment to European integration, this should not come at the expense of Europeans’ safety.

Paola Sartori is researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali and pan-European fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

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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