UK security: is the EU relevant or irrelevant?
On 23 November 2015, David Cameron presented to the House of Commons the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence Review (SDSR) that his Government had prepared since taking office. The Review spoke of many and diverse threats in a turbulent world. It highlighted ‘the increasing threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability … the resurgence of state-based threats … the impact of technology, especially cyber threats … and the erosion of the rules-based international order’. This profusion of threats required a ‘full-spectrum approach’, drawing upon all of the UK’s resources and international ties to protect the country and sustain its influence abroad.
The SDSR was completed before Cameron had decided on the EU referendum’s date and the stance that he and his Government would adopt in the coming debate. The desire to sit on the fence was understandable. Nevertheless, the SDSR’s authors went to remarkable lengths, under ministerial instruction, to keep the EU out of the document. It contained no reference to the European Union’s role in pacifying the Continent and handling the Cold War’s aftermath. Nor was there reference to its various security instruments including the Common Defence and Security Policy in whose development – and constraint – the UK had played a part. It was as if involvement in the EU, and the EU itself, were irrelevant to the UK’s defence and security interests.
To Brexit’s advocates, the SDSR’s omissions accurately reflect a preference, and a reality, acknowledged by all British governments. The EU’s chief purpose is economic. NATO, the special relationship with the US, cooperation in intelligence gathering, the nuclear deterrent and a competitive defence industry are the bedrock of the UK’s security. The country’s departure from the EU would have little effect on its security and the means of its attainment. Furthermore, allies would damage their own interests if access to the UK’s extensive capabilities and experience were reduced.
It follows, they argue, that there would be continuity in the nation’s defence and security relations following a decision to leave the EU. But there would be discontinuity, of a positive kind, when freed from the EU’s constraints. Above all, the UK could assert full control over immigration, thereby reducing vulnerability to international terrorism.
After Mr Cameron had opened his campaign to keep Britain inside the EU, his government abandoned the SDSR’s neutral tone and began talking up the security benefits of EU membership. The Defence Secretary spoke of Britain being safer inside the EU than outside, of the EU’s ability to ‘do things that NATO cannot’, including in the field of counter-terrorism, and of the importance of being involved in ‘these big partnerships’. The military’s desire to stay with the EU was also made plain in a letter to The Daily Telegraph signed by thirteen retired senior officers, including four former chiefs of the defence staff. ‘NATO is the most important alliance for maintaining Britain’s national security. But the other, increasingly important pillar of our security is the EU’. They cited the EU’s collective imposition of economic sanctions that had helped to halt Iran’s nuclear weapon programme and ensured that ‘Vladimir Putin would pay a price for his aggression in the Ukraine’.
A shock to the international security system?
These expressions of concern about Brexit do not adequately explain why the prospect of the UK’s leaving the EU is regarded abroad with such dismay. Neighbours and allies are looking upon Brexit as a form of secession with graver consequences than the secession entailed by Scotland’s bid for independence. In that case, a small nation was bidding to leave a large state, a circumstance that had direct consequences for only a handful of other states, Spain prominent among them.
In contrast, Brexit would involve a large and influential state leaving one of the post-war world’s primary international institutions – an institution that for all its shortcomings embodied liberal democracy, the rule of law and the ambition to eliminate war on a continent that had suffered so grievously from it. Furthermore, Brexit would be occurring when the EU was fragile and struggling to contain forces of xenophobic nationalism. Unlike in the Scottish case, the interests of every government, and every established political party, would be affected if the UK left the EU and emboldened politicians seeking a similar outcome.
At its most apocalyptic, I have heard talk of the UK’s departure from the EU delivering a geo-strategic shock to the West, sapping confidence when its purpose and influence were being challenged by Russia, China and other powers, and when its central player – the US – was afflicted by internal division and erratic leadership. The West’s principal military alliance, NATO, would not be immune. In a BBC interview on 15 March, the Head of the US Army in Europe emphasised the need for NATO and the EU to remain strong and ‘show solidarity’.
The standard riposte from Brexit’s supporters is that such claims do not reflect realities and are part of the Government’s ‘project fear’. Furthermore, the EU’s problems are self-inflicted, arising from an ill-conceived monetary union, failure to control borders, bureaucratic centralism and a lack of democratic accountability. The UK will be better able to look after its interests outside this dysfunctional institution, and should not await its demise. These arguments may chime at home, but they are unlikely to dispel anxiety in foreign capitals.
Compounding the shock
The case for continuity of defence and security policies also rests on the grand assumption that the UK’s exit from the EU would not destabilise the UK. Especially if narrow, a vote for leaving the EU would be followed by a period of introspection, even crisis, in government that could last for months and possibly years. It might also encourage fragmentation.
Political leaders in Scotland and Wales have already said that they would challenge the right of the UK Parliament, driven by the English majority, to remove their nations from the EU. Although the Scottish Government is currently wary of holding another referendum, fearing its loss, Brexit could hasten the day when Scotland leaves the UK. In Ireland there are grave concerns, north and south of the border, that the Good Friday Agreement might be jeopardised, bringing fresh division and violence to the island. A former Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, has spoken of the EU’s ‘fundamentally stabilising presence in Ireland’s recent history’.
More than Brexit, the UK’s break-up would have direct consequences for its defence and security. NATO would be affected especially if Scotland became a sovereign state with its own foreign and defence policies and carried out the threat to remove nuclear weapons from the bases at Faslane and Coulport. Various other issues that surfaced during the Scottish referendum debate, including the apportionment of military assets, access to test ranges, and Scotland’s participation in NATO, would also have to be addressed.
Indeed, a double shock could be delivered if Brexit were followed, possibly within as little as a decade, by the UK’s own demise. Governments abroad would face, in effect, a double secession – the UK leaving the EU and Scotland leaving the UK – begging questions about the stability of states and their international moorings, and about capacities to maintain institutional loyalties and balances of power inside and outside Europe.
Furthermore, it might then be difficult to fend off a challenge to the UK’s right to keep its permanent membership of the UN Security Council with its attendant veto powers, a right that could no longer be assumed if the UK’s boundaries and personality had changed. It is easy to imagine Russia, China and emerging powers seizing the opportunity to change the Security Council’s permanent membership, partly to reduce the West’s representation within it.
Defence, security and the economy
The Prime Minister’s foreword to the SDSR opens with these words. ‘Our national security depends on our economic security, and vice versa. So the first step in our National Security Strategy is to ensure our economy is, and remains, strong.’ A few months earlier, he had succumbed to American pressure to hold to the NATO target of 2% of GDP for defence spending when its reduction had been planned in the drive to reduce the financial deficit. Launched when the Treasury’s forecasts for UK economic growth were still optimistic, the SDSR encompassed an ambitious programme involving Trident’s renewal, expansion of capabilities across the Armed Services, increased investment in intelligence gathering and cyber-security, and an enlarged expeditionary force to strengthen the UK’s abilities to ‘disrupt threats in the most challenging operating environments worldwide’.
The SDSR does not hide the Treasury’s anxiety over the Government’s ability to meet these objectives even in good economic times. It would become acute if, as the CBI has warned, Brexit delivered ‘a serious shock to the economy’ resulting in a reduction of GDP and loss of tax revenues. If this happened, last November’s SDSR would have to be rewritten. Some shrinkage of the UK’s defence and security capabilities would be unavoidable.
Implications for Scotland
Defence is a reserved matter under the Scotland Act. After a vote to leave, negotiations with the EU and its member states on defence issues would be run from London. Foreign governments, for their part, would regard the UK’s government and military institutions as their main interlocutors. Like it or not, the Scottish government would find itself on the periphery of these negotiations.
Scotland would, however, be involved where it possessed devolved powers, as on policing, that are relevant to the fight against organised crime and terrorism. Future relations with Europol, through which member states cooperate in combatting these scourges, would be a particular concern. All governments would be keen to ensure that Scotland and its cities were as well protected as anywhere else against the kinds of attack witnessed in Paris and Brussels. On security issues where there are devolved powers, however, London will still expect, and be expected abroad, to take the lead.
It is hard to work out what this all means for Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK. What is certain is that, even without Brexit, the political, security and economic landscape facing the country in another bid for independence would be markedly different, and probably less encouraging, than was imagined in 2014. Substantial parts of Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government’s manifesto for independence, would have to be rewritten. On all sides and at all levels, the advantages and disadvantages of independence would have to be reassessed, especially if the UK had left the EU and if the EU’s internal turmoil had intensified. An independent Scotland’s prospects for joining the EU, NATO and other international organisations would also be affected, in whichever direction.
Brexit’s advocates claim that there would be more continuity than discontinuity in UK defence and security policies, and in relations with the US and other allies, following the UK’s departure from the EU. They may be correct, in the short run at least. However, the primary question is whether Brexit would bring greater political order or disorder to Europe and within the UK.
Futures can be imagined in which Brexit would result in a stronger, more united UK and stimulate a collective effort, led by France and Germany, to reform the EU to prevent further disaffection. They are implausible. It is more likely that Brexit would weaken the UK, increase governmental discord, and intensify strains in relations between its nations and its regions. Abroad, it would strengthen the forces of dissolution that already threaten the EU’s survival, risking a return to conflict and violence.
Over the centuries, disorder on the European Continent has exposed the British state and people to the greatest danger. Isolation has never brought protection and war has often followed. Brexit’s supporters need to explain how the British state can foster stability in Europe from a position outside the EU.
William Walker is Professor Emeritus of International Relations, University of St Andrews.