Brexit: What are the Security Risks for the EU and NATO

  • By defencematters

How could a potential Brexit affect the role of the UK in European and transatlantic security?

Andrej Matisak

In the words of British PM David Cameron: Whenever we turn our back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it. We’ve always had to go back in – and always at a much higher cost.

How could a potential Brexit affect the role of the UK in European and transatlantic security? This is how the defence experts assess the situation:

Simon Moody, Lecturer in Defence Studies, Defence Studies Department, King's College London

The history of the EU experiment is a history of British indecisiveness over two important considerations - the extent to which Britain should invest in European security; and in what ways. In recent history, during the Cold War, the threat to European security was clear (Soviet expansion) and it was relatively easy to articulate this to the voting public. Although difficult questions arose over what that commitment should look like (Nuclear weapons, conventional forces, naval assets etc.), there was a clear feeling that this was the 'right' thing to do.

The problem in 2016 is that there is not a specific, tangible threat to British security stemming from continental Europe - at least as far as the general public is concerned, and this is a problem.

The biggest threat stemming from Brexit would be the effect that this has on allies. The most important thing to any type of military or political alliance is ensuring political cohesion. Britain's exit from the EU would undermine the trust of important allies, especially those European members who are also NATO partners. Secondly, unconventional security threats emanating from the Continent - from mass migration to terrorism - are arguably increasing, and Britain's exit from the normal decision-making forums of the EU will seriously harm its ability to influence policy which will directly, or indirectly, affect British security.

Andrea Frontini, Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre (EPC)

When assessing the potential repercussions of Brexit on European and Transatlantic security, a distinction needs to be made, firstly, between the two dimensions of UK’s security engagement with Europe, namely between London’s involvement in NATO and its contribution in the EU’s Common Defence and Security Policy (CSDP), and, secondly, between the short and longer-term implications of Brexit on European security at large. As for the former, it seems unlikely that a UK outside the EU might affect Transatlantic security to a particularly remarkable extent in the short term. In fact, London has always been very keen to put most of its political and military weight on the Atlantic Alliance, firstly because NATO’s genuinely Transatlantic dimension always fitted London’s traditional geopolitical orientations better than the EU and CSDP, and secondly because the membership in the Alliance never put UK’s (and any other Member State)’s sovereignty in the military domain under particular pressure. So, a possible Brexit would probably bring even stronger British investment into NATO in the short term.

On the contrary, London’s membership in the EU was not met with a strong commitment to CSDP. In fact, while the very engine of European defence cooperation since the late 1990s was arguably the Franco-British ‘tandem’, given the importance of the 1998 Saint-Malo Declaration, London always adopted a pragmatic stance in European military matters which left very little room to any truly integrationist development via CSDP, and often privileged bilateral cooperation, notably but not solely with France. Not surprisingly, it was also – but arguably not solely – under London’s insistence that comparatively little progress has been achieved by the CSDP in the past few years in areas such as force generation, capability-development, integration of force structures, armament cooperation, operational doctrines, the very implementation of some of the innovative clauses of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty in the realm of CSDP, e.g. on the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Start-Up Funds, or in the true integration of European defence and security markets. So, in the short term, a ‘Brexit’ might somewhat ‘free’ the CSDP from a rather assertive and overall sceptical big player, but would also – and problematically so – pose the challenge for the other EU Member States of how to deal with a CSDP which cannot rely any longer on London’s valuable security contribution.

While the short-term implications of Brexit might, thus, differ when it comes to whether they apply to NATO or the EU and CSDP, the longer-term consequences for European security at large could perhaps be more comparable, but not encouragingly so. It seems already sensible to argue, in fact, that UK’s abandonment of its EU membership would launch a rather negative political message to London’s continental partners that the UK is unwilling to keep engaging in what can arguably be considered as Europe’s best security guarantee, namely the Old Continent’s integration process in the past sixty years, and one often seen in close connection with NATO’s essential role as a security provider in Europe.

Apart from this overarching political aftermath, London’s absence from the EU and CSDP could be a lose-to-lose situation both for the UK and Europe at large. Among other things, it would deprive London of a potentially important ‘entry point’ to influence the European integration process in the realm of foreign and security policy at large – something London seems not so eager to engage with, but an area where greater cooperation among EU Member States would clearly impact its national interests and somewhat re-shape its international projection.

On the other hand, a UK-deprived EU would struggle to make progress in the military domain, both in terms of operational capabilities and industrial capacities, as well as at the higher level of strategic reflection, with the consequent risks of a more ‘peripheral’ role for the EU in regional and global affairs.

Finally, it is also worth wondering whether Brexit might also impact the way the United States themselves are going to see the UK as a key strategic partner in the future, including in the security domain, given Washington’s current preference for a stronger European (and sometimes even EU-only) security involvement in its own, turbulent neighbourhood. How this changed perception could also affect UK’s influence within NATO, and the future synergies between the Alliance and CSDP, would also deserve further reflection.

John R. Deni*, Research Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute

My view on Brexit is that the security implications will be significant but indirect, at least in the short-run. I think Brexit will necessarily deal a significant blow to the British economy, whether Scotland remains part of the 'United' Kingdom or not. The importance of the EU to UK exports and imports cannot be understated, and this relationship is sure to suffer in the short run as a result.

A downturn in the UK economy brought on by higher tariffs with EU trading partners will very likely mean reduced defense spending in the UK. Most recently, the UK and many other allies have managed to arrest declining defense budgets and structures -- this 'trend' is admittedly in its infancy, but it is likely to end completely if the UK leaves the EU.

The implications of a UK defense budget that again is declining are potentially profound. Recently announced UK plans for investment in drones, air surveillance, cyber, etc. would all be at great risk.

This in turn would necessarily undermine the important role that the UK plays in NATO defense and security. That is, the UK would risk its leading role as a top-tier NATO contributor and leader.

* These views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.