16 September 2019

Open Europe has published a new briefing, “European security cooperation after Brexit: Unanswered questions for the UK and the EU.”

Since the UK triggered Article 50 to start the process of withdrawal from the EU, the debate in Parliament and in the media has largely focused on the impact of Brexit on trade and economic issues. However, the UK’s exit could also have significant implications for future relations in the spheres of security and foreign policy. This aspect of Brexit merits greater attention by policymakers in the UK and the EU.

The briefing overviews the landscape for future UK-EU relations in the spheres of police and law enforcement cooperation as well as foreign policy and external security. It outlines the positions taken by the UK and the EU with regards to these areas, sets out what has been agreed in the current Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, addresses the implications of a No Deal scenario, and points out the issues and questions that both sides will have to address in any Brexit outcome.

Briefing summary

Any form of Brexit brings a number of questions about future security and defence cooperation that London, Brussels and EU27 capitals have largely failed to address until now.

Police and law enforcement cooperation

There is a strong logic for both sides in maintaining high degrees of operational capacity but new arrangements will need to be found that reflect the UK’s independent status outside the EU. The non-binding Political Declaration (PD) on future relations does not provide much clarity on what exactly will be negotiated, although there are many known factors, for instance the fact that some EU databases cannot currently be accessed by non-Schengen countries.

Key takeaways:

  • As most cooperation mechanisms in this area are reserved to EU or Schengen area members, the UK will automatically leave them after it ceases to be an EU member state (it is already outside the Schengen area), either at the end of a transition period or on day one of a No Deal scenario.
  • An abrupt end to the UK’s participation in these measures and databases could have implications, especially for police cases reliant on quick and efficient cross-border data exchange.
  • There will be a trade-off between maintaining operational capabilities and the sovereignty of the UK and EU’s legal systems. How many obligations the UK is willing to accept, and whether more flexibility from the EU is possible, will be the main issue to resolve in future talks.

Defence and external security

The PD also sets out a variety of frameworks for future UK-EU cooperation in external security. The EU appears keen to benefit from UK assets in EU-led defence missions. It is unclear why the UK would be attracted by such a subordinate role and therefore how this would lead to meaningful cooperation. The UK is likely to prefer the flexibility of bilateral relationships in cooperation with but outside formal EU structures, where it could guarantee that its role in decision-making would be commensurate to its ability to contribute significantly in this sphere.

Key takeaways:

  • The UK will leave the EU’s common foreign and defence policies (CFSP and CSDP), but cooperation in these areas does not need to end completely. Both recognise that they face a series of common security challenges and threats, and that maintaining close links will be vital.
  • Without the UK’s presence and veto, the EU27 are planning further integration in this field, as they are also reflecting upon their new global role ahead of the new institutional cycle. The UK will need to set out a policy towards these EU initiatives, whatever the prospects of their success might be.
  • Meanwhile, little thought appears to have been given within the EU to how the UK might cooperate jointly with the EU or with individual or groups of member states in various contexts, including NATO.
  • A major question remains over the format in which the future dialogue will take place. Would it be a ministerial forum, ad-hoc meetings, or the UK engaging in a new European Security Council (as suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron)?

The implications of a No Deal Brexit

A No Deal Brexit scenario is also a possible outcome, notwithstanding Parliament’s intervention and the possibility of a further extension to the Article 50 deadline.

There will be different practical implications in different areas. This scenario will have more significant practical effects in the sphere of policing and judicial cooperation, where EU measures have created a high level of cooperation between law enforcement authorities based on EU legal acts.

In traditional defence and foreign policy issues, the formal impact will be minimal. Cooperation within NATO (the UK’s preferred defence framework) as well as bilateral intelligence sharing used, for instance, for counter-terrorism operations, would not be directly affected by Brexit, as these operations are conducted largely outside of EU frameworks.

The wider geopolitical context

Any form of Brexit raises questions for both the UK and the EU. The UK’s withdrawal is happening at a moment of geopolitical change in the global environment, and so it is all the more important to consider the impact of the UK’s withdrawal for the future of European geopolitics.

Following the Brexit vote, and potentially partly in response to it, the EU appears to be embarking on a course of greater integration in foreign policy. The briefing does not go into detail about the ways the UK could structure its foreign relations with non-EU actors or the concept of ‘Global Britain’. However, it suggests that post-Brexit, London will need to re-assess the ways and means of achieving its foreign policy objectives, both on the European continent and in the world.

Acknowledging that the impacts of Brexit for security are wide-ranging, the briefing begins by looking at the formal implications of the UK withdrawing from EU internal security measures. It then moves on to the bigger picture questions concerning cooperation on sanctions, space programmes, overseas development aid, external migration, and defence capabilities.

Support towards this project was given by the Institute for Policy Research.

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