12 May 2016

Cameron suggests Brexit could imperil peace and security in Europe

The EU referendum campaign is back in full swing following a hiatus for the regional and local elections last week with David Cameron relaunching the Remain campaign with a speech on Monday setting out why he believes Britain is more secure in the EU. To which the papers led with ‘Brexit will raise risk of world war’, ‘Leaving EU could bring war’ and ‘PM warns of war and genocide’.

The speech itself was rather less alarmist than the lines apparently briefed to the media – the closest the Prime Minister came to making this argument explicitly was to say that “Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash as to make that assumption.”

He set out four main arguments:

“First, what happens in Europe affects us, whether we like it or not, so we must be strong in Europe if we want to be strong at home and in the world.

Second, the dangerous international situation facing Britain today, means that the closest possible cooperation with our European neighbours isn’t an optional extra – it is essential. We need to stand united. Now is a time for strength in numbers.

Third, keeping our people safe from modern terrorist networks like Daesh and from serious crime that increasingly crosses borders means that we simply have to develop much closer means of security cooperation between countries within Europe. Britain needs to be fully engaged with that.

Fourth, far from Britain’s influence in the world being undermined by our membership of the EU, it amplifies our power, like our membership of the UN or of NATO. It helps us achieve the things we want – whether it is fighting Ebola in Africa, tackling climate change, taking on the people smugglers. That’s not just our view; it’s the view of our friends and allies, too.”

Many of these are valid issues for voters to consider, and Leave’s potential weakness on this topic is highlighted by the lack of major international leaders backing its cause. In his own speech on Monday, Boris Johnson hit back, accusing Remain supporters of deploying the argument “that if Britain leaves the EU, there will be a return to slaughter on Flanders fields.” He argued, “I think this grossly underestimates the way Europe has changed, and the NATO guarantee that has really underpinned peace in Europe.”

However, as five former NATO secretaries-generals argued in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, NATO and the EU can complement one another – NATO provides the hard security while the EU can co-ordinate diplomatic efforts – such as the oft cited sanctions imposed on Russia and Iran – and peace-building and reconciliation, such as in the Balkans. They go as far as to suggest that Brexit would “undermine NATO and give succour to the West’s enemies.”

The first question is whether these are arguments that are likely to cut through to the average or swing voter. On that note, the overblown media strategy to promote the Prime Minister’s speech could undermine the message and even backfire as the ‘threat of war’ line is unlikely to be viewed credibly by many people and gives Leave campaigners a relatively easy way out. The stock accusation of ‘scaremongering’ has been used far too often already in the campaign but in this case it is hard to argue against.

Not much evidence to suggest that security is likely to be a vote winner

Whatever you think of the arguments, the Remain campaign’s challenge is landing them on an electorate that rarely considers defence or foreign policy as a major political issue and which certainly has not heard these arguments before in relation to the EU.

As the graph below illustrates, according to Ipsos-MORI’s Issues Tracker, ‘defence/foreign affairs/terrorism’ consistently rank low down among the issues which voters think are the most important facing the country – concerns spiked in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks but then fell away again.

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To the extent that voters do think about these issues, NATO is what comes to mind. In contrast, the EU barely registers. A 2014 YouGov survey for Chatham House asked voters what they thought the main focus of British foreign policy should be and ‘Working with NATO and allies to defend Britain from external threats’ was ranked third behind ‘Protecting the UK at its borders, including counter- terrorism’ and ‘Ensuring the continued supply of vital resources, such as oil, gas, food and water’. ‘Being an active member of the European Union’ ranked bottom.

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So, when it comes to the high politics of Cameron’s speech, the Remain campaign has an uphill battle on its hands to link these arguments to Britain’s membership of the EU. When it comes to the more practical security arguments (fighting terrorism, the migration/refugee crisis and combatting crime), the polling so far suggests that most people are unconvinced either way:

  • A YouGov poll (15th April) asked which issues where most important to people when deciding how to vote, and only 6% cited ‘Which is likely to maximise Britain’s security’, behind dealing with immigration on 15%, and what was best for the economy on 24%.
  • A ComRes poll (10th April), asking which issues people thought were the most important in their decision when voting to remain or leave, had national security at 15%, behind immigration on 24%, with the economy the most important on 47%.
  • An Ipsos Mori poll (20th April) had ‘Impact on British national security’ on 8% when asking which issues would influence which way people would vote. This was even behind cost of EU membership fees on 9%, and ability to trade with EU countries on 11%.
  • A ComRes poll (10th April) found that 28% of voters believe national security would be best served by remaining in the EU, 22% believing said it will be better off if the UK left while 43% of people said it would make no difference.
  • Another YouGov poll (28th April) asked if Britain would be more or less at risk of terrorism if it left the EU. 50% said that it would make no difference, 22% said we would be less at risk if it left while 14% said there would be at a higher risk of terrorism if it left.

No doubt the Remain campaign thinks there is some mileage in the security argument otherwise it wouldn’t be making it, but one would think it is on far safer ground when talking about the economy, and they will most likely return to that soon.

What claims have Remain and Leave made on security – and are they credible?

Away from the high level arguments about security and foreign policy, there have been a number of practical arguments made about the benefits and costs of EU membership.

Is EU membership necessary for cross-border police co-operation and intelligence sharing?

Remain argument: EU membership is vital for stronger co-operation on security

Leave argument: EU membership is not necessary for cross-border co-operation; the EU will continue to co-operate and share intelligence with the UK but this should not come at the cost of democratic control

The UK benefits from close co-operation with other European countries, this principle is one which both campaigns agree on, so the question is to what extent this would be imperilled by leaving. It is true that it is not strictly necessary to be a full EU member to benefit from security co-operation; for example, both Norway and Switzerland have agreements in place with Europol, the EU agency which handles criminal intelligence and combats cross-border international organised crime and which encompasses the European Cybercrime Centre and the new European Counter Terror Centre.

However, both countries benefit from a tailored dispute-resolution process over which they have a greater degree of control compared to EU members who have to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in this area. This appears to support the argument that co-operation could be maintained while exercising a greater degree of democratic control – an argument that Open Europe has made, for example when we argued the government ought to exercise the block opt-out from 130 EU Justice and Home Affairs laws in 2014 and seek bilateral, intergovernmental arrangements outside the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

Likewise, when it comes to extradition, the EU has concluded an agreement with and Norway and Iceland which largely mirrors the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) while giving them greater discretion – for example when it comes to applying the principle of dual criminality – that a suspect can only be extradited from one country to another if both recognise the underlying criminal offense – compared to full EU member states. Crucially however, despite having been signed in 2006, this agreement has still not yet entered into force.

Ultimately, given that keeping people safe is everyone’s interests, one would expect there to be motivation on all sides to maintain cooperation. There would however need to be negotiations about how this would work in detail and in practice in the event of Brexit. The UK has capabilities that it is likely that other EU states would want to continue accessing, not least since the UK has the biggest DNA database in Europe and has returned more suspects under the EAW than any other member state. This desire to maintain co-operation also came through in our EU wargames simulation.

That said, constructing a tailored co-operation regime may be a difficult and time consuming process as demonstrated by the fact that the EU extradition agreement with Norway and Iceland has still not entered into force. In the interim the UK would have to fall back on the 1957 Council of Europe convention on extradition which police forces say is less reliable and efficient, and which not every EU member state has signed up to.

Does the EU undermine or enhance UK security forces?

Remain argument: As an EU member the UK better placed to shape Europe’s intelligence sharing framework

Leave argument: The EU institutions, in particular the ECJ, actively undermine UK security

Ultimately, national security remains a prerogative for member states but EU laws can have an indirect impact, for example when it comes to rules on cross-border data sharing and privacy protection. Writing in The Sunday Times, Lord Evans of Weardale and Sir John Sawers, former heads of MI5 and MI6 respectively, argued that “As an EU member we shape the debate, push for the right balance between security and privacy and benefit from the data that flows as a result… An agreement reached without us would probably be too restrictive for our needs and we would have to accept what data we were offered. This could undermine our ability to protect ourselves.”

Given Britain’s position as a leader in intelligence and security matters in Europe it is difficult to imagine EU members ceasing co-operation with the UK if it left – a point made by Sir Richard Dearlove, himself a former head of MI6 – but that remaining inside the EU would give the UK greater ability to shape Europe’s intelligence sharing framework. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, another former head of MI5 also acknowledged as much when she argued that “If we left we wouldn’t immediately have a cutting-off of intelligence from Europe”, even though she added “we would be significantly less safe outside.”

Conversely, Leave campaigners argue that EU institutions undermine UK security pointing out that the Charter of Fundamental Rights was cited by ECJ Advocate General Maciej Szpunar in his opinion that the deportation of a Moroccan woman convicted of terrorism offences in the UK would “in principle” be against EU law, on the basis that her child, of whom she is the sole carer, is a British citizen. Justice Secretary Michael Gove has also claimed that remaining in the EU will imperil the UK’s ‘Five-Eyes’ intelligence sharing arrangement with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand on the basis that it is a “source of jealousy and suspicion in Brussels.” Although Gove did not specify on what basis the ECJ might seek to undermine ‘Five Eyes’, the ECJ has previously struck down the Data Retention Directive and the EU-US Safe Harbour agreement.

Are free movement and Schengen security threats?

Remain argument: UK is in Schengen and therefore already controls its own borders

Leave argument: Freedom of Movement means UK has no control over who can come into the country while the porousness of Schengen poses a security threat to the UK

Throughout the campaign, the issue of free movement has been repeatedly – and in some cases deliberately – conflated with that of border control. While free movement does mean that the UK cannot directly control the overall numbers of EU citizens coming into the UK, from a security point of view, it does check people arriving and can under EU law turn back people on the grounds of “public policy, public health or public security”. Damien Green, the former minister for policing, has said that “since 2010 we have refused entry to almost 6,000 EEA nationals, including nearly 4,000 who were stopped at the border with Calais before they even had a chance to travel to UK soil.” In recent evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, Home Secretary Theresa May further noted that measures in the UK-EU negotiation package would make it easier to deal with abuse of free movement and deport people with a criminal record or stop them from coming to the country in the first place.

However, the threshold will remain relatively high – for example previous criminal convictions are not in of themselves a bar to entry and Vote Leave have assembled a dossier of EU nationals who arrived in Britain and committed serious crimes. The question for the Leave campaign is that achieving the maximum level of border control post Brexit would not only entail scrapping free movement but also reintroducing travel visas which would come with a considerable economic cost and which would likely mean the same applying to UK citizens. So far Vote Leave has not officially backed such a move although Justice Minister Dominic Raab has said it could be an option. (Update: Dominic Raab has been in touch to clarify his position, highlighting he has not mooted introducing visas but simply considered the possibility of greater security checks on EU nationals post Brexit. He stated on the Daily Politics recently that for the purposes of EU nationals’ tourist or business trips “there are all sorts of automated arrangements or visa waivers but the point is you have control.”)

Leave supporters have also argued that because of free movement, the UK is more exposed to the refugee and migration crisis with potential terrorists able to use the Schengen area to travel freely around Europe. It is certainly true that the crisis does pose a great security challenge, with the EU’s border agency Frontex estimating that there have been around 1.8 million illegal border crossings into the EU last year, even if up until now recent terror attacks have predominantly been carried out by home grown as opposed to foreign perpetrators. However, as we have previously noted, given it is outside of Schengen, the UK is already about as well insulated from the refugee and migration crisis as it can be, and even if it left the EU Schengen would not cease to exist.

Leaving the EU would therefore not see the UK better placed to cope with the security implications of the refugee and migration crisis – in fact it could end up worse off if the French government were to scrap the bilateral Le Touquet Treaty through which the UK can carry out its border controls in Calais. This would certainly not be an inevitable outcome by any means but neither can it be dismissed out of hand. Likewise, as we explain here, the claim that hundreds of thousands of refugees given asylum in Europe will use free movement rules to come to the UK is also far-fetched – free movement depends on having EU citizenship not merely right of residence in another member state. This means that in order to come to the UK, refugees would need to first acquire the citizenship of another EU member state, a process that takes between five and eight years and is contingent on integrating into that member state’s economy and society and not being deemed a security risk.


In terms of the high-level arguments, no one can say for sure whether Brexit would increase geopolitical instability, although the fact that President Barack Obama and several leading international figures have backed this argument does clearly pose a challenge for the leave side, one which they have so far not been able to successfully counter. The flip-side is that by over-egging the security argument in order to get the public to take notice, the government and the remain camp more broadly risk undermining their credibility by implying (or appearing to imply) that armed conflict is a realistic risk in the event of the UK leaving the EU. Ultimately, the available polling evidence suggests that the UK public overwhelmingly views the EU question through an economic as opposed to a security lens.

In terms of the more day-to-day security issues such as police co-operation and data sharing, many of the arguments made on both sides have been overly alarmist and involved an army of straw men. Although the general consensus within the police and intelligence community appears to be that because the UK benefits from the current arrangements it is better off remaining, it is highly probable that in the event of Brexit in this area more than in any other pragmatism would prevail and both sides would come to a workable and mutually beneficial arrangement. The argument for staying in is more about having the ability to potentially shape the evolving European security regime as opposed to being locked out of it altogether. That said, there are few good operational reasons for leaving – the best that can be said is that the UK will not be any worse in security terms than it is now. The leave side’s chief argument is the benefit of greater democratic control in this area outside of the jurisdiction of the EU’s Court of Justice.