Brexit to death? UK security at risk? Really?

It seems highly unlikely that Brexit would harm Britain's national security, though we must do it in a sensible manner. Much of the noise in Europe is the familiar scaremongering

Trident won't disappear if we Brexit
Charles Crawford
On 29 March 2016 15:22

Would the UK lose in ‘security’ terms if it was not part of the European Union?

Yes! says my old boss Pauline Neville-Jones, with a rather graceless swipe at former MI6 Chief Richard Dearlove:

"I do not join those who argue that were the UK to leave the EU, we would be completely unable to continue to operate many of the channels of security  cooperation that exist today, including intelligence cooperation founded on trusted bilateral relationships between national agencies.

"Our growing intelligence cooperation with France is of particular importance and it would surely continue, though it is hard not to imagine that it would take a hit. It is notable that despite the huge advantage the UK possesses in its “Five Eyes” intelligence relationship with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, our agencies attach a high importance to increased cooperation with European counterparts. Sir Richard Dearlove, a former head of the Secret Intelligence Service, takes a different view – but is presumably unaware of the huge strides made in this respect since he left office in 2004…"

Yes! says Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol:

"Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Wainwright said British police “see the benefits every day” of working with Europol, such as access to databases, and Dearlove’s arguments “do not stand much scrutiny”.'

No! says Richard Dearlove:

"The crucial practical business of counter-terrorism and counter-espionage is conducted, even in Europe, through bilateral and very occasionally trilateral relationships. Brussels has little or nothing to do with them, in large part due to what is known as the “Third Party Rule,” a notion that is little understood outside the intelligence fraternity but which is essential to intelligence liaison worldwide…

"Would Brexit damage our defence and intelligence relationship with the United States, which outweighs anything European by many factors of 10? I conclude confidently that no, it would not. The replacement of Trident, the access to overhead satellite monitoring capabilities, the defence exchanges that are hidden from public view, the UK-US co-operation over signals intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency/Secret Intelligence Service/Federal Bureau of Investigation/MI5 liaison and much more would continue as before.

"There would be disapproval of Brexit in Washington, and some disappointment too, but the practical consideration of living in a dangerous world and depending on true friends would win out. In short, Europe would be the potential losers in national security (sic). But if Brexit happened, the UK would almost certainly show the magnanimity not to make its European partners pay the cost."

That last point is all-important. What happens during and after any Brexit is all down to how far the UK and the rest of the European Union alike manage the process. The basic options:

  –  using the opportunity of Brexit to do most things very differently (where differently might turn out to be better or worse in the short, medium and long term)

  –  using Brexit to carry on much as before but on a new legal footing

  –  a ‘phased’ approach that aims to get the best of both worlds, ie moving to some very different ways of doing things but moving slowly and carefully in many areas.

The Brexit tendency appear divided on this rather basic issue. Take Money.

The UK pays generously into EU coffers. Is Brexit an opportunity to repatriate most of that money and spend it on ‘British’ priorities rather than shared Brussels priorities and heavy transaction costs? Note that British priorities might still overlap with EU priorities in eg areas of international development, so that joint UK/EU work in Africa could continue in much the same sort of way as now.

The real issue is how quickly any changes happen. The most fervent Brexiteers froth up enthusiasm for their cause by calling for as much money to revert to UK control as fast as possible.

But anything too abrupt risks annoying already annoyed EU partners, perhaps to the point where they take action that we really don’t like (eg on Security and migration).

So, say, a businesslike phasing down of UK contributions to EU programmes could be contemplated so that the UK’s input steadily declines over two or three EU Budget cycles (ie up to twenty years or so).

That would mean that we carry the cost of delaying the supposed benefits of spending more of our money on ourselves, but we also save ourselves the potentially far bigger costs to us arising from a sense of abrupt ‘instability’ damaging everyone.

Reasonable people might well disagree on the tactics, substance and presentation of such issues in the referendum campaign, which necessarily  is defaulting into simplistic slogans:

  Better the devil you know! No, it’s time for a change! 

  It’s risky to leave! No it’s risky to stay!

Back in real life, if there is a Brexit vote the issue of ‘phasing’ will dominate the negotiations between the UK and Brussels, including on how Article 50 applies (if that’s the route used to sort out the divorce settlement) and when exactly it kicks into force.

I agree with Richard Dearlove’s final thought. It will make no sense for London to scale back security cooperation with ‘Europe’ in any area (police, migration, intelligence or military).

The UK brings a huge amount to the wider European table under each heading, and we can afford to be ‘magnanimous’ (or more importantly pragmatic and self-interested) in wanting to keep that leadership role, albeit wearing different trousers.

That said, while a sensible case can be made that in principle Brexit need not make Security for ourselves or for our EU partners any the worse, it’s also fair to note that in fact the emotional reaction to a Brexit vote in different EU capitals might be negative and irrational to the point of allowing stupid and mutually damaging outcomes to occur.

And that also it makes sense for Johnny Foreigner to wave that risk loudly as the referendum approaches to try to scare off possible Brexiteers.

On the other hand, that too carries risks. The argument of ‘Don’t leave me! I’ll do something crazy!‘ does catch one’s attention, but rarely ends well.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. His website is He tweets @charlescrawford

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