What does Brexit mean for security?

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Whether you voted for it or not, Brexit now seems inevitable. But what does this actually mean, for the average person and for the country? Given the lack of clear direction indicated by the government, it is understandable if you’re confused trying to keep up. In this blog we will try and identify the concrete consequences of the vote across a range of topics, so that you can better understand the evolving situation. What does Brexit mean…

…for security?

One commonly neglected area of the debate surrounding the referendum was security; not just border control, the victim of so much fantasy, but the realm of citizen protection. In this article, we’ll consider the likely implications of Brexit on civilian policing, cybersecurity and (military) defence, both for us as individuals and for the UK as a whole. As for every topic, the question is not just only “What will we lose?”, but also, “What will we miss?”: with security, that’s inherently a much more dangerous question to ask.

 

The Big Picture

The first function of a state is to keep its citizens safe, so you’d think this would be a primary concern to voters in the referendum. Its relative absence from the debating table compared to other issues is probably because national security is taken for granted, until the next big disaster (a mentality which poses great risks for individual security, too). Government institutions guarding all citizens – the armed forces, intelligence services and the police – don’t function properly unless they all co-operate and share information, and in the same way, we can’t expect to safeguard ourselves or our neighbours from global threats as effectively and efficiently as before once we’ve officially left the European Union.

The Juan de Fuca fault of security, border control, has been the tipping point of this campaign, so we’ll start here. Most voters who ranked this as their most important issue were primarily concerned with personal economic security, something we talked about earlier. However, crime was also frequently brought up, and competence at keeping down crime is frequently high on constituency manifestos for would-be MPs. Farage’s assertion that Romanian gangs commit 7% of crime across Europe was explained by him not as a racist comment, but as a concern based on crime figures; this is something the tabloids fed off consistently, but is based on a series of false interpretations of data.

So if this is a primary concern, Brexit actually poses a great issue. If we want fully effective access to the single market, freedom of movement is pretty crucial, so we can’t just close down the borders. And pulling out of the EU means we’ll also pull out of the European Arrest Warrant, an amazing legislative framework which cuts down the average extradition time from 1 year down to 48 days, vastly improving and simplifying the process by which national police forces can effectively police crime across the continent. In any case, excluding citizens because of their assumed potential to commit crime (based on xenophobia, however it’s dressed) has no basis in logic if there is no criminal record; and if there is, being within the EAW vastly increases chances of catching suspects, with shared records and so on.

We’d also pull out of Europol (or negotiate separate membership, difficult without negotiating access to sharing sensitive information and so on), where national forces work together, inter alia, to crack multi-national crime rings. The information shared across member states, such as DNA database access, could be requested on a case-by-case basis, but this makes the process lengthier and more difficult.

To negotiate associate membership of Europol poses a conflict with information sharing, meaning a loss of boundary in sensitive data transfer between states. If we pull out of the EU, but expect to pick ‘n’ mix the bits we liked, such as the EAW, it would go against the principles of the Brexiteers to stand against free movement and loss of sovereignty, surely. Simply shutting down borders in a furore to keep down crime is not feasible, nor would it address significant underlying causes.

Increasing amounts of crime are being committed in the cybersphere, which of course knows no borders. Artificially constructing them by making a British equivalent of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (which presumably the UK will still accept) would not be particularly useful. The GDPR, passed in 2015 under the guidance of German MEP Jan Albrecht, is important for 2 main reasons; first, that it gives citizens a better role in data control (explained in the next section); second, because it is sterling evidence of the way EU member states have worked together to address common problems, refining existing provisions for the future, a key aim of the project as evident from Albrecht’s concluding thoughts. Consultations like this, which are ground-breaking and massively important for global security, will no longer involve the UK once it leaves the EU, no matter what deal is reached. What role will we have in decision making then? Separate deals or provisions will have to be made.

Happily, there are precedents for this; the EU-Serbian agreement for sharing classified data, for example. Furthermore, the UK’s new information commissioner Elizabeth Denham has many cross-over thoughts with GDPR – this shows that her thinking is aligned with the EU on issues of data transfer and information security, which are within her governmental remit. So the most serious concerns we ought to have here are the potential future relationships on data transfer and regulation across countries, especially with regard to data policing, which is perhaps the most vulnerable aspect of the UK at the moment.

The cybersphere is an easy platform not only for criminals, but also “enemies of the realm”, to use old-fashioned intelligence terminology. So let’s look at state defence. The GDPR obliges companies to report security breaches, so in theory that should diminish cyber threats to national security. And regulating cross-border threats will be more cumbersome when we’re outsiders to the big round table.

However, the most important contemporary military issue as regards the EU is the question of an EU army; were this to pass, which is doubtful, it would be interesting to see its relation with NATO, as an existing military entity on the one hand, and individual, non-EU army states on the other hand. In any case, British voices were almost entirely opposed to this idea, not least ex-PM David Cameron and top-ranking diplomats, so it’s possibly not something to risk in the Brexit climate, since it needs to be unanimously passed by all member states.

While being a member of NATO covers most of these issues within a separate organisation, the ultimate issue, once again, is co-operation. Unfortunately, a disadvantage of the EU’s policy of unanimity for defence issues is the difficulty in making decisive steps as national force strategists may see fit for their country. Since threats tend to be geographically specific and need individual state attention, there’s not always a great deal to be done by mass co-operation on all defence issues (except for the unique cybersphere, and general aggressor or terrorist threats), so in that way Brexit may safeguard some independence for the MoD. But, thinking sensibly, this once again isolates the UK from top table discussion and will require extra treaties to attain the existing level of sensitive information sharing.

British military figures were split on Brexit, both sides claiming support of top brass and Second World War veterans; the ‘sovereignty’ and ‘peace’ arguments both won many voters each round for the respective Brexit and Bremain sides. This struggle between these two ideals actually speaks in favour of levels of security co-ordination without going the whole way to a unified defence infrastructure – that is, the existing state of affairs – but at least it ensures moderation in terms of national defence policy to continue (probably). In any case, many things won’t change; for example, the UK-French naval relationship, separate to both NATO and the EU, won’t be affected, with cross-national training and aircraft carrier sharing even involving the US. No state in our immediate geographic proximity poses an important security risk – the main threats are from lone wolves – and the debate about nuclear deterrents would always have been a UK issue anyway. And of course, NATO is the real military group alliance here, not the EU.

Then there’s the question of alliance; the NATO relationship will be unchanged, and in recent times the changing character of conflict means that states are less frequently at loggerheads with each other, so the intricate alliance patchworks which used to embroider the geopolitical world are less important now. Therefore we need to worry less about the diplomatic effect on our “allies”. But we do need to consider the next stage of our relationship with the US; as powers acting under the NATO umbrella, will the UK choose to align itself more with the US in defence policy, as is possible? And, without British influence in EU military discussions, what will be, for example, the EU’s attitude to military presence in the Middle East?

As a global diplomatic powerhouse, the EU’s role in peacekeeping operations (eg Georgia/Russia 2008) is vital; the UK stands to lose that influence once having left. The EU was conceived as a project in embryonic status after the Second World War. Its primary and most basic function is for cross-continental harmony – that cannot be argued against. A dangerous manipulation of history was employed by the Brexit side, especially against pensioners, to supposedly guard against Merkel forming a “Fourth Reich”, or to prevent another Dunkirk situation (neither of which stand up to any logical scrutiny as pro-Brexit arguments). In contrast, a former chief of defence staff states the EU is a “cure” for the “terrible tragedies” of that last great war. The danger of weaponising history risks covering up modern diplomatic realities, giving a false vision of international relations and the UK’s current political situation. With Brexit breeding division and disunity, this poses a potential security risk for the future.

Individual Consequences?

Security implications tend to affect the state as a whole, so this section is (perhaps thankfully!) shorter, and mainly focuses on crime.

The most-reported – and maybe most immediate – social effect of Brexit was the rise in xenophobic hate crime. Cambridgeshire has been hit too; “No more Polish vermin” cards distributed in Huntingdon right after the result came in, part of a hate crime wave of 218% as many crimes in that week, compared to the previous week and the same week in 2015. The number in July was also around double. This is of reported offence, not convictions, and may also be down to increased awareness, but social media exposes the surge in hatred after some people expounding racist or xenophobic beliefs gained new confidence from the vote.

There’s then the individual effects of things such as the potential lack of EAW to consider, which has the potential to affect everyone considerably at some point in the future.

The implication of cyber security is something we can more accurately monitor as individuals. Businesses will need to check their data policies for potential compliance issues arising in the legal wrangling. And in our private lives, the privileges of the GDPR – the famous ‘right to be forgotten’ and greater access to information on data security, for example – will hopefully, but not certainly, be retained.

 

Reflections

To finish, then, the most important thing to remember is to not worry too much as regards national security. The UK has all the right equipment in place, and scare stories about Putin smiling gladly upon Brexit are constructive neither to the debate nor to international relations. What we should question is how the obvious lack of cohesion and co-operation will affect our working relationships in this crucial area, with the EU as an entity, with its individual member states and with non-EU states, and whether we can, either alone in Whitehall and Westminster, continue to be a globally important actor outside the EU as the Brexiteers claim we are.