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Britain, the EU and security: Only one thing worse than fighting with allies

The security threats to Britain are diverse, and shared with Europe. Responses must be equally flexible and multinational. The age of splendid isolation is not coming back, writes Ian Bond.

Britain’s EU referendum offers a binary choice: in or out? Britain’s security environment is a lot less black and white. As Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in the UK’s 2015 defence and security review: “From the rise of ISIL and greater instability in the Middle East, to the crisis in Ukraine, the threat of cyber attacks and the risk of pandemics, the world is more dangerous and uncertain today than five years ago”. All of these problems are common to the UK and its EU partners; not one of them would be solved, or have less impact on the UK, if Britain were to leave the EU.

Brexiters argue that NATO provides security and the EU does not; that intelligence comes from the UK’s co-operation within the ‘Five Eyes’ community (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US); that international peace and security are for the UN Security Council, where Britain has a permanent seat; and that other members of the EU are plotting in secret to set up an ‘EU Army’ in opposition to NATO.

The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, announced recently that having previously backed Remain he was now backing Leave, among other things because “a European Army could damage NATO”. If there were going to be a European Army, he might be right to fear the impact on NATO. There is not, as the CER has explained. But more fundamentally, if there was ever a time when the UK needed to choose between the EU and NATO, it has certainly now passed. In an era of complex threats coming from many directions, the UK needs as many partnerships as possible.

Since the security threats to the UK are themselves not neatly divided, the responses to them are likely to be equally untidy. Take the terrorist threat from the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh. At one level, it is a domestic threat, which the British police and intelligence services should deal with. But it is also a threat which crosses borders, demanding both military and non-military efforts to tackle it. It is often argued that the UK contributes more to European counter-terrorism efforts than it gets in return. But the fight against terrorism is not a zero-sum game: the UK would not make itself safer by doing less to help its neighbours.

If it is confirmed that some of the terrorists responsible for attacks in Paris last year and Brussels this year also visited Birmingham in 2015, the right conclusion to draw is not that the UK needs to take back control of its borders; it already controls them. Since Britain is outside the borderless Schengen area, the suspects in question would have undergone passport checks on arrival. Instead, the right conclusion is that there must be better intelligence and law enforcement co-operation between EU countries.

As long as the UK remains in the EU, its border agency will have access to the Schengen Information System (SIS II). SIS II enables participating states (Schengen states, plus ‒ for some purposes ‒ Bulgaria, Romania, the UK and Ireland) to create ‘alerts’ for individuals subject to an arrest warrant, sought as witnesses or considered likely to commit a serious criminal offence. For legal reasons, the data in the system cannot be shared with third countries, so if the UK left the EU, it would no longer have access to SIS II. Passport controls are useless if border agents know nothing about the individuals standing in front of them.

The problem with SIS II (and other EU law enforcement databases) is that they are only as good as the data that member-states put into them. From inside the EU, Britain would be able to work on improving data-sharing, including through the EU’s police co-operation agency Europol, which would increase both the UK’s security and that of others in Europe. Outside the EU, not only would the UK lose access to EU databases, but it would have to try to compensate for this by concluding bilateral agreements with 27 states with various degrees of expertise, commitment and resources.

Co-operation between the EU and the US is crucial to combating terrorism in Europe (and more widely), but it is often complicated by differences in the legal framework and philosophy for counter-terrorism. As the CER has noted before, the UK has a particularly crucial role to play in bridging the differences between the US and some European states over the balance between data privacy and national security.

But the fight against Daesh is not only a domestic and intra-European counter-terrorism issue. It stretches beyond Europe’s borders. In Libya and the Sahel, stabilisation and institution-building are essential if Daesh is to be pushed back. Here, the EU can use its so-called ‘comprehensive approach’, including security assistance and development aid, to back up UN efforts to deal with civil conflicts. The EU can help fragile states in the region become more resilient in the face of Islamist extremism.

No single organisation, still less the UK acting alone, can stabilise the Middle East and North Africa. Bringing peace to the region will require more resources, at a time when there are many other demands on them. Yet unless the region is stabilised, millions of migrants and refugees will inexorably make their way to Europe, and some will try to get to the UK. Brexit would do nothing to prevent them.

In the East, Europe faces an aggressive and paranoid Russia, intent on weakening its neighbours. Again, the Western response cannot be effective if it is limited to one organisation. When Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine in 2014, neither the US nor other major allies wanted to risk a wider conflict by intervening militarily to stop Russia’s advance; but nor did they want Russia to go unpunished for its flagrant violation of international law. So the West has used a variety of tools, some in the hands of NATO, some in the hands of the EU.

NATO has concentrated on reassuring and reinforcing its own member-states in Central Europe, increasing its presence in the region; it has also offered training and capacity building to vulnerable non-members like Ukraine and Georgia. But the defence capabilities of European allies are not what they should be. Though the Russian attack on Ukraine and the terrorist attacks in Western Europe have led some countries to increase their spending, EU member-states’ defence budgets still fell by 0.4 per cent in 2015, according to the EU Institute for Security Studies.

Britain should worry less about the precise border between what NATO should do and what the EU should do in the defence field. It should focus instead on ensuring that defence budgets produce the biggest effect: as Deng Xiaoping said, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. The CER has recommended that the UK should take a leading role in extending the EU’s single market to non-sensitive defence goods and services, in order to increase competition, spur innovation and drive down costs. NATO and EU defence planning processes also need to be better aligned and co-ordinated; but for that to happen, Turkey needs to join the European Defence Agency (EDA) – for which UK support will be helpful.

In supporting its Eastern partners, the EU has focused on economic and technical assistance to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. All three have signed association agreements with the EU that will help their economies to develop. The EU has also imposed sanctions on Russia, targeting members of the elite and important sectors of the economy. Again, NATO does not have the expertise or the legal tools to impose such sanctions – just as the EU does not have the military assets or structures to reinforce Central Europe. It is the synergy between NATO and the EU that has helped to stabilise conflict in Ukraine, and to deter further Russian adventures. The two organisations have acknowledged the need to work together, and are considering issuing a joint communique on hybrid warfare at NATO’s Warsaw Summit in July.

In the cyber domain, the UK works bilaterally with the US and other key partners on cyber defence and on cyber offensive capabilities. NATO protects its own communications and IT systems; it has also extended its mutual defence guarantee to cover cyber attacks, and helps its members with cybersecurity training. NATO and the EU work together on preventing, detecting and responding to cyber attacks on their own IT systems. The EU is working with industry on cybersecurity for businesses and consumers, as an important element of a digital single market. The UK cannot walk away from any of these activities without damaging its own interests; and it certainly cannot isolate itself from cyber threats by leaving the EU.

Even in the 19th century, when the phrase was coined, there was less to Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’ than met the eye. A country that ruled so much of the globe could never be entirely isolated; and as Germany’s power rose, it became impossible for the UK to pretend that it had no stake in what happened on the continent of Europe. It had to become involved, belatedly and at a very high cost, in restoring balance in Europe.

In the early 21st century, Britain has no empire behind it, and the major nations of the Commonwealth have made it very clear that they want the UK to remain in the EU. The security threats that the UK faces would be hard to combat alone; and what added value would there be in trying to tackle common threats in isolation from others who share them? The EU, NATO, the Five Eyes, the UN and Britain’s many bilateral security ties with countries from Chile to Japan are not mutually exclusive, but complementary and sometimes mutually reinforcing relationships.

The UK does not need to reject one forum in favour of another to improve its security; it needs to be part of any that are relevant to the problems it faces. Finding consensus with 27 other countries, in NATO or the EU, is often frustrating, but always necessary. As Winston Churchill said: “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them”.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform (CER). This article was first published by the CER. More information can be found at
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