In the run-up to the British referendum on whether to stay in the European Union or not there were many dire predictions on how a leave vote would effect the United Kingdom. We are already seeing significant economic fallout and the weeks and months to follow will likely bring more negative consequences in the political sphere. The ink on the ballots had scarcely dried before several rightwing politicians in Europe were already clamouring for votes in their nations to quit the union and Spain leapt up to demand joint sovereignty over Gibraltar.
Many analysts predicted that a Brexit vote would have significant negative impact on UK security. On issues ranging from conflict resolution to joint military cooperation, the UK was supposed to be the loser of a decision to quit the EU. True, the country was never part of the Schengen Zone and thus maintained control over its borders, but a UK outside the EU was weaker, not stronger, in the eyes of many. These predictions are not likely to bear out however especially when it comes to the fight against terrorism.
On the counter terrorism front, undoubtedly the most significant national security issue today, the UK opt out from the EU will not have a major impact for three fundamental reasons. Firstly, while the UK was a member of the EU Counter Terrorism Centre and its exit would theoretically preclude future collaboration, the threat from Islamist and rightwing extremism is too great to allow political differences to hamper cooperation. There are thousands of European foreign fighters with Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria and the continent has seen a worrying spike in anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi extremism in recent years. European states need to continue to share intelligence as no one country has the resources or information to keep its citizenry safe. Hundreds of foreign fighters are expected to return to the West in coming years and several attacks have already been tied to those with battlefield experience in the Levant. The UK, with its highly competent security agencies, will be an important partner for its EU counterparts.
Secondly, intelligence sharing always works much better on the bilateral level than on the multilateral one. Security intelligence services are much more willing to open up their files one on one than when many players are in the room. The various EU intelligence agencies will continue to rely on the experience and professionalism of the UK’s MI5 and MI6: cutting off relations because of Brexit would be spiteful and the EU member states would not be safer.
Most importantly, regardless of the recent vote the UK is still a member of the world’s most powerful intelligence alliance – the Five Eyes. Created after WWII, the Five Eyes club includes Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The openness and sharing of intelligence among these member countries is unprecedented, ranging from very sensitive SIGINT (signals intelligence) to joint intelligence operations. The benefits accruing from this group far outweigh any loss from an EU decision to cut the UK off, should that decision be made.
There are many reasons to rue the Leave vote. The UK will be the loser in many areas and the longer term repercussions may indeed be far reaching. On the security front, however, it will most likely be business as usual. International peace and security require more collaboration, not less.