In his Chatham House speech setting out the UK’s demands for a renegotiated relationship, David Cameron argued Britain’s EU membership is not merely a question of jobs and trade but of national security. Eurosceptics argue Britain’s leaders have too often allowed such foreign policy concerns to be put before domestic priorities, especially economic and democratic needs. Recent events in Paris and Brussels have raised questions about the vulnerability of EU member states, not least over the practicality of Schengen. As the UK’s new Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) made clear, traditional state-based threats and renewed challenges posed by terrorist organisations do not recognise national borders. Britain’s security is – and has long been – shaped by EU membership, whether by enhancing the UK’s international power, allowing the UK to shape European geopolitics and transatlantic relations, or by holding the UK together. As a result, as Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform recently argued, ‘The British government’s obsession with the details of its relationship with the EU has led it to lose sight of the big strategic picture and of the EU’s role in managing the national security threats identified in the SDSR.’
European integration has long had a security side to it whether as Franco-German reconciliation or integrating former Communist states in Eastern Europe. To what extent the EU has itself been able to keep the peace is open to debate. Nevertheless, for post-war prime ministers such as Harold Macmillan, Britain’s ability to shape the world around it was declining as rapidly as its economic base. Joining the then European Economic Community was, in part, a step forward for the security and stability of a country that had recently ended its retreat from empire and was struggling internally and externally to find a place in the world. Support for membership amongst Conservative MPs in the 1970s was driven by hopes that EEC membership would lock Britain into a capitalist, free market club allowing the country to shed its ‘sick man of Europe’ label, a reason some on the left resisted membership. Membership would also enhance Western European unity in the face of a still formidable Communist world, Saigon having fallen to North Vietnam only a month before the 1975 referendum.
Today, EU membership still means a lot to Britain’s national security. As the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review showed, Britain’s own economic and military capabilities remain substantial, but being able to draw on the EU as a force multiplier has become increasingly central as they have been stretched to their limits. For David Hannay, the EU allows Britain to better manage challenges as diverse as a newly assertive Russia through to climate change and instability in the Middle East. Working through the EU is not without its flaws, but other options for Britain to pursue its interests such as by rebuilding the Commonwealth, developing the ‘Anglosphere’, joining NAFTA, or becoming a ‘Switzerland with nukes’, are either limited or overplayed. Leaders from around Europe and the world have regularly cast doubts on whether a Brexit will boost Britain’s international standing and security. Eurosceptics will argue that Britain is weak in the EU, frequently outvoted and sidelined. Such an approach views the EU through the prism of Westminster’s majoritarian politics: a zero-sum game where you either win or lose. Through such an outlook every EU member state struggles to win. The one thing that does set you up for failure is isolating yourself, an approach the UK has in recent years adoptedmore than ever before.
Close relations with the USA remain, despite all the arguments, the cornerstone of UK and European security. Brexit is not going to end such arrangements as ‘Five Eyes’ or cooperation on Special Forces. But wider relations with the USA would be tested. Only a few on the fringe of the US political right think a Brexit would be a sound idea for the UK, USA, EU and transatlantic relations. As Condoleezza Rice, former Bush Administration Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, recently told Chatham House: ‘It is a very different Europe if it is a continental one’. The US has been a long-standing supporter of European integration and Britain’s part in it. A Britain that challenges both of these could find it damages relations with the USA and the USA’s commitment to Europe at a time of heightened US exasperation at Europe’s inability to think about geostrategic concerns – whether they be Russia, China or ISIS – and invest in the necessary defence commitments.
In his Chatham House speech David Cameron argued that the prosperity and security of the rest of Europe are vital for Britain. In doing so he came close to the often overlooked question of what Brexit would mean for Europe. A Brexit could change the European geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape in ways that would not be in Britain’s interests. It would see the departure of the EU’s largest and keenest supporter of Atlanticism and outward looking economic liberalism. The EU could become more inward looking and protectionist. The idea that Brexit could lead to the EU and Eurozone’s disintegration is not to be casually overlooked given the likely costs for the UK and Europe. As HM the Queen warned in June 2015 during a state visit to Germany, Europe’s division is in nobody’s interests. While a British exit is not going to lead to war, it would add to strains on an organisation which however imperfect remains with NATO one of the two pillars on which European politics and security have been built since 1945 and 1989.
At the same time, is the unification of Europe in Britain’s interests? For Eurosceptics, ‘ever closer union’ threatens Britain’s sovereignty, democracy and allows immigration to pressure its social unity, meaning Britain’s security and stability would be better preserved by leaving. But Britain’s departure could allow the EU to further unite. One of Britain’s longest standing international aims has been to prevent any single power dominating Europe. The EU would be a benign power compared to previous attempts, but such an outcome warrants careful consideration.
Finally, if the first concern of any state is its own survival then the referendum could tear the UK apart. The immediate concern is Scotland: a vote by the rest of the UK to leave the EU while the Scots vote to stay could trigger another independence referendum. This would lead to an avalanche of political, economic and social costs to say nothing of the costs for UK defence and national security, most notably over Trident. Northern Ireland might seem peaceful from the perspective of the UK mainland, but the peace process is under constant pressure and a Brexit could test it to breaking point. A descent into violence in the province should not be overlooked. Brexit could also add to tensions within England. In focusing on Scotland we have overlooked that the part of the UK that is increasingly different is London. An international metropolis that doubles as the UK and England’s capital, London has thrived from immigration, Europe and globalisation, much to the chagrin of some elsewhere in England and Britain who feel they have been left behind.
For scholars of international relations and the EU, Brexit confronts us with the need to theorise European disintegration. Theories are tools that allow us to focus on certain aspects of developments in the world around us, highlighting – and testing – their importance over others. In a simplified way, a constructivist approach would point to the role of ideas as paramount in shaping how a Brexit is handled in international relations. For example, will Brexit push to the fore ideas of European disintegration or lead the rest of the EU to push forward with ideas of unification? For realists it will be economic and security interests, especially ones shaped by international pressures, that will define how the UK and EU handle a Brexit. Institutionalists will point to the role existing institutions and networks – the multiple links that are part of or defined by the EU, EFTA, EEA, NATO – will play in defining what happens to the UK and EU (or might not define it if Brexit exposed any weaknesses in them). Liberal intergovernmentalists will point to a mix of interests, institutions and ideas to show that Britain and the EU (especially Germany, France and other big states) are so caught up in a deeply enmeshed set of interdependencies that Britain (and the EU) suffer from the Hotel California dilemma: you can check-out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Note: this piece first appeared on the blog of the LSE’s International Security Society.