Stephen Booth is Director of Policy and Research at Open Europe.
In the vociferous debate about the proposed Brexit deal, the implications for UK security and foreign policy have come a distant second to economic and institutional considerations. However, this week Richard Dearlove, former MI6 head, and Charles Guthrie, former chief of defence staff, have written to Conservative Associations warning that the Brexit deal will “threaten the national security of the country in fundamental ways” and bind the UK into “new sets of EU controlled relationships”. We certainly should debate the UK’s future security and foreign policies in light of Brexit, but there are several reasons why these dire warnings about the proposed deal are either misplaced or implausible.
Successive UK governments have cooperated selectively with the EU in security and foreign policy, reflecting concerns about the direction of travel or degree of integration. The UK secured opt-outs from EU law enforcement and internal security integration and many Brexiteers cited the erosion of these protections by ECJ jurisprudence as justification for withdrawal. Nonetheless, matters of external security, defence and foreign policy were largely protected by our national veto, the threat of which the UK successfully used to prevent EU ambitions for an autonomous military HQ, for example.
At the root of concerns about the proposed deal seems to be a fear about what might happen, rather than what the Withdrawal Agreement actually says. It is true that, during the transition period, the UK will be bound by EU foreign and defence policy decisions. The UK may be consulted on a case by case basis, but we will no longer have a formal role in shaping these decisions or be able to lead any resulting operations. However, crucially, throughout the transition period, the UK can refuse to apply EU decisions for “vital and stated reasons of national policy” – we have a de jure veto. The UK will be bound by existing EU rules on police and judicial cooperation during this time, but will be excluded from new rules that fall under our existing law enforcement and Schengen opt-outs.
If the UK were to enter the Backstop, either in 2021 or by 2023, there is no agreed provision for UK-EU security and foreign policy cooperation. UK commitments under EU law and the Withdrawal Agreement would fall away and the basis for cooperation would need to be negotiated either separately or under the auspices of a comprehensive UK-EU future partnership. The UK would not be legally obliged as a result of the deal to do anything, although the Withdrawal Agreement provides both sides with the option of agreeing a successor security agreement – obviously the UK would have a veto over this.
It is further argued by the deal’s critics that “buried in the Agreement is the offer of a ‘new, deep, and special relationship with the EU in defence, security and intelligence”, which would undermine the UK’s three core security and foreign policy relationships with NATO, our US bilateral agreements and Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangements”. This warning presumably refers to the joint UK-EU Political Declaration on the framework for the future partnership.
First, as many critics of the deal have pointed out, the Political Declaration is not legally enforceable, whereas the Withdrawal Agreement would be. At this stage, it is simply an “offer” and does not bind the UK. Indeed, the lack of legal enforceability of the Political Declaration is the typically-cited reason for opposing the deal. Here the assumption is that the Political Declaration is binding. It is not.
Second, the future relationship foreseen in the Political Declaration is impossible to reconcile with the claim that it would undermine the UK’s core security relationships. Indeed, the declaration states that the entire future relationship should provide exceptions for matters of national security, which is the “sole responsibility” of the UK and the EU’s member states respectively. The UK could “participate on a case by case basis” in EU-led security and defence missions and be consulted accordingly. Intelligence sharing would be “voluntary” and the parties would “produce intelligence products autonomously”. The UK and the EU would pursue “independent sanctions policies driven by their respective foreign policies”. None of this would compel the UK, or the EU, to do anything at all with regards to external or security policy, other than keep the other party informed.
Finally, it is unclear what alternative, if any, form of cooperation with the EU the authors of these warnings would find acceptable. There is no doubt that past and future UK governments would rank the three core relationships with NATO, bilaterally with the US and Five Eyes, as the most important (a Jeremy Corbyn-led government might prove the exception). However, successive governments have also acknowledged that the UK must also promote its interests, both offensively and defensively, with European partners and allies. The UK has a close bilateral relationship with Europe’s only other globally-relevant military and defence power, France. This is underpinned by bilateral treaty, but France is actively pursuing its foreign policy interests via the EU and therefore cooperation with the French could well mean working with the EU to some degree. The question is on what basis.
Leaving the EU is likely to mean the UK will not be able to formally shape, lead or veto EU foreign policy or defence decisions in the future. This is a direct consequence of Brexit. Equally it means we will not be directly bound by them. It is possible to argue that the EU is being short-sighted in only offering the UK take it or leave it European cooperation on security and foreign policy issues. This may yet change, and if the EU wants to secure UK cooperation, our ability to provide resources and capabilities will be of immense value and therefore provide us with influence.
Nevertheless, it will be up to future governments to work out how best to further UK foreign policy interests independently of and sometimes in cooperation with the EU. Nothing agreed to date would prevent the UK from refusing to take part in EU-led or “controlled” initiatives or from insisting that any future cooperation would only be provided under a NATO umbrella.
There are many valid reasons to be sceptical about the Brexit deal. My judgement is that, on balance, it is worth supporting. But the concerns raised by Sir Richard and Lord Guthrie don’t stand up to scrutiny.