19 February 2018

Britain is inching towards a sensible post-Brexit security policy

By Shashank Joshi

Theresa May’s speech to the Munich Security Conference was a constructive effort at preserving security and defence ties with European partners after Brexit. Its seriousness was in stark contrast to her foreign secretary’s hollow Valentine’s Day posturing. The Prime Minister reiterated her desire for a swift and ambitious new security treaty, and hinted at flexibility on one or two of the thorniest issues. But her speech also left many questions unanswered, and it remains unclear whether the spirit of Munich can survive cabinet infighting or another acrimonious turn in wider Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May visited Munich just as Europe seems to be getting its military mojo back. Last year, according to figures published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), it was the fastest-growing region of the world in real-terms defence spending, clocking in at 3.6 per cent, comfortably ahead of GDP growth. Twenty-five out of 26 EU member states have also signed up to a new scheme called permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), which deepens integration all the way from arms procurement to deployments.

Britain has always been wary of such efforts, for fear they would erode the primacy of Nato, but on Saturday the Prime Minister declared the UK willing to work with – and even through – the EU’s new institutions. “Where we can both be most effective by the UK deploying its significant capabilities and resources with and indeed through EU mechanisms”, she proposed, “we should both be open to that”. Given that several of her own colleagues had vilified those mechanisms as thrusts towards an EU Army, the politics of any such collaboration will be interesting to say the least. She promised also to carry over all EU sanctions, which presently cover 36 countries, and dangled the prospect of channelling foreign aid into EU development programmes, which currently gets a tenth of the UK’s aid spending.

The catch, of course, was that “the UK must be able to play an appropriate role in shaping our collective actions”. But how? After Brexit, the UK will not have access to the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), which brings together ministers, or the Political and Security Committee (PSC), which consists of ambassadors and diplomats. Several observers have proposed that the UK retain a downgraded presence on the latter, an idea endorsed by the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee in January. But there has been little enthusiasm from EU leaders and Michel Barnier gleefully seemed to rule out the idea in a prickly speech last November.

Nevertheless, May is right: it would be to the EU’s detriment if it shut out the continent’s largest military spender, and one of only two powers with an expeditionary capability, on the basis of what she called “rigid institutional restrictions”. European sceptics point to the fact that the UK has contributed relatively little to EU military operations so far. This is true, but it misses the point that Europeans – within and beyond the Union – are likely to be called upon to do more, by themselves, and in more demanding contexts, in the coming years. It is easy to imagine a future EU military operation in, say, the Balkans or the Mediterranean in which British participation would be of considerable military value, but hindered by a “take it or leave it” attitude from the bloc.

On internal security, these obstacles to cooperation are even greater. Three areas are pivotal: the European Arrest Warrant, Europol, and the Schengen Information System. The Prime Minister highlighted the UK’s disproportionate contribution in these areas, pointing out that for every one arrest on a warrant issued by the UK there were eight British arrests on warrants issued by others. The problem is that these mechanisms fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

This has proven to be politically toxic in other parts of the negotiation, but the prime minister decided to take her chances. “When participating in EU agencies”, she promised, “the UK will respect the remit of the European Court of Justice”. Now, this doesn’t settle the matter. For one thing, remit is not the same thing as jurisdiction. And May’s commitment was twinned with an ambiguous plea for the EU to respect the UK’s “sovereign legal order”, as well as “independent dispute resolution across all the areas of our future partnership”. How the ECJ and a new dispute resolution body fit together is an open question. The case of Denmark should also be a warning. The country kept its access to Europol data after leaving last May, but this required Copenhagen to pass a new law on data protection and to remain a member of both the EU and Schengen area. The UK’s own relationship to Europol is bound to be far weaker, even with great flexibility on both sides.

The UK’s approach to security cooperation has been evolving slowly. The Prime Minister’s Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk last May was a low point, reportedly prompting the chiefs of all three intelligence agencies to express their concerns that security was being used as a bargaining chip. The Florence speech and a wide-ranging government paper in September did much to walk this back. Munich doesn’t mark a breakthrough, but it indicates gradual movement towards a more pragmatic, flexible position on a crucial issue.

Meanwhile, it’s notable that Brexit continues to crowd out the major strategic issues of the day, such as how to deter and deflect Russian pressure on Europe, handling China’s growing impact on European interests, and addressing the growing tensions between Middle Eastern powers. These scarcely registered in the Prime Minister’s speech, but the world will not stop while Europeans negotiate with one another.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI.