Security and defence cooperation after Brexit

After the long wait and a period of great uncertainty, Brexit happened and the United Kingdom left the European Union on the last day of 2020. The uncertainty, however, has remained to some extent and tensions still exist. While much focus was dedicated after the Brexit agreement to many aspects of the deal, security and defence cooperation has not been given too much column space.

On January 1st, 2021, media reported about the implication of Brexit for the economy, students, travellers, and fishing. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussion has also dwelled on vaccinations, which have created tensions between the EU and the UK. What has largely been hidden from the public eye has been the implications to the security and defence sector.
The UK has been significant player in the EU’s foreign, security and defence policy sector. It has been the third biggest military spender after France and Germany, it has great security and defence capabilities including nuclear weapons, and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Of the EU member states, France now remains the only one with the latter prerogative. Given all of this, the EU thus lost important assets with the UK’s departure. The UK, on the other hand, lost the benefit of being part of the EU bloc which has sometimes given it additional to weight in the past when operating in the international field, and it now faces a possible loss in its prestige.
[bctt tweet=”The EU lost important security assets with the UK’s departure.”]

What has been agreed upon and what has not?

The Brexit agreement covers security matters in the chapter ‘Law Enforcement and Judicial Cooperation’. Under the agreement, the UK preserves its access to critical databases, such as DNA information exchange and Passenger Name Records (PNR). The UK will moreover cooperate and maintain a working relationship with Europol and Eurojust. This allows the UK and the EU to share information and conduct joint investigations, operations, and prosecutions.
The agreement moreover discusses cooperation on, for example, cybercrime and cybersecurity, and includes provisions on judicial cooperation regarding anti-money laundering, fighting the funding of terrorism, asset freezing and confiscation, as well as on extradition.
These issues are important, especially the cooperation with Europol and Eurojust together with the UK’s access to the law enforcement databases. These databases have allowed the EU to strengthen police cooperation in Europe over the years, and it is of significance for post-Brexit European security that the UK can keep its access to them. That the EU and the UK managed to reach an agreement in this area is a most positive thing.
Some important aspects of the European security were, however, left out of the agreement. The UK lost its access to the EU’s criminal records exchange (ECRIS) as well as to the Schengen Information System (SIS), which is the most widely used and biggest information sharing system for European security and border management. SIS includes cooperation on three areas: border control, law enforcement, and vehicle registration. Brexit thus created potentially a very big operational gap. The Brexit agreement does, however, set out some alternative arrangements. The future will tell how well these end up working and what the security consequences will be.

Future cooperation and the future of EU defence and security policy

The security situation around the world has shifted in the last years and decade, and not for the better. There are talks about a return of great power rivalry between the United States and China. Russia is in internal turmoil after the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalnyi, and the country has been leading the front on cyber and hybrid warfare against other countries. Terrorism and organised crime are still huge threats to the European security, as are conflicts taking place in the neighbouring and nearby regions.
[bctt tweet=”Threats are shared by the EU member states and the UK, and it is vital that the two can cooperate to counteract them.”]
These threats are shared by the EU member states and the UK, and it is vital that the two can cooperate to counteract them. It is in the interest of all countries and their citizens. Josep Borrell, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated at the end of January 2021 that ‘in areas such as sanctions, crisis management operations and capabilities, positions in multilateral fora, aid spending or consular protection and more, both sides should be able to work together, as mutual interests are at play.’ There thus exists a basis for cooperation. It now remains to be seen what form this cooperation will take and how effective it will be.
Although Brexit was a loss for the EU in defence and security matters, some positive effects arose from it, too. Ever since the Brexit referendum, the UK has not been hindering the prospects of further cooperation, as it traditionally had done. The EU has thus been able to put forward new projects and programmes in the field of security and defence policy, such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF), as well as the notion of European Strategic Autonomy. The EU’s budget also came to include a part on defence. All this was partly made possible by the UK not being there to oppose these efforts.
There is still room for the UK to be part of the EU’s security and defence projects, and many Europeans would probably love to see the UK as part of them. The important thing is that the two cooperate as it is crucial for the European security on both sides of the English Channel.
TEXT Peppi Heinikainen
PHOTO Flickr
The author has a BA degree in European Studies from the Maastricht University and a MA degree in International Peace and Security from King’s College London. The author has specialised in the EU defence and security policies, peace processes and negotiations, and Russian foreign and security policy. She is currently doing her PhD at Tampere University’s Peace Research Institute TAPRI.