July 2016

After the narrow victory of the Leave campaign in June’s Brexit referendum, it is only a matter of time before the UK officially leaves the European Union. There are, however, ways to soften the blow that Brexit is expected to cause once the new UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 – the clause that allows an EU nation to sever its EU membership.

Although she was firmly seated in the Remain camp in the run up to the referendum, Prime Minister May has consistently insisted that she will not trigger Article 50 until the UK has undergone thorough negotiations with the EU regarding the split. No other EU member country has withdrawn from the EU to date.  She has not strayed from this position, despite prominent EU officials encouraging a fast exit from the Union in order to minimize economic uncertainty.

While the economic uncertainty provoked by Brexit will continue to be analyzed on a daily basis, Brexit’s security implications have received less attention. 

It is clear that the EU needs to undergo significant reforms in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave, but a European Union in the midst of both Brexit and major reforms will be distracted. This situation opens the way to the EU’s enemies allowing them to threaten EU security, something that Russia and dangerous non-state actors like ISIS have noted.

The UK has been one of the most powerful voices in the EU insisting on Russia sanctions in response to the illegal occupation of Crimea since March 2014. Without the British present at EU discussions, there are doubts that these sanctions will last.  While President Putin of Russia tried to hide his delight at the Brexit outcome, other Russian politicians aligned with President Putin were less diplomatic. Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, for example, told the press that, “without the UK in the EU there won’t be anyone to so zealously defend the sanctions against us.” 

Within the EU, support for sanctions, except in the Baltics and Poland, has been weakening.  Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, for example, attended the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in June, appearing on a panel with President Putin and saying that he would encourage his European colleagues to “thoroughly discuss” the continuation of sanctions.  Losing the UK’s strong support for sanctions could have an immediate impact, as Russia will now feel even less pressure to stop engaging in illegal border incursions in Ukraine and in other nearby countries and allow Russia to potentially become a greater threat to EU security.

Another challenge confronting Prime Minister May is how to effectively negotiate matters concerning European intelligence. Britain is the EU’s largest contributor of intelligence data, and with all the evidence demonstrating how ineffective intelligence sharing is within the EU, not having access to British data would be a massive blow to EU security.

Ex-PM of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt has already called upon the EU to create its own intelligence agency, but whether or not this will include any British input is unclear.

What has remained clear so far, however, is Britain’s relationship with the U.S.. President Barack Obama has already said that the U.S. will be unable to contribute much to post-Brexit discussions until the process is well underway. And while Brexit could impact U.S.-UK trade, it seemingly will not have an effect on U.S.-UK security ties.

Outside of NATO, the U.S. also shares intelligence with the UK via the Five Eyes network (the intelligence-gathering alliance between the U.S., the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand). With the UK leaving the EU, the Union could see a decrease in shared intelligence as the intelligence from Five Eyes was passed through the UK. 

The UK and the U.S. enjoy what is often referred to as a “special relationship.” High Representative of the European Commission for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini has emphasized that the EU will work to strengthen and “deepen” its bond with the United States before Brexit happens. This will prove to be especially important in a post-Brexit EU, where communication between the US and Europe will likely undergo changes without the British serving as middlemen.