On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) faces a referendum which will possibly have a long-lasting impact on both the United Kingdom and the European Union. The In/Out referendum, colloquially known as Brexit, will decide whether the United Kingdom will remain a member of the European Union (EU) or leave the state alliance. There is no precedent to such a case, which leads to many speculations of how the near future could look like. Currently, alarm bells are ringing on both sides of the channel and administrations European wide are busy with formulating Plan Bs, should the worst case, a Brexit, happen. This article explores what implications a Brexit would have on European Security in general and what consequences this could have for the CBRNe community/sector in particular.
Prime Minister David Cameron, formerly one of the greatest critiques of European Union membership has now risen to argue that a Brexit will pose a grave security threat to the United Kingdom, as “isolationism has never served this country well”. Indeed, a Brexit would have grave security consequences not just for the UK but also for the EU. A report by the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations scrutinizes the impact of a Brexit with special focus on European Security and Defense, and sketches three different scenarios of how this could shape future European Defense cooperation. According to the report, a Brexit would have major implications on the EU’s capabilities to foster a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and its role as a regional and/or global security actor. However, the CSDP already does not play a vital role in the UK’s present strategic planning, as outlined in the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), which lead some commentators to speak about a semi-Brexit. Many seem to have forgotten that the CSDP grew of a joint declaration by British and French leadership in Saint-Malo in 1998 to boost European defense capabilities. Indeed, in crises today, such as Ukraine, the first look goes to Brussels, not for the EU, but because the Headquarters of NATO can be found there. Yet, the difference between a semi-Brexit and a full scale Brexit is important. In Brussels, the United Kingdom is perceived as a hindrance to further defense efforts, which can also be seen domestically: the British public’s aversion to European defense can be witnessed whenever the tabloid press raises the spectre of a European army. In 2013, Cameron told media that he will block EU institutions from owning and operating their own military assets as “(…) it isn’t right for the European Union to have capabilities, armies, air forces and all the rest of it”. Indeed, the UK is not the only European nation with such concerns. Others, such as Denmark, have voiced similar opinions, but it remains to be seen if these will be upheld should the major critic of such policies leave. If the UK decides to actually leave, the possibility of blocking major decisions would no longer be present and the EU could go ahead with deeper security and defense integration. This is also one of the scenarios outlined by the Clingendael report. A Brexit could accelerate the way to a “Europe of two speeds”: two groups of countries with different levels of defense integration, similar to the different levels of economic integration present today. The UK could then focus its cooperation efforts on NATO and through bilateral agreements.
Nevertheless, it seems as if the UK would be the disadvantaged one of such a deal. Major countries such as the USA have made clear that they would prefer the UK to stay in the EU and exert their influence. Many fear that Germany, which is traditionally more reluctant to support concrete military action, will take the leading role in this domain and advocate this reservation even more. The other scenario would be that Germany takes up a leading role in military actions, as the German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen would like to see. Until now, this has mainly been the Franco-British sphere.
The Brexit could also have severe domestic consequences. One nightmare scenario: the British vote for quitting the European Union could prompt the pro-EU Scottish Nationalists to call a second referendum on Independence for Scotland, which they would be better positioned to win than their failed attempt in September 2014. And if they do win, the Nationalists then would move to terminate arrangements, dating from the 1960s, for basing the U.K. Ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and their nuclear warheads on the Scottish west coast. This would not only be a blow to the British nuclear defense capabilities, but it would also mean a loss of influence over the Northern Sea.
Remain campaigners continuously stress the importance of trade consequences. A Brexit would mean that access to the single market would significantly change, and many years can go by until new trade terms will be agreed upon. This is directly linked to the above described security implications. A Brexit would most likely lead to increased defense spending in European capitals, to come closer to the 2% threshold set by NATO. At the moment, Europe is the third most important region for UK defense exports after the Middle East and North America, and growing. It is questionable if the UK can continue to keep up this share in case of a Brexit. The other European countries have an interest in boosting their own industries, and without the UK being a member of the single market they will be less likely to buy of British producers. This holds true for conventional defense products as much as for more specialized products, as in the CBRNe sector. Lastly, access to the budget to the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and its successor Horizon 2020 will be gravely aggravated. This program holds funds of nearly €80 billion Euro ready to be spent on research and development, including on defense and security. It is not limited to European countries alone, so the UK could still have access after negotiations, previous research however has shown that countries not part of the EU receive significantly less funding.
The upcoming referendum is not just any vote; it is the vote of a generation and those to come. Leaving the European Union will unleash consequences which are far beyond the scope of this article. Economically, politically and culturally we would see a change which would have a long-lasting effect, not only on the UK but also on the EU. As David Cameron put it: “You really have to ask yourself, is it worth taking this risk?.