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How Brexit Poses a Security Threat to Europe's Future

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons / European Parliament

Over the past summer, the United Kingdom has endured a string of crises: the Westminster Bridge attack, the Manchester bombing, the Grenfell Tower fires, the London Bridge attack, and the major political blow dealt to the Tory Party by a Labour resurgence in the June snap election. All in all, Brexit almost seems like a story for a previous news cycle. Yet as negotiations become more serious, the practicalities of leaving the security institutions of the European Union demand greater attention. And at least in part, this is because the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU was the start of what many have argued has become a long and fraught process of uncertainty—where the only guarantee seems to be that exit is going to happen.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is a strong spokesperson for what has been coined a “hard” (or “clean”) Brexit. While there’s no formal definition, a “hard” Brexit is generally understood as the United Kingdom’s leaving the EU with no deal for future cooperation in place, as well as suspending much of the interorganizational cooperation that currently exists between the two powers. A “soft” Brexit, in contrast, follows what the status quo was before the Brexit vote. It doesn’t necessarily mean greater integration into the EU framework, but, rather, it means maintaining the level of integration and cooperation that currently exists.

Most of the concern around a hard Brexit has seemed to center around two major issues: freedom of movement for individuals between EU nations and the United Kingdom, and the economic impact of a U.K. exit from the single European market. The greatest vulnerability, however, may actually lie in the United Kingdom’s cooperation with EU security organizations—and the future of both, if the United Kingdom chooses to completely disengage.

With security being a primary concern for any country, the idea of almost purposefully creating vulnerability may seem, at first glance, far fetched. But the posturing involved in negotiations appears to be a detriment to good policy and good sense. May, for instance, has stated that she will leave the bargaining table if the United Kingdom is given a “bad deal,” and that she would take U.K. information sharing with her.

The outcomes of these negotiations could have weighty effects on the future of security as we know it, not just for the United Kingdom, but for all of Europe. They have the potential to create a backlash against the perceived weakness that comes along with a large-scale attack, and a doubling down on the efficacy of the United Kingdom’s security system without help from the EU. If the United Kingdom feels pressured to distance itself from its European neighbors in order to appear “strong and stable,” it could also jettison major security institutions. These institutions—which include the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), and the European Arrest Warrant (EAW)—all deal with different aspects of security and policing across international borders, and they require the full involvement of Europe and the United Kingdom to function fully.

Europol, for instance, is the policing system for the EU, and it deals mostly with large-scale crime and terrorism (cyber and otherwise). Currently, the United Kingdom is the largest contributor to Europol, and the organization is run by a U.K. citizen, Rob Wainwright. Yet despite all of these integral connections, Interior Minister Amber Rudd recently said that the United Kingdom is willing to take away the information it contributes if lawmakers are unable to create a deal. This creates a dearth of information for both Europe and the United Kingdom. Wainwright explained the impact this potential outcome could have in an interview with Time magazine: “The U.K. would become an associate partner like the U.S. But there are important limitations,” he said. “They would no longer have direct access to our databases. They would no longer be able to run any of our projects. They would no longer be able to influence how our organization sets its priorities.”

Yet even more than that, perhaps, is that there’s a key difference between the United Kingdom and the United States when it comes to EU security: the sheer proximity these two nations have to threats in the European neighborhood. Any threat plaguing the EU is essentially in the United Kingdom’s backyard. Or, in other words, whereas EU information sharing is helpful for bolstering the United States’ security, this same information is, arguably, less integral to its overall security strategy.

The importance of this proximity is perhaps best seen when we take a look at the EAW. The EAW is a treaty that fast-tracks and standardizes extradition between EU member states. Its future, however, is tenuous. And the reason is that it’s overseen by the European Court of Justice, an institution that a current majority in the U.K. government is adamant to sever ties with. This, despite the fact that the United Kingdom relies on this treaty more than any other member state. For instance, data from 2010 to 2015, from a U.K. report on the amount of requests made by EAW member states, shows that the United Kingdom leads with requests for 1,424 persons—the next largest amount of requests is Spain with 235.

This huge discrepancy nods to how integral the EAW is for the United Kingdom. Even so, the only current plan to replace the EAW is trying to replicate this program using bilateral treaties with individual countries. Arguably, this isn’t only an insurmountable feat, but it’d also delay the extradition requests currently in place. The EAW provides a level of security to police systems trying to track criminals and expedites the process of bringing them to justice. As others have also pointed out, anything less than a perfect replication of the existing system would likely create a security problem for the United Kingdom that could have lasting repercussions.

In a similar vein, ECRIS could be affected by the impending Brexit in two ways, posing problems both to security and to the freedom of U.K. and EU citizens. ECRIS is a comprehensive system comprised of many smaller programs, including, crucially, Prüm, the EU’s biometric data-sharing program that collects fingerprints of all people who use air travel within the EU and tracks vehicles across borders. This is helpful for investigating criminal and terrorist networks because it provides information on the movement of people in and around Europe. The implicit problem, though, is one of personal privacy, which is why the foundational existence of this treaty rests on the checks provided by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. While it’s prudent that the United Kingdom is looking to mimic the program, there’s no legal framework to ensure the privacy enshrined in Article 8. What’s more, what program the United Kingdom might create will be without the benefits of inter-country travel within the EU.

Theresa May appears to be using U.K. information sharing, as well as the partnership between EU and U.K. security institutions, as a political gambit in Brexit negotiations. Political infighting and posturing have the potential to create devastating consequences for Europe’s citizens. In particular, this dangerous game might make the United Kingdom and the EU more vulnerable to attacks and security breaches. Sharing information ought to be something that continues with full cooperation—not bitter rivalry that strains the political bloc’s future.


Kyra Ward is a student at St. Andrews University, where she studies international relations and economics. She was formerly an intern with New America's International Security Program.