How Does Brexit Affect Britain’s Security?

The short answer is, quite simply, it doesn’t. The longer answer is more nuanced; any military capability the EU would and could extend to the United Kingdom is vastly overshadowed by the superior capabilities of the US-dominated NATO, and the UK by itself has a more secure intelligence network as well as a better relationship with the US and the rest of the so-called “Five Eyes.”

To start with an overview of the military aspect of the discussion, the EU has eighteen multinational “Battlegroups” in place, with two on standby at any given point in time, as well as the ability to call to action up to 15 Brigades from its member nations within 60 days. The EU would struggle to call up more than two battlegroups at a time, or three to five thousand soldiers. Even deploying every asset they had, the EU would have only around one hundred thousand soldiers. NATO encompasses the entirety of the militaries of its member nations, and has a coherent command structure in place to coordinate the forces of the various militaries in the event that war should break out.

NATO is the provider of security for Western and Central Europe with a budget of over a trillion in US dollars and close to 3.3 million service members, making it the largest military alliance in history. The EU can requisition NATO assets if a crisis were to break out, but as part of the Berlin Plus Agreement, NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander of Europe (DSACEUR) assumes control of the operation. Were this to happen today, it would be General Sir Adrian Bradshaw of the British Army, who spoke at my school in late February about NATO security strategies for the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The aftermath of the attacks in Paris and Brussels revealed startling weaknesses in the intelligence capabilities of European security services. Despite being able to identify the perpetrators “within minutes,” that the attacks occurred at all is a monumental failure. Furthermore, Salah Abdeslam, one of the culprits in the Paris attacks, was found no more than a few blocks away from his family apartment in Molenbeek with a stash of weapons according to CNN and TIME magazine. In an article published on the 24th March 2016, the UK Guardian stated:

Intelligence-gathering in Europe is comparable to the military situation. The only military force that really matters is the US-led NATO alliance. There is as yet no sign of an EU army.

The alliance that matters is the “Five Eyes”, the most powerful intelligence-gathering alliance in the world.

“Five Eyes,” or FVEY, has its historic roots in the UKUSA Agreement of May 1946 as outlined in document HW 80_4 in the National Archives. Arguably, its history goes even further than that, tracing origins in US and Commonwealth collaborative efforts to crack Enigma and the Japanese “Purple” codes (projects Ultra and Magic). It later developed into an intelligence sharing network between the US and Commonwealth’s communications intelligence agencies, that is the US National Security Agency(NSA), British General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ),  the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), and the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).  These organisations agreed to share all of their data with each other by default, and also agreed to not spy on each other. According to PBS, common language, culture, and legal systems all play a role, but most importantly there is total trust and an expectation of full candour.

FVEY is based around the interception, acquisition, collection, analysis, and decryption of communications information. It is done according to the strengths and weaknesses of each organization, and the practice of burden-sharing is prevalent (that is to say, one service can hand info off to another better suited to handling its specific nature). According to Privacy International, cooperation between the 5 is so complete that oftentimes the national product is indistinguishable.

There is also a general understanding that citizens of the member nations will not be directly targeted for observation, and that accidental intercepts will be minimally used. Partially due to FVEY, the United Kingdom has one of the most robust intelligence services in existence, and even those arguing against Brexit agree, David Cameron in his speech on the 9th May on strength and security stated that Britain’s security network is “second to none.”

Despite the myriad of security risks politicians promised would come up in the wake of Brexit, it is doubtful that anything serious will occur that will prove an existential threat to the United Kingdom. Realistically, the security threats facing the UK don’t change at all, and the assets and allies who are required by common treaty to come to her aid should the worst happen are mostly unchanged.

The EU exclusive members of Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden all barely have a military if their defence budget GPD percentages are any indication, so there is little the EU has that NATO does not. It is readily apparent that Britain does not need the EU for security, as the EU needs NATO in order to be taken seriously. I would say to my British friends that their security is no more threatened than it was before they voted to leave the EU.


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