Whisper it in the corridors of Westminster, but there is still a world beyond Brexit. A world that includes the realpolitik of Russia and China and Iran, of nation-state cyberwarfare and scattered IS Jihadis, and of the infectious far-right hatred making headlines post-Christchurch. The self-obsessed Brexit intermission from the real world will come to an end, one way or another, and then the U.K. will need to face up to the consequences.
As Theresa May’s cabinet divides and revolts, as the majority of her MPs demand there are no more delays, and as the petition to revoke Article 50 passes 6 million signatures, every option remains on the table but none can yet command a majority in parliament. Time and EU patience is fast running out.
There is no credible argument to be made that a ‘Brexited’ Britain will be safer or more secure than it is now, whatever ‘Leavers’ may claim, even under the most organized of exits. And a no-deal departure would be chaotic, leaving the country vulnerable at home and abroad, creating in the words of one former National Security Adviser “a really serious and immediate problem for British national security”.
But the far greater risk for Britain is a chaotic departure from the EU, followed or preceded by a snap general election that ushers in a Jeremy Corbyn government. Were Corbyn able to muster enough of a like-minded majority, his government would try to consolidate on the split from Europe by distancing itself from the U.S. as well. Britain would then be led by a prime minister described as “a walking rebuke to the past 30 years of British foreign policy,” a prime minister determined to “destroy” the special relationship with the U.S. on security, defense and intelligence sharing, a prime minister who prefers Iran and Russia to NATO.
And that is the perfect storm now looming directly overhead.
Strike One: Leaving the EU on any basis
The arguments in favor of Brexit are political and economic. Politically, the same polarized views of Europe and its bureaucracies have not changed in a generation, they have simply become ever more acute and divisive. The economics are more contentious. Punchy advertising campaigns on the sides of ‘battle buses’ do not automatically translate to reality, however much you might want to believe the rhetoric.
On the security side, though, there are no genuine arguments, embellished or otherwise, there are just varying degrees of bad news. The world is more interconnected. Britain and its allies are ever more reliant on one another. Nation-state sponsored terrorism and cybercrime are borderless, and the responses must be as well. And resources wise, Britain cannot project its military strength as it once did, nor can it defend its shores alone.
“Any form of Brexit makes our security more difficult to manage… the harder the Brexit, the greater the damage,” a former head of MI6 told Sky News. “We’ve been the only country in the world that has been a member of NATO, a member of the European Union and a member of the Five Eyes. It’s given Britain a uniquely powerful and influential position in the world. We’re now kicking away one of those pillars by leaving the European Union.”
According to the chair of the U.K. National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), “EU tools allow us to respond quickly and intelligently to crime and terrorism in the UK and the EU. They make us better at protecting the public… The fall-backs we’re going to have to use will be slower, more bureaucratic and ultimately less effective. It will make it harder for us to protect U.K. citizens and make it harder to protect EU citizens.”
The draft Brexit agreement would guillotine U.K. access to well-established data and process systems after a transitional period. Loss of European Arrest Warrants. Loss of access to the Schengen Information System (SISII). Loss of access to the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS). Sub-optimal border security, prompting the U.K.’s National Audit Office to warn that “organized criminals and others are likely to be quick to exploit any perceived weaknesses or gaps in the enforcement regime.”
And that’s the best-case Brexit scenario, leaving with a deal.
Strike Two: Leaving the EU without a deal
With the level of interconnectedness in modern-day defense and security, and with the intelligence sharing and crime-fighting arrangements the U.K. and its peers rely on, the system is not designed to suffer shocks. It is well known that Brexit preparedness across government functions has been and continues to be woeful. The rabbit was caught in the headlights after the 2016 referendum, and it’s still there. And where some functions might lend themselves to bluster and force of will, defense and crime fighting do not.
“In a no deal scenario,” the U.K. government has said, “there would not be an implementation period. This means that any [security and policing related] operational cooperation that relies on EU tools and instruments at the point of exit, would stop. This would create immediate legal and operational uncertainty with the risk of operational disruption and potential security implications.”
There would be alternative “non-EU mechanisms” in place, but these “would not provide the same level of capability as those envisaged in a deal scenario, and risk increasing pressure on UK security, law enforcement and judicial authorities.” This is critical to UK law enforcement. “In 2017, the UK sent and received over 163,000 requests and notifications for criminal records. That is over 3,000 a week or 600 requests and notifications to and from the EU per working day. Information available through ECRIS supports the UK’s law enforcement agencies in the effective management of violent and sexual offenders.”
The Royal United Services Institute has warned that ‘no-deal’ would mean the U.K. losing access to more than 40 different security systems and databases. As explained by the senior police officer charged with managing these risks: “Some of the pan-European tools that British officers could lose access to have been in use for more than a decade… If we exit the EU without a deal that gets switched off overnight.”
According to Europol’s European Counter Terrorism Centre, “Europe is currently facing a vicious, new form of international terrorism. The clear shift in Islamic State’s strategy of carrying out special forces-style attacks in the international environment, with a particular focus on Europe, as well as the growing number of foreign terrorist fighters, demonstrates the new challenges facing the EU and its Member States.”
Islamic State may have been driven from its territory in Syria, but its ideology remains. And with anything up to 100,000 fighters under its flag, hundreds of whom have now returned to Europe to join the would-be extremists who didn’t travel.
Russia continues to flex its muscles, as seen in Salisbury, and China continues to play the long game. Meanwhile, Iran projects its influence through sponsored political chaos in the Middle East and terrorism further afield. Beyond that are the countless other challenges facing Britain in 2019. Online radicalization and the rise of the far-right. Cybercrime. Drug and people trafficking. The threats from AI and the vulnerabilities of the IoT.
Not the best time to turn off the systems keeping the country safe from harm.
Strike Three – Leaving the EU and electing a Corbyn government
Saving the best for last, whilst the chaos of Brexit – deal or no-deal – would stabilize over several years as new arrangements were put in place, a fundamental rewriting of Britain’s foreign policy, its approach to security and defense, its delineation of allies and enemies, would not. If Corbyn can snatch the keys to Downing Street under cover of Brexit, his priority will be to reverse seventy-years of ‘imperialist’ foreign policy, to orient Britain away from traditional allies and towards the unknown. This has been the consistent theme in his dealings with Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Palestine, NATO, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Corbyn doesn’t believe in defense, the nuclear deterrent, sending troops overseas, gathering and sharing intelligence, NATO, and especially America’s role in the world. None of those form of part of his Marxist doctrine. And so chief amongst his priorities would be ending the special security relationship between Britain and America. As important as European security collaboration might be, the Anglo-American axis and the broader Five Eyes are central to the national security of both countries, but especially the U.K.
When challenged that he doesn’t believe in the ‘special relationship’ with the U.S., Corbyn told an interviewer: “I’m not sure anyone has succeeded in defining it.” And so when Corbyn surprised almost everyone, himself included, by comfortably securing the leadership of his party in 2015, the Washington Post suggested that “he will do his best to sabotage relations with Washington.”
The resolve of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community, combining the U.S., U.K. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has been tested in recent months over Washington’s prohibition on Huawei’s network equipment. The U.K. looked set to follow Europe’s ‘risk mitigation instead of exclusion’ approach, but last week the U.K.’s spy agency published a damning report that makes that less likely. It is hard to imagine Corbyn holding that line.
And, with this in mind, perhaps there was some symbolism in the U.K. veering towards the U.S. on Huawei just days after the European Union appeared to do the opposite. The country’s dedicated Huawei Oversight Board went as far as to say: “We can only provide limited assurance that all risks to U.K. national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks can be sufficiently mitigated long-term.”
And then there’s Russia. Last year, the Director-General of MI5 called out the Kremlin’s “aggressive and pernicious actions by its military and intelligence services,” referring to the alleged nerve agent assassination attempt on U.K. soil.
“In Corbyn, Russia would have the ultimate ‘useful idiot’,” wrote former U.S. assistant secretary of state James Rubin, “a leader of a top NATO government who genuinely believes the alliance should not exist, who blames NATO for tensions with Russia, and who has said he would never follow NATO’s strategy of nuclear deterrence. Kremlin operatives would probably feel like they hit the “power ball” jackpot in a geopolitical lottery.”
As things stand, the Labour Party has finally secured an opinion poll lead, suggesting that combined with the abject chaos within the governing Conservative Party, the prospect of a Corbyn government is much more real than it has been before. Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed to an orderly resignation, but one that might be hastened by the ongoing civil war in her own party. Despite the public petition to revoke Article 50, there is no sign that a second referendum or a change of heart can command a majority in a British Parliament which cannot currently find a majority for any deal or no deal. On April 1, somewhat appropriately, they will all try again.
In truth, the only route a diehard 1970s Marxist, anti-American could take to lead the U.K. would have to look something like this.
Safety in numbers
Last year, MI5’s Andrew Parker talked up the national security benefits for the U.K. from Europe’s common values and partnership. He told an audience in Berlin that the “threat landscape is shared across the nations of Europe, and that is how we [currently] address it.” And whilst the Irish border has been thrust center-stage in Brexit, it is the borderless nature of all these very real threats that makes the chaos of Brexit so dangerous.
Britain’s chief of counter-terrorism policing has reported a record level of activity, and last year told a committee of politicians that “I’d like to tell you we are matched to the current threat, but the reality is we are not.” With 700 ongoing investigations, 3,000 active people of interest and 20,000 people under review, it’s hard to argue.
The security threats against the U.K. have not diminished simply because there is now less media coverage because of Brexit. The same issues that have necessitated increased spend on intelligence and special forces remain. And nothing has yet changed as regards facing those threats – the same collaborative arrangements still remain in place.
Russia. China. Iran. The rise of the far-right. The prospect of hundreds of returning Jihadi fighters. Emerging cyberwarfare capabilities and the accelerating threat from China, buoyed by staggering investments in AI. Reduced defense spending. Withdrawn access to multiple European law enforcement and security databases, the loss of data sharing agreements.
And then, after all that, the U.K. elects a Corbyn government and finds itself isolated from both Europe and America – its two largest security and trading partners, seeking comfort and solace instead from Russia, China, Venezuela and Iran.