What Does Brexit Mean for European and British Security?

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Professor Brendan Simms believes Brexit would be a catastrophe capable of setting in motion a chain reaction that could break the E.U. apart

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On June 23, the United Kingdom will vote on whether to stay in the European Union. A British exit from the E.U., or “Brexit,” stands to have immense ramifications, not only for Britain, but for the E.U. as a whole.

Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University and founder of the Project for Democratic Union, believes that Brexit would start a chain reaction that would pose grave security threats for the West. Professor Simms told Parallax that “if Britain votes to leave on June 23rd, it could be the first domino that triggers a succession of national withdrawals, causing the E.U. to split apart.”

Military planners, counter-terrorism experts, central bankers, pollsters, and European historians all agree that the E.U. currently faces grave internal and external threats. Militarily, Putin’s Russia arguably poses the greatest conventional military threat to the continent’s borders since the end of the Cold War. From a counter-terror perspective, ISIS’s capabilities in Europe are still increasing. Economically, problems remain unresolved regarding bad loans to southern members, such as Greece. And all the while, pollsters tracking the opinions of European citizens note that the number of anti-E.U. populists, mostly from the extreme Right, grow yearly.

Historians note that for any political union to succeed it must not only forge shared financial, military, and administrative institutions, but the union must also create a shared identity. However, according to Professor Simms, the European Union has never generated a truly shared sense of identity, and whatever minimal strides it has made among Europe’s many nationalities and linguistic groups may be on the verge of fully unraveling due to the recent uptick in nationalism and populism.

Britain is the E.U.’s militarily strongest member. For Simms, should Britain choose to regain its sovereignty and reassert its separate national identity, it would constitute a ‘legislative Dunkirk’ – referring to the evacuation of British troops in 1940 after the German blitzkrieg through Belgium, in the wake of which France was occupied by the Nazis.

Simms says Brexit would deal a severe political and psychological blow to a Union that is already in a weakened state. “It would also bolster those who wish the Union ill,” said Simms, “such as the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, who would eagerly copy developments across the Channel by pushing for a French vote to leave the Union.”

Professor Simms believes the effect of Brexit on Britain’s security would, however, be primarily indirect – felt only as blowback from the chaos it would create on the continent. In his new book, Britain’s Europe (Penguin), Simms argues that a power vacuum on the European continent has always boded ill for British security. Throughout history the British have sought to maintain the balance of power on the European continent and to prevent the rise of a malevolent hegemon which could seek to fill a power vacuum.  “Both Putin and ISIS are eager for Brexit and the ensuing vacuum,” he says.

Simms stresses that to face the security threats to the continent, the European states must unite into a United States of Europe forging not only the ever-closer Union to which the treaty architecture of the European Union binds them, but a single sovereign state with one military, one parliament, and one administrative language. And yet as the E.U. has struggled to deal with the challenges of the last few years, its members have eschewed greater Union and instead are pursuing divergent policies towards Putin, Greece, ISIS, Syria, etc. Hence, at just the moment that, according to Professor Simms, Europe needs to become more united, one of its most essential members is threatening to leave.

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  • Professor Brendan Simms believes Brexit would be a catastrophe capable of setting in motion a chain reaction that could break the E.U. apart
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Hans Kundnani argues that Brexit would be largely neutral for Europe's security architecture

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For most Britons, their primary concerns regarding Britain’s membership in the European Union are domestic. Hence, the questions they ask about a British exit from the E.U., or “Brexit,” pertain to domestic economic issues:  Will leaving the E.U. create more jobs and wealth? Will recovering the money which Britain pays monthly to Brussels, offset the potential loss of European investment and trade? Will being able to keep low-skilled Eastern European migrants out of Britain safeguard British working class jobs?

For Hans Kundnani, the Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, it is unsurprising that the British electorate is concentrated primarily on the domestic and economic implications of Brexit, rather than the broader picture of European security. Kundnani himself doesn’t believe the E.U. will break apart if Britain leaves or that any fundamental changes in the continent’s hard security issues will ensue.

Unlike Professor Brendan Simms, Hans Kundnani does not see Brexit as catastrophic. “Simms conceives the Brexit vote as a dramatic choice between a path that hopefully leads towards full political union for the continental members of the E.U. or the complete breakup of the European project in the wake of a British exit.”

Speaking to Parallax, Kundnani said, “I don’t think Brexit would have many immediate implications in the security field, because NATO – and not the E.U. – is the primary vehicle for dealing with European defense, and Britain will remain an active member of NATO no matter what happens. Putin might well welcome Brexit, but it’s hard to see how he would be able to seize any military advantage from it.”

“Yes, the E.U. was the vehicle for imposing sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea, but even if it left the E.U., the British will continue to go along with the sanctions – just as other countries such as the Japanese do. In fact, if Britain was not a member of the Union, it might adopt an even tougher stance towards Putin.”

From Kundnani’s perspective, Britain is only a minor player in the two main challenges that will ultimately determine the future of Europe – the migrant crisis and the currency crisis. Britain is neither in the Eurozone nor has its GDP suffered as much as Eurozone members as a result of the Euro crisis and Greek bailout. Similarly, Britain’s non-participation in the Schengen visa-free area and its island geography mean that it will never host a large part of the refugees who make to Europe.

Kundnani told Parallax, “If after a Brexit vote other E.U. member states demand their own referendums and even vote to leave the E.U., it will be because they are unhappy with the E.U. for other reasons, not as a consequence of Brexit as such.”

From Kundnani’s viewpoint, the German political class, in general, and Angela Merkel, in particular, want desperately for Britain to remain in the Union. Kundnani argues in his book, The Paradox of German Power (Hurst/Oxford University Press), that Brexit would reinforce Germany’s current status as the “semi-hegemon” of the continent, just as it was from 1871-1945. “The stronger Germany is perceived to be, the weaker it will be in actuality as coalitions of other member states gang up against it,” Kundnani told Parallax.

To his mind, this is a paradoxical danger for Europe of a Brexit: the destabilizing implications of an empowered Germany. As such, the Germans might fear themselves becoming too powerful, and this could partially explain why Angela Merkel has bent over backwards to prevent the British from leaving the Union.

Kundnani said, “British Prime Minister David Cameron has already achieved significant concessions from the E.U. on issues like delaying benefits to migrants from other E.U. member states and the symbolic issue of Britain becoming exempt from the treaty clause concerning ever-closer union. Merkel was a pivotal figure in securing these concessions. She hopes these guarantees of a special status will keep the U.K. in the Union.”

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  • Hans Kundnani argues that Brexit would be largely neutral for Europe's security architecture
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Leading Brexit intellectual Dr. Richard North believes Brexit will allow the UK to make foreign policy more efficiently

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One of the European Union’s core purposes is to standardize laws and regulations across the continent – and in so doing spread the values that the E.U. prizes like human rights, bans on genetically modified foods, etc. For Dr. Richard North, this approach fails to take into account divergent national circumstances. North is the author of The Great Deception: Can the European Union Survive? (Continuum Books). He also authors the website EU Referendum, heads the Leave Alliance and calls for a market-based method for Britain to leave the EU, termed Flexit.

North believes that no matter how carefully crafted E.U. regulations are, they can never be satisfactorily implemented across the Union, due to what he terms “regulatory hysteresis.”

For North, this “hysteresis” exists because the capacity of local officials in different countries to implement laws is fundamentally different. Italian local government, for example, is frequently infiltrated by the mob, state institutions in Italy are less than two centuries old, and there are vast divergences between the wealthy post-industrial areas of northern Italy and the poorer agrarian areas of southern Italy. Conversely, Denmark has been a unified polity for over a millennium, its laws are implemented coherently throughout the country, and its welfare policies give the state great reach into molding people’s lives.

As a result of these varying historical trajectories, E.U.-wide regulations are bound to create inefficiencies and unforeseeable consequences when implemented across the varied nations of the Union. For North, it is clear that Brussels bureaucracy cannot craft one set of laws that will simultaneously work in Denmark, Britain, Italy, and Estonia.

This problem, according to North, is even worse when it comes to foreign policy. North believes that the E.U. cannot possibly be nimble enough to deal with real world geopolitics. He notes that whenever the E.U. faces a security threat, its jumble of agencies at the national and supranational levels formulate mutually contradictory policies to meet the challenge. This reality, North says, has led to the failure of E.U. policy towards the Syrian refugee crisis and Libya’s reconstruction.

Richard North advocates a “Leave” vote as the only way for Britain to not get dragged down by the E.U.’s flawed institutions.

If Britain would return to her roots as the world’s first parliamentary democratic nation-state, according to North, she would be able to formulate better and more “implementable” policies. Britain staying in the E.U., on the other hand, is like refusing to leave a sinking ship. Being hamstrung by the E.U. is, therefore, perilous for British and Western security. The E.U., according to North, will eventually succumb to the currency crisis, the migrant crisis, Putin, the Islamic State, or some combination of these and other threats.

North says he is not deluded into thinking that Brexit would allow Britain to return to a “glorious Imperial past” or immediately make a dramatic shift in foreign policy. He told Parallax, “a post-Brexit re-alignment towards the Commonwealth is a fantasy. Those nations have moved on. Furthermore, Britain’s biggest trading partner will remain the E.U. And to be able to access the E.U. market tariff-free, as non-E.U. member Norway does, Britain will have to agree to the ‘four freedoms’.” The E.U.’s “four freedoms” are the freedom of movement, workers, capital, and providing of services.

Rather than a great divergence, on the day after Brexit, North envisions that, “Britain and the E.U. would be like two trains departing Clapham Junction simultaneously. Both would be heading at roughly the same speed and on roughly parallel trajectories. Only later would their speeds and directions diverge.” And according to Dr. North, the British train would likely proceed efficiently, while the Brussels train would be forced into many detours and reversals.

“Brexit should not be about initiating a drastic foreign policy change on day one,” North said, “but rather about allowing Britain to function in a more democratic and efficient way. This will improve both British and European security.”



For more articles and media by Jason Pack click here.

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  • Leading Brexit intellectual Dr. Richard North believes Brexit will allow the UK to make foreign policy more efficiently
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