Brexit and Global Security
Brexit and Global Security
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Pro-EU demonstrators hold a British Union flag and an EU flag during a pro-EU referendum event at Parliament Square in London, Britain, on 19 June 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall
Pro-EU demonstrators hold a British Union flag and an EU flag during a pro-EU referendum event at Parliament Square in London, Britain, on 19 June 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall
Commentary / Global 7 minutes

Brexit and Global Security

Britain’s vote to quit the European Union could not have come at worse moment for a bloc that is struggling with a slew of major challenges. London’s break with Brussels will be a huge distraction for European leaders grappling with Russia’s assertiveness, the chaos in North Africa and the Middle East, terrorist attacks on their own soil and the humanitarian and political consequences of the refugee crisis.

None of these problems will go away while the terms of Brexit are hammered out. Most are likely to get worse. The EU needs not only to deal with Britain, but also to get a grip on the threats along its eastern and southern flanks. If it does not do so, it may succeed in getting a good bargain with London, only to find that it has allowed dangerous instability to grow to unmanageable levels on its periphery.

Britain itself has an interest in ensuring that the drama over its departure does not exacerbate other crises around Europe. Inside or outside the EU, London cannot insulate itself from terrorist attacks or Russian pressures. Even proponents of leaving the EU insist that they want to retain a strong voice in European security debates. This week, a battered Prime Minister David Cameron will attend the NATO summit in Warsaw in a bid to reassure his fellow leaders that the UK still matters.

NATO has taken steps to counter Russia’s military probes along its borders and subtler forms of hybrid warfare, and the UK has been a leading proponent of these. But Europe needs broader diplomatic, humanitarian and development efforts to tackle the noxious mix of state collapse, jihadist violence and humanitarian crises spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. The EU’s leaders should not let Brexit stop them from tackling these issues – and Britain could propose bold ideas to deal with these crises as a sign of good faith in its inevitably difficult talks with the EU.

Europe, after all, needed to polish up its crisis management well before Brexit.

Since the Arab revolutions, decision-makers in EU capitals have responded to challenges on their borders in an ad hoc fashion. Paris seized the lead in bombing Libya, infuriating many of its NATO allies. There have been recurrent divisions over how tough to be with Russia over Ukraine. Berlin, Paris and London have sparred over how to handle Syria – with Germany generally at the most cautious end of the spectrum and the French at the opposite – allowing the United States, Russia and regional powers to shape the conflict, increasingly marginalizing European officials.

Worst of all, no member of the EU has proved capable of asserting real leadership over the refugee crisis.  Italy, panicked by the chaos in the Mediterranean, sounded the alarm early on, but many northern European governments were slow to respond. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gambled by offering succor to large numbers of Syrians last year, but suffered politically and alienated many other EU members as a result. Migration remains the greatest threat to the bloc’s solidarity.

Britain has at best been an unsteady performer amidst Europe’s current turbulence. It stood with France over the Libya intervention but, as President Obama noted earlier this year, Prime Minister Cameron “became distracted by a range of other things.” British officials grumbled in private that, once the initial Libyan war was won, London rapidly slashed its diplomatic and intelligence engagement in the country, leaving it more or less blind to the chaos that engulfed it in 2013 and 2014.

The UK was an early advocate of a firm stance towards Damascus in 2011, but Cameron’s authority over Syria was holed when parliament voted against military action during the 2013 chemical weapons crisis. Cameron’s critics have also faulted him for playing a limited diplomatic role over Ukraine, although Britain has been a proponent of EU sanctions against Russia and retooling NATO’s deterrent posture.

Mr. Cameron’s two governments have performed better in other areas. The UK has invested heavily in rebuilding Somalia, a grinding process that has nonetheless made some progress. It has defended development and humanitarian assistance while many other EU members were eviscerating their aid budgets in the name of austerity, and it has stood by its 2% defense spending commitment to NATO. In a welcome move, the UK has recently reinvigorated its support for UN peacekeeping.

Nonetheless, neither the UK nor the other main European powers have hit upon a fully convincing formula for facing new challenges. The EU institutions, including its External Action Service, have made significant contributions to addressing problems such as inter-ethnic tensions in Kosovo and piracy off the coast of Somalia, but their leverage and impact varies crisis by crisis. Just after the British referendum, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini released a detailed if ill-timed Global Strategy aimed at guiding the bloc’s foreign and security policy in the years ahead. It sensibly emphasizes steps to manage crises in Europe’s neighborhood – with a focus on getting into the weeds of local tensions and pulling together coalitions of non-Western partners to handle crises – that offer a decent basis for better EU actions.

But given the overall muddle around Brexit, these good intentions will only become realities if France, Germany and other leading EU players give them momentum. Getting ahead of the curve in handling future crises will require European states to invest in three spheres of activity, involving the UK as and when they are able to.

The first is reinforcing political relationships and sources of information across North Africa and Middle East, in addition to Russia and its neighbors, to gain insights into future crises. This is not just about intelligence agencies, although they can be helpful. Studies of European governments’ unpreparedness for both the Arab uprisings and the Ukrainian crisis have emphasized basic gaps in their diplomatic capacities – such as Arabic and Russian speakers, and investments in analysis and forecasting – that hampered their responses. Europe should invest more in filling these gaps, deploying more diplomats in trouble spots to monitor and act on threats.

Secondly, European powers must learn from their errors in handling the upsurge in refugees. This is a challenge with many dimensions: humanitarian, developmental and peace and security. It is also infused with a toxic domestic cocktail of rising nationalism in Europe, economic insecurity, a hysterical media and populist politics.

Europe has already lost a great deal of international sympathy for its poor handling of refugees and migrants. With the exception of Chancellor Merkel, few EU leaders have appeared to grasp the full scale of the crisis: today, one out of every 122 people on the planet is fleeing violence. Having failed to get ahead of the disaster in the Mediterranean, EU leaders have fallen back on stopgap solutions – such as throwing up border fences – that have been counterproductive and split the Union. The UN and major aid organizations have condemned the EU’s deal with Turkey on sending back Syrian refugees as inhumane. Now the Union is working with notorious regimes like Sudan to halt refugees and migrants making their way towards Europe.

These measures will not stop the crisis. Instead, European leaders need to be more responsible about protecting the rights of refugees on their soil, while working harder to halt or ease the conflicts that drive them into flight. While Europe has been generous in its humanitarian support to refugees, given the scale of the problem – and the risks presented to the stability of many frontline countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – this funding still needs to be ramped up further.

Finally, European officials should be planning ahead for the hefty long-term tasks and costs of stabilizing the broken states on the EU’s periphery – including Libya, Syria and Yemen – over a period that is more likely to last decades than years. After Iraq and Afghanistan, few European military or civilian officials relish post-conflict reconstruction, but they have no choice but to invest in rebuilding their neighbors.

There is an irony here. Of the EU’s current members, few have invested as much time and energy in preventive diplomacy, humanitarian response and long-term peacemaking as the UK, for all its errors and inconsistencies. If the British people had voted to remain in the EU on 23 June, it is fair to assume that UK officials would have been very active in shaping the Union’s future thinking on cases such as Libya.

This expertise risks being lost to the EU. But perhaps there is an opportunity here.

As the UK enters the tortuous process of renegotiating its relations with Europe, London could make a positive impression by offering to sign off an early pledge of continued cooperation on conflict prevention and stabilization issues with the EU before and after Brexit – possibly accompanied with a list of specific plans to reinforce joint efforts on top-line issues like bolstering Ukraine and post-conflict planning for Syria. If the UK and its counterparts were able to make such an early bargain, it would not only help the EU and NATO handle the crises on their peripheries, but also possibly improve the atmosphere in more general Brexit talks. Eastern members of the EU and the Nordic countries, which tend to see Britain as a natural ally in strategic discussions, might be especially pleased by such a gambit.

Even before Brexit negotiations, there will be opportunities for Europe to show a common front. In September, world leaders will convene in New York to address the plight of refugees and migrants. Europe would do well to take the lead with a generous package of direct assistance and financial aid for the displaced. The UK should make a point of being at the forefront of this effort, demonstrating that it and its allies remain committed to both European values and the international order.

Once outside the EU, Britain will continue to have good political and security reasons to show its commitment to European crisis management. Doing so may not mitigate the social and economic disruptions of Brexit. But whatever troubles lie ahead for the UK and the EU, European leaders will face an even worse strategic picture if they look inward and allow crises in their near abroad to fester unresolved.

This article was also published as a Brexit Analysis by Edelman, the global communications company.


Former Director of London Office and Senior Advocacy Adviser
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Richard Gowan
Crisis Group Consultant

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