The Influence and Stability of the United Kingdom: The National Security Ramifications of a No Deal Brexit

The Influence and Stability of the United Kingdom: The National Security Ramifications of a No Deal Brexit

“Brexit presents a scenario in which, all at once, the UK must: maintain its relevance on the world-stage whilst simultaneously reducing its legislative and policy making influence;  satisfy Scotland’s call to remain; and assuage Northern Ireland’s border concerns. At risk is the fragmentation of its union and a shrinking of its international role”.

by Matthew Wentworth

The referendum campaign leading up to June 2016, which questioned Britain’s continued membership of the European Union (EU), was based on the argument that the United Kingdom (UK) could be a self-governed, self-sustaining, wholly independent nation, free from the limiting bureaucracies of the EU, and stronger out. After the result these promises waned and now, whatever Brexit brings, Britain’s leaving of the EU could prove to be a rare historical turning point for the UK and a tectonic shift in European Security. If the UK fractures it could lead to diminishing fiscal and political capacity in terms of national security policy making[1]. These concerns are based on the detrimental effect Brexit could have to Britain’s influence both globally and within multilateral institutions, as well as the increased possibility of the break-up of the UK through Scottish independence or the reunification of Ireland.

The placement of UK officials is the first direct global status ramification of the UK becoming a third-state outside of the EU. Absent a deal, the UK Defence Minister will no longer take part in meetings of EU Defence Ministers and will therefore not be involved in decision-making or planning EU defence and security. British personnel currently hold senior positions within major bodies like Europol, the loss of which would significantly affect the British ability to exercise leverage and influence in the development of European security agencies like Europol, which many currently consider a British-friendly institution[2]. Even a soft Brexit will come at a price to overall UK security. Britain will lose both power and influence by no longer having a say in EU legislation addressing terrorism, crime, foreign policy, or security.

Perhaps more concerning, however, is that the UK’s diminished capacity may not be limited to influence within the EU but could extend further to bodies like NATO. Brexit will certainly not change the fact that NATO is Britain’s multilateral defence forum of choice; in fact, the government champions a ‘renewed emphasis in NATO on deterrence and collective defence’ in what it labels a worsened security environment[3]. The assumption that many make with regard to the UK being able to use NATO to rebalance its security role in Europe however is unsound. The UK will undoubtedly lose influence within NATO after the inevitable appointment of a non-British Deputy Supreme Allied Commander to Europe, the first amongst many other likely changes, which will be a blow to the UK’s global standing in symbolic terms at the very least.

If British global influence is eroded, then current arrangements with allies like the US are also likely to suffer. Britain is considered an intelligence superpower due to UK intelligence-sharing arrangements with the US and membership in the Five Eyes Network[4]. Historically however, the security role of the UK in the EU was favoured greatly by Washington who saw the value of the UK as deriving at least in part from its EU membership. This influence cannot be replicated via NATO – meaning the UK cannot necessarily count on being ‘America’s closest partner’ indefinitely as British Prime Minister Theresa May has maintained[5]. The US intelligence community might begin to see the UK as a diminishing asset and opt to reach for another, more stable, ally for fear that the UK might disintegrate or lose access to EU intelligence[6].

This idea of political instability within the UK is recognised by many, both domestically and internationally, with the ostensible exception of the UK government itself. The months immediately following the referendum in the UK saw a Cabinet reshuffle, leadership contests and, eventually, a general election. This election cost the Conservative Party their majority at the expense of sizeable Labour gains and forced them to turn to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to maintain their ruling position. Since this general election, the Cabinet alone has suffered no less than 23 resignations over the Brexit issue, including two Brexit Secretaries and the Foreign Secretary. We have also seen two narrowly won votes of no confidence based purely on the Brexit negotiations: one in Mrs May, as the leader of the Conservative Party; and one in the Government itself. Political instability of this kind does not a secure nation make.

The disjointed strategies, lack of consensus, and infighting displayed are not restricted simply to Westminster, but stretch to the Union at large. The different referendum results witnessed in Scotland and Northern Ireland (NI) compared to England and Wales increase the danger to the currently delicate fabric of the UK[7]. Firstly, the Scottish issue forces one to consider whether the Scottish people will stand for being removed from the EU by Westminster against their expressed will. If Scottish voters assert that they stand to gain more from the EU than the British Union, then the UK could become still less united. Whilst this issue was muted in recent months, the growing prospect of a no deal exit has driven Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to confirm that she will reveal plans for a second Scottish independence referendum after this phase of the Brexit negotiations has ended[8]. In discussing these plans, Mrs Sturgeon recently confirmed her vision for an independent Scotland that would apply for EU membership within the next five years[9]. The success of Scotland’s application to rejoin the EU would be dependent on both economic and political variables, but the point remains that Westminster’s wilful ignorance of Scotland’s resolve to remain is fuelling stronger calls for self-governance.

Scottish independence would bring more than just concerns regarding the break-up of the Union, it will also bring with it practical security implications. Scotland and Scottish bases form a crucial part of the UK’s air defence perimeter and maritime zone[10]. Multiple major platforms for building and storing warships, munitions, and naval heavy weapons would be at risk. Independence could also mean losing facilities such as Britain’s Trident Force, directly affecting the UK’s nuclear deterrent capabilities. The political and fiscal costs of moving this base elsewhere in the UK or to an overseas territory make it potentially infeasible. Though 55.3% of Scots voted to remain as part of the UK in the 2014 referendum, attitudes amongst the Scottish people might be swayed back to independence as a result of Westminster’s continued disregard for the Scottish stance on Brexit, and the probable recession resulting from leaving the EU. Further fuelling this call is the potential for a violent reopening of the Irish Question, which is a distinct possibility in the ever-increasing likelihood of a botched Brexit[11].

The troubled violent history in NI coupled with the fact that the government still considers there to be a present threat of NI related terrorism create a fragile environment in which to negotiate change. This fragility is compounded by the fact that the current Conservative government is propped up by ten pro-Brexit DUP members insistent on NI leaving the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK, scuppering the previously proposed backstop arrangements. Failure to satisfy the DUP concerns would likely result in their withdrawal from the confidence and supply arrangement they hold with Mrs May’s government, leaving a ruling party with no majority.

In the event of a no deal scenario, it is difficult to envisage anything but the recreation of a real, as opposed to virtual, border between the Republic of Ireland and NI which defies the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The type of border that emerges is extremely important for the UK’s national security, as undermining of the rules in place governing the border amounts to an undermining of the agreement itself[12]. There is a consensus that anything which upsets the delicate status-quo of NI’s political environment could cue a resurgence of dissident paramilitary activity and further national security concerns for the UK[13]. The vote for remain in NI signifies that opinion there might be disjointed with that of England and Wales, potentially giving greater priority to links with the Republic whilst simultaneously breeding a new polarisation along sectarian lines: another example of how Brexit has made the Union more fragile[14].

The extent of the UK’s post-Brexit strategic vision amounts to a determination for a ‘Global Britain’. The plan however has no more structure than that empty phrase; it is a goal unlikely to be attained by seceding from the EU[15]. Far from elevating the UK to new heights, the Brexit process has thus far suggested the UK’s retreat from world affairs and a shrinking of Britain’s international role through diminished capacity in NATO, no say in EU policy, and a potentially weakened intelligence relationship with the US. The turmoil surrounding the political management of Brexit could also have dire consequences for the stability of the UK itself. Mrs May’s precarious majority looks to be in constant jeopardy, and Westminster’s alienation of the Scottish people, coupled with the impossibility of delivering a hard Brexit which is compatible with the Good Friday Agreement, might prove as deciding factors in the weakening of the stability of the UK through either Scottish Independence, a unified Ireland, or both.

1. Blagden, D. (2017) Britain and the world after Brexit. International Politics. 54(1), pp.1–25.
2. Dawson, J. (2017) Brexit: implications for national security. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
3. Cabinet Office (2018) National Security Capability Review. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
4. Inkster, N. (2016) Brexit, Intelligence and Terrorism. Survival. 58(3), pp.23-30.
5. May, T. (2018) PM Speech at Munich Security Conference 17 February 2018. Munich Security Conference, Munich.
6. Konstantopoulosa, I.L., and J.N. Nomikos (2017) Brexit and intelligence: connecting the dots. Journal of Intelligence History.16(2), pp. 100-107.
7. Macpherson, N. (2016) The case for Scottish independence looks stronger post-Brexit. Financial Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2019].
8. Nutt, K. (2019) Nicola Sturgeon set to unveil indyref2 plans soon. The National. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jan. 2019].
9. McLaughlin, M. (2019). Scotland will be independent in five years, declares Sturgeon. The Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Feb. 2019].
10. Blagden, “Britain and the world after Brexit,” 11.
11. Heisbourg, F. (2016) Brexit and European Security. Survival. 58(3), pp.13-22.
12. Duke, S. (2018) Will Brexit Damage our Security and Defence?: The Impact on the UK and EU. Cham: Springer Nature.
13. Morrow, D., and J. Byrne. (2016) Playing Jenga? Northern Ireland after Brexit. Political Insight. 7(2), pp.30-31.
14. Gamble, A. (2018) Taking back control: the political implications of Brexit. Journal of European Public Policy. 25(8), pp.1215-1232.
15. Duke, “Will Brexit Damage our Security and Defence?,” 92

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