Brexit Diplomacy: the Strange Case of Security and Defense

in Diplomatica

The British decision to leave the European Union has created a number of challenges in the security and defense realms. The difficulties with implementing the decision are compounded by the unusual apparatus and haphazard manner by which the so-called Brexit negotiations have been handled on the uk side.


The British decision to leave the European Union has created a number of challenges in the security and defense realms. The difficulties with implementing the decision are compounded by the unusual apparatus and haphazard manner by which the so-called Brexit negotiations have been handled on the uk side.

Brexit – the name given to the uk’s decision to leave the European Union (eu) after the national referendum in June 2016, is a complex, controversial, and highly contentious diplomatic game. The uk’s referendum decision, and the domestic and international politics that followed have much to say to students of diplomacy. They tell us about the nature and effects of membership of a supranational institution upon a state’s political, institutional, cultural and socio-economic identity, and the difficulties of efforts to untangle one state from the international institutions of which it is a member.

Political scientists knew that “Europeanization,” as it is inelegantly called, had penetrated far into the uk’s body politic since the uk joined in 1973. The strands of communication across states, firms, and societies of the eu; the commercial contacts; vast areas of eu legislation and the habits of membership and socialization into the eu cannot be switched off as easily as some had supposed.1 The eu itself also has a web of institutional links with other institutions, including nato. This adds to a patchwork of procedures developed over time, and in the case of internal security provision, procedures that had often grown out of informal international agreements.

It has not been easy to define what exactly drove the Brexit process. Did the stated ambitions of those who wished to leave only relate to a desire for greater state autonomy – the “take back control” argument with freer trade, de-regulation and reduced immigration. The lack of any Brexit strategy beyond simply leaving the eu, and the refusal of the Conservative Cameron administration to make contingency plans in case of a “Leave” vote in 2016, then required a crash course in economic and security/defense institutions, eu law, trade, customs and tariffs, an exercise which quickly made clear the dangers of an unknown future.2 As Parliament and the major parties were also deeply divided on the issue of the eu, it has been the Select Committees of both Houses of Parliament that have been of central importance through their work of scrutinizing the management of the negotiations.

Neither the uk, nor the eu had a clear rulebook for procedure, and there were few precedents upon which to draw.3 We are in a terra incognita for diplomats. A negotiation that might initially have been identified as a classic two-table model, after Putnam, has turned out to be very different.4 In years to come, this whole process will become a goldmine for historians and social scientists.

Traditionally, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (fco) has been the lead department for eu matters, although, as integration has proceed, other departments have become more deeply interwoven into the eu system, including both the Ministry of Defense, and the Home Office. Yet after June 2016 a new Department of State (DExEU) was created overnight, headed by David Davis mp, who turned out to be unable to create and staff the department adequately, and who eventually resigned and was replaced by a largely untried lawyer, Dominic Raab mp, who very soon also resigned. The traditional specialists were frequently left out of the negotiating process.

The policy areas of security and defense were rarely addressed during or after 2016. This may seem strange, as the key tenets of the Brexiters were for the British nation and its Parliament to take back control, to become autonomous if not sovereign, to be independent, and not to be under the “vassalage” of others, to quote one Brexiter. And if a country cannot control its own territory and secure the safety and security of its citizens, the state would indeed be failing in its most basic raison d’être. There are many strands of negotiation in play, and maybe there will eventually be many mini-deals, rather than just one Brexit package. This diplomatic fog has meant that security and defense – which might be expected to be at the centre of a quest for national, independent action, have become something of an exception to the wider pattern of disentangling the uk from the eu.

Why is this so? Why should defense and security – the core underpinnings of the nation-state – have a different negotiating history from the trade, finance, citizenship and other elements of the rest?

The answer has two parts. The first lies in the history of security and defense relations within the eu over time. After World War ii, collective military defense was largely taken care of by nato (1949), which was intended to exist alongside national military forces. After the fiasco of French-led attempts to create a military European Defense Community between 1950–1954, to remain “nested” under the nato umbrella and hence the us, dominated defense thinking and eu norms. Military issues were strictly off limits. This meant that any tentative West European efforts towards defense cooperation precluded actual military activity.5

The uk took a keen interest in promoting a common foreign and security policy from the 1970s onwards, not least as it would, it was thought, be a visible indication of uk leadership inside the eu. European Political Cooperation was a system centered purely upon member state cooperation, and meant the eu’s “supranational” European Commission was not even included in this intergovernmental process until the 1987 Single European Act. Only after the end of the Cold War did the idea emerge that the natural progression of foreign policy competences would have to be the capacity to use force to further policy aims. This was implied in the eu treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam. Even then, the breakthrough did not come until 1998, with the Anglo-French bilateral demarche at St Malo, in which the idea that the eu member states could have access to national military forces for peace keeping, humanitarian and other such tasks. Administrative methods were also slowly devised to allow the eu and nato to work together cooperatively with nation-states. The formal overlap between the member-state Council of Ministers, and the European Commission came with the Lisbon Treaty, when the most senior foreign policy official, the High Representative, held the post as a joint Council-Commission appointment, along with an eu diplomatic service. Having a British citizen, Catherine Ashton, as the first holder of this joint post, meant that the British were on board in a leadership role.

So the high politics of defense and hard security were kept firmly out of the ambit of ec/eu activity until very recently. Military security and defense appear not to be toxic in the same way as other aspects of the eu were to those who wished to leave the EU, except when the idea that a kind of European Army might supplant British national military forces and nato. During the referendum campaign there were some inaccurate claims made about a European Army, but these foreign and security policy issues did not dominate the debate.6 A realistic sense of the requirement of cooperation within nato and with the eu, which has close working links with nato, has continued to be appreciated by British negotiators.

The second part of the reason that security and defense have not touched the national debate in the same way as trade, economic and societal issues have, is more complex. After the Cold War, “security” was increasingly widely defined to include more than simple territorial defense. It was an era of technological developments, and a growing focus upon new issues relating to the security of individuals, international transnational crime and terrorism. The eu began to systematize existing informal cooperation on issues such as terrorism, cross border crime, smuggling, arrest warrants, and other citizen-related issues. This became increasingly inevitable as a single market spread its social consequences across the eu and beyond, and borders became more fungible. Justice and Home Affairs, as it was then called, came onto the eu agenda in the 1990s, reflecting this new appreciation of the transnational varieties of security, and driven by practical necessity in a world of rapidly changing security priorities. The eu bodies multiplied, and there are now over 40 tools for security, including Europol, Eurojust, Schengen ii data systems, the European Arrest Warrant, Passenger Name Records systems, ecris and Prüm data collection systems. These are concerned with data collection, the capacity to arrest and extradite across borders, and preventative work on terrorism and international criminal activity. The British had opted out of Schengen, but decided to opt back in on an ad hoc basis, driven by the practicalities of the system for law enforcement. These institutions and procedures are based upon the legal framework of the eu’s European Court of Justice with which national legal systems have to comply, although the uk now resists continued supremacy of this court.


That security and defense need a long introduction is symptomatic of the difficulties for British negotiators as they unpick the disparate dimensions of the eu as a working security institution.7 The uk places a greater emphasis upon nato, as it draws back from full participation in eu international actions. In this and the Justice and Home Affairs dimension, which delivers security and information in a format that is itself also enmeshed with third countries and non-eu agencies, the uk now aims to insert cooperation from outside, rather than retaining membership inside these institutions. The challenge for both sides is to dovetail eu and national interests into an integrated and constantly evolving but still imperfect system of institutional provision. It is a real challenge to negotiating ideals and to the provision of security across borders for issues which do not fit neatly into national compartments. Compromises may have to be made in the interests of national security, which even Brexiters see cannot be managed by the uk alone in an age of advanced technology and cross border security issues.

This means that there is an unspoken assumption behind the Brexit negotiation to persuade the eu that these areas should be “securitized” as far as possible. This is not a term that appears in public documents, although there is an extensive academic literature on the concept.8 It means that a specific policy is a special case, and thus beyond normal legal and political constraints. Or to put it another way, it seems that the uk assumes, without saying it directly, that security and defense are more sensitive than the rest of Brexit policy. There are advantages to both negotiating partners to sustain the existing security and defense system, even without uk’s eu membership, and this trumps the administrative implications of Brexit in trade and other areas, so has required a different negotiating approach. This could well become part of the “fudge,” or “cherry picking” – essential to reach a settlement in parallel (or subsequent) to the broader Brexit deal, and one that is win-win for European security and defense.

It is not easy to assess exactly how negotiators have handled these policy areas, and the secrecy necessary for some of these negotiations was obvious. Yet it seems extraordinary that, until the summer of July 2018, there had been precisely one hour of top-level discussion with the eu negotiating team on these crucial issues. The public documentation relating to these areas is also relatively thin.9 The most important British document is perhaps that of May 2018, in which the overall negotiating ambition said that the security partnership should be a core chapter of the uk-eu Future Framework.

It should:

  1. provide for close cooperation reflecting the trust and transparency between the uk and eu;
  2. agree a high level of mutual ambition;
  3. respect the autonomy of the Union and the sovereignty of the uk; and
  4. be adaptable and scalable.

To best enable the uk and eu act together, our partnership should be anchored by a combination of political and legal agreements.

That is to say, the relationship should in effect remain the same, despite “respect for sovereignty” and non-membership because of Brexit.10 The contradictions need no elaboration.

The eu-instigated mantra of nothing being decided until everything is decided made it very hard for British negotiators to come to grips with specific technical dimensions of defense and security, when so much is policy-interdependent of itself, and also contingent upon agreement in other areas. So, for example, the aspirations for a separate security treaty with the eu appeared to have been dissipated over the summer of 2018, in favor of a more vague agreement which may then give greater flexibility on detail – and with it, mini-deals.11

It is also abundantly clear that uk negotiators have always felt that Britain’s role in both csdp (external) and jha (internal) security questions has always been one of leading, animating, and playing a proactive role. This is largely accepted, as far as it is possible to see, by the eu negotiators and other eu ministers. One of the most striking examples of such action is the successful and on-going national/eu/nato operation atalanta, to combat piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa in which has had a major British input.12 Others include an appreciation of how the uk works for the comprehensive approach to csdp operations generally through the eu. Yet, to claim a relatively high stake in the ownership of security questions makes the diplomacy surrounding leaving the eu institutions even harder, both for negotiators, but also in the longer term. After Brexit, that treasured British influence will be much harder to sustain as new policy issues emerge, and the international environment, and relations, for example within nato, move on. For example the eu is again trying to strengthen the eu/nato dimension, as well as to develop pesco, and with it the eu’s potential for strategic autonomy, both of which will present long-term problems for the uk over time.13


Two lessons for British diplomacy so far stand out. First, the UK should have understood better the priorities and processes of the EU itself, its necessary legalism and red lines. A negotiation with and not against the EU, could then have approached a win-win outcome across all policy areas. Second, pre-negotiations in Britain itself were vital, but ignored. Domestic opinion still remains key but is generally ill-informed: UK assumptions that it remains an indispensable security/defense leader has mistakenly harbored dangerous illusions at home.

First: Michel Barnier from the European Commission had a clear mandate as the negotiator for the eu. The eu does, will, and indeed should, seek every advantage possible for its remaining members. For “the transition towards [the eu as] a more self-interested security actor will inevitably impact on how the eu sees partners,” and third parties will have to be seen to be acting in the interests of the eu if they are to be involved.14 In a rule-based institution, rules are rules, and this negotiation has been about one member-state, not a general re-design of the eu’s security and defense dimensions. So the options for slicing defense and security away from the wider deal, though essential, were fairly limited. Losing automatic access to Europol data and being relegated to the status of third party “observers” (as the uk would be) does not bode well. The Galileo decision to exclude the uk from the eu’s high-tech satellite surveillance and tracking system was a clear example of the broader eu negotiating interest undermining what uk negotiators must have hoped to be an incremental and ad hoc approach.15

Second: Know thyself. The rather chaotic approach to the negotiations, and the number of public rebuffs the uk has experienced now lies uncomfortably with assumptions about uk leadership in these areas of security and defense. The uk has always “provided considerable […] leadership across the life cycle of missions, from inception to transition and closure. […] This leadership has extended to our proactive approach to the development of thematic initiatives such as the development of the eu frameworks for Security Sector Reform, csdp training policy, and reform of civilian csdp.”16 Leaving will be hard, and outcomes may be sub-optimal for both British and eu security by 2022. However, pm May’s early threat of “weaponizing” defense and security played out very badly, undermining the potential for a win-win negotiating mentality as security was seen by all to be too important to be used as a bargaining chip. By securitizing defense and security, it was clear that British negotiators hope, as some with the eu will no doubt hope as well, that conclusions may be reached which might mitigate the worse effects of leaving the eu even if that “deep and special” relationship so hoped for in London is not secured. Domestic pressures have not built up in this area as yet, but this remains sensitive, and Labour have now raised these security issues publicly.

The agreements on JHA and CSDP areas of uk/eu security have, in the past, taken years and years to put together. Indeed they are still very much work in progress. If no adequate deals are secured, and data and security systems are lost or even temporarily interrupted after the UK leaves, it is widely acknowledged that alternative systems and frameworks like Interpol and the Council of Europe will be less effective. Both sides would be losers if no agreement is reached, but from all that we know, British negotiators are fully aware that the uk’s loss would be the greater, so the British plaideur is in a much weaker position than the eu.


Having only Third Country status outside the EU presents a formidable intellectual, presentational and tactical reverse to established uk (Home Office, fco and Ministry of Defense) activity in this era of increasing Europeanization. The uk is now trying to deal with this by, for example a greater number of diplomatic representatives in Europe (creating 50 more diplomatic postings in Europe already), and by using informal influence, as well as exploiting the opportunities for greater bilateralism. So the uk would have to be more like Norway, or, as one Norwegian specialist observed, listening in at the keyhole, rather than being a full decision-making participant in eu-related security and defense discussions. It is the uk that will have to change the most to adapt to its newfound status.

No one could argue that the existing eu security system is anywhere near perfect. Across all dimensions, it is clearly still a work in progress, and the eu is sometimes scurrying to keep up with the pace of technological and economic change. Yet a botched Brexit in this area could have enormous long-term unintended implications in the management of security, terrorist and civilian protection issues. So the lessons for students of this dimension of Brexit diplomacy that was hardly touched upon in the referendum period, may offer painful academic and policy-related pickings as the events of the following years unfold.

1See, generally, Conway, M., and K. Patel, eds. Europeanization in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010); for social scientific approaches, Bulmer, S., and M. Burch. “­Organising for Europe: Whitehall, the British State and the European Union.” Public Administration 76 (4) (1998), 601–28; Radaelli, C. “The Europeanization of Public Policy.” In The Politics of Europeanization, eds. K. Featherstone and C. Radaelli (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 27–56.
2The term European Union (eu) will be used throughout, although until 1993, eec, and then ec were the technical names for the Union.
3Brexit can be seen as a reverse process of that which had to be invented by the eec for the first enlargement attempt, which was to the United Kingdom between 1961 and 1963. See Ludlow, N. P. Dealing with Britain: the Six and the First uk application to the eec (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
4e.g., Putnam, R. D. “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: the Logic of Two-Level Games.” International Organization 42 (3) (1988), 427–60.
5 Deighton, Anne, ed. Western European Union, 1954–1997: Defence, Security, Integration (Oxford: eiru, 1997).
6See, for example, the letter of Professor Christopher Hill and others deploring the inaccuracies of some Brexiter statements on this, The Times, 30 May 2016.
7Immigration and overseas development, both also security issues in their broader definition, are not discussed here. Neither are nuclear issues, and in that context, the relationship with France.
8E.g., Copenhagen School, and Buzan, B., et al., eds. Security: a New Framework for Analysis (London: Lynne Rienner, 1997).
9See Duke, Simon. Will Brexit Damage Our Security and Defence? (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). eu, European Commission Reflection Document, March 2017; "Negotiating Brexit: Policing and Criminal Justice," Institute for Government, September 2018.
11House of Lords eu Sub Committee on Home Affairs, 12 September 2018 for ministerial remarks on the change.
12The hq for this operation was transferred from the uk to Spain after the 2016 referendum result.
13Audio podcast, Moving to Strategic Autonomy, Mark Leonard and Bastien Giegerich, July 2018, ecfr website.
14Tardy, Thierry. “Revisiting the eu’s Security Partnerships.” Briefing paper, euiss, January 2018.
15, these are the Commission slides of January 2018 on jha. The Government’s response is at staying within the system was considered to be an important test of cooperation and operational sharing under the proposed internal security treaty. The eu’s refusal was a clear marker about the determination of the eu negotiators to sustain the first priority of protection of the eu, despite the possibly counter-productive outcomes that this may bring.

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