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UK and EU Intelligence Communities in an Age of Durable Disorder After Brexit

UK and EU Intelligence Communities in an Age of Durable Disorder After Brexit

Giangiuseppe Pili (Dublin City University)

Brexit is a major challenge for the present and future security policy of both the UK and the EU. Indeed, all the different possible scenarios show that Brexit will pose several issues inside the current security environment. The consequences will, however, vary depending on the result of Brexit. As it was clearly stated by Federico Fabbrini in The institutional Consequences of “Hard Brexit” (p. 19): “If the UK were to leave the EU without a deal that maintains the current level of integration in the field of security and justice, criminal justice and law enforcement cooperation would be significantly affected”. It is impossible to know what the result of the current discussion and negotiations within the UK and the EU will be. Yet, we can safely state that the level of uncertainty will increase, especially regarding the still unclear relations between the European and UK intelligence communities.

There is a deep debate on the role of intelligence inside democracy. There is nonetheless no doubt that intelligence, as a government institution, is fundamental for the security of the EU Member States. The problem, of course, is centered on the nature of the integration of the different national intelligence agencies within the EU. Intelligence agencies are still considered at the core of the sovereignty of the states, so to say that intelligence is perceived as a national wealth that is based on a national culture, which is different by all the others. Anthony Glees, professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies (BUCSIS), stated clearly that “In an important sense, intelligence agencies symbolise national sovereignty, and certainly prior to the London attacks of July 2005, UK agencies were ultra-cautious about working together on an EU rather that bilateral basis”, (Glees (2017), p. 71). This could be less true for other EU countries, but the perception of intelligence as a central element the sovereignty capacity of each Member State remains still strong. This does not mean that the EU Member states have not in the past shared information, but it underlines the tension inside the still complex discussion about Brexit. Although there is an ongoing debate on sharing information, the UK and EU agreed and still agree in its relevance and importance. As Glees pointed out: “[T]he sharing of intelligence to keep European states as safe as possible has become so vital that it could be argued (and is argued here) that Brexit or no Brexit, it has to be in the interests of the UK and the EU27 that it should continue. However, if this does not happen, it will be the removal of the UK from these practical ways of sharing intelligence that will have the biggest impact both on Britain’s security and intelligence agencies and on those of the EU27”. (p. 71). As it is well known everywhere in the open societies, the legitimacy and political justification of intelligence is conceived as ‘a paradox’ or as ‘an ambiguity’ by many (scholars included). And then we see a new paradox here: intelligence sharing is considered fundamental to deal with the several threats and, at the same time, it is still not fully employed because all the different States consider intelligence too valuable and too ‘national’ to be fully disclosed even to other allies. Brexit will clearly/evidently not help in the process of a full and effective intelligence information sharing insofar as it brings friction into a still very delicate process. In order to try to mitigate possible tensions, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May, nevertheless, hopes that the UK could be “the best friend and neighbor to our European partners”.

Brexit puts friction into a difficult, vital process that is intelligence surveillance and intelligence sharing inside and outside EU and UK. This is the current state of affairs and all the actors involved have to deal with it. However, although it is clearly impossible to have a good prevision of the near future – let’s put aside an intermediate time range –, it is still possible to try to understand the evolving situation. The strategy could simply be to avoid defining the future, limiting our attention to frame the limits in which all the actors (mainly the UK, the EU and the US) will deal with. In this way, a coherent picture could emerge.

First, UK will not leave the shores of the European continent to go nearer to the US. This simple factual statement has different implications. Indeed, Brexit poses a set of problems to Ireland. As Kenneth McDonagh recently argued: “For Ireland, the aftermath of the Brexit vote has been particularly challenging. The Irish government has received credit for the way in which it has managed the Brexit negotiations to date, particularly in getting our [Irish] European partners to strongly support the Irish position on the border. But the reduced room for maneuver for small states, in an EU that it is more dominated by France and Germany than previously, needs to be taken into account”. Therefore, the Irish position cannot be ‘neutral’ anymore. The Northern Ireland conundrum is even more challenging, as far as possible scenarios could open a new time of violence. The same factual reality sets the stage for a new relationship between the UK and France as far as the UK will still share the English Channel with France. Indeed, although some scholars argued for a future of renewed US-UK ‘special relationship’, at the end of the day, the UK will need to stay in tuned with the intelligence and security mood of the other side of the channel. This is true for the UK and France and it is even truer for the rest of the EU.

Second, according to Sean McFate, we live in an age of durable disorder in which the Westfalian system is retreating. This could not be entirely true, but it is manifest  that the current geopolitical order is in disarray. This means that we need to decrease the uncertainty of our decision makers in order to try to deal with the new global challenges, such as global warming, cyber security, terrorism and the inherent international competition. As far as intelligence agencies are the main state tool to gather the relevant information needed to solve those problems, the UK still needs somehow the EU intelligence. Indeed, they share the same “security environment”, as it was explained by Cornelia-Adriana Baciu: “Not only are the UK and the EU exposed to similar threat environment, but an analysis of their national security strategies suggests higher compatibility between the EU27-UK strategic interests and priorities than those of US and UK”. This is true and it is difficult to imagine how the situation could change. This could explain why Ms. May tried to show that, whatever the result would be, the UK and the EU will find their way to cooperate. But cooperation is never a cheap commodity when the actors add friction into the system.

It could appear that the EU needs more the UK than vice versa: “The intelligence capability of each of the UK’s European partners cannot be compared with British intelligence machinery, in every respect. Only France and Germany possess intelligence agencies that can operate globally, but their performance cannot reach that of the UK’s. The EU, as a whole, is extremely weak in the intelligence domain…” (Kostantopouls, Nomikos (2017), p. 104). The UK still possesses one of the most efficient intelligence. It has well-known impressive capabilities, a unique intelligence culture and a spread intelligence community whose connections with both the US and the EU made it one of the best in the world. However, as far as the world is sufficiently complex and rapidly evolving, even the UK intelligence cannot work properly without sharing information with the EU, especially taking account of where the EU is and what it means for the UK. This is even truer in a cyber hyper-connected world.

Therefore, UK and EU need each other as never before as far as their security and intelligence is concerned. However, significant challenges will daunt the decision makers soon and two different questions must be addressed: (a) Will the UK be able to accept that nobody is an island to manage the current intelligence necessities?  (b) Will the EU be willing to help the UK to find a cooperative place after Brexit, whatever the result will be? What we know today is that Brexit puts friction inside the intelligence community in an age of durable disorder and non-conventional warfare (cyber warfare, information warfare, economic warfare). This means that we will have to deal with more uncertainty than ever before.


Giangiuseppe Pili is a Lecturer in intelligence studies in the International Master in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS) at Dublin City University. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and sciences of the mind with a thesis on individual and social epistemology. He is part of the organizational committee of the Intelligence Lab at Calabria University. He issued a monograph on the philosophy of war. He is coauthor of the book (forthcoming, 2019) Intelligence studies with prof. Mario Caligiuri.