Brexit Institute News

Bordering on Obsession: EU-UK Security Co-operation After Brexit

Alex MacKenzie (University of Liverpool)

It was surprising to many specialists that the EU’s security role received such short shrift in the public debate in the period between the UK’s EU referendum in 2016 and it leaving in full on 31st December 2020. The UK carved out an exceptional and privileged position as an EU member state, having an opt in to Justice and Home Affairs measures; privileged access to the EU’s security architecture, including the Schengen Information System (SIS II), despite not being part of the Schengen area; and often led on counter-terrorism as an issue of particular importance to it after 9/11, as well as other security challenges. In short and contrary to the depiction of the UK as a ‘victim’ of European integration, here it was frequently a leader and greatly respected by other member states.

With Brexit, the UK has lost much of the above. The EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA), agreed last Christmas Eve, is a far cry from what the UK originally hoped for under Theresa May. Indeed, it was often seen as making impossible demands during negotiations, although, as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson actively avoided seeking involvement in measures such as the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) due to the role the Court of Justice of the European Union, a long-held concern of many Brexiters and red line. The consequences of leaving for the UK here can probably best be summed up as serious but not catastrophic. For example, the UK was one of the most active users of SIS data, as well as issuing many EAWs, some of which allowed it to apprehend terrorists. New challenges include the creation of uncertainties and gaps, timeliness, and operational impact, with SIS widely being seen as the greatest loss. For its part, the EU is not unaffected by Brexit; after all, it has lost access to British expertise, resources, and leadership. The EU will thus also be weakened by Brexit in this area, but it succeeded in securing an agreement closer to its preferences. Despite the evident downgrade, the security aspects of the TCA can probably be viewed as the best possible outcome considering the red lines of both sides.

Where do we go from here? Free movement was presented by some in the UK as one of the most serious problems of EU membership because it allowed criminals and terrorists to enter the country, with strong borders argued to be solution. Indeed, recall the infamous catchphrase ‘take back control’. However, the reality of borders is more complex because the UK was able to prevent known dangerous individuals from entering its territory as an EU member state. Furthermore, borders don’t necessarily stop people who are unknown to security authorities and are certainly no panacea. That’s precisely why many states ramped up information-sharing and gathering on foreign visitors after 9/11, with the EU no exception. It has a plethora of measures in place already and has had plans to introduce a US-style Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) since 2016, and this will come into force in 2022. The UK has recently announced plans to do similarly, with its own Electronic Travel Authorisation to be in place by 2025. It will be interesting to see whether the UK and EU do anything to compensate for what they have lost. Some have argued that the UK should go back to the EU and try to negotiate something that replicates as far as possible the benefits of the SIS II. Perhaps in the future the UK may try and wear down the EU in a bid to achieve this. Lesser discussed is that the UK will also have to stay aligned with the EU in areas such as data protection if it wants to sustain current arrangements, rendering the ability to diverge here something of a facade. For now though, the current British government is ideologically committed to Brexit and the pursuit of ‘Global Britain’, so any return to the negotiating table will likely be seen as a failure and unacceptable in Westminster and beyond. Few serious positive adjustments look likely to occur any time soon as a result.

Ultimately, the above events fragment the West at a time when most face similar challenges, including terrorism, organised crime, Russian interference, climate change, and more. The US also now finds itself with an additional headache of managing the relationship between the UK and EU. Both the EU and UK are left less secure by the TCA and borders are no solution, but this deal is certainly preferable to no deal. Like it or not, the UK and EU need to find ways to make this relationship work. Whether they will is a different matter, however.


Dr Alex MacKenzie is a lecturer at the Department of Politics, University of Liverpool.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.