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To Brexit or not: The hollow European Union referendum debate and state security

For a society that spends a great deal of time reflecting on EU membership issues, the European Union referendum debate seemed to be the ideal way for the British people to find some enlightening answers to many elusive questions and settle this argument once and for all . Yet, the debate fast degenerated into an irritating and never ending stream of sound bites, half-truths, and scaremongering tactics. The sought answers have not been forthcoming. With only a few days to go before the critical vote, many people do not feel any wiser when it comes to discussing, for example, the housing crisis, migration trends, taxation, or the provision of public services if the UK stays in or opts out of the EU altogether. Likewise, the wider debate on security has been uncomfortably hollow. It thus seems relevant to review and clarify certain security matters that neither the ‘in’ nor the ‘out’ camp are likely to discuss in depth.


The cornerstone of European defense is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Founded in 1949, NATO is committed to protecting its members through military and political means and operates under the principle of ‘collective defence’ (an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies: Article 5). NATO membership largely overlaps EU membership. However, EU membership does not affect in any way the UK’s affiliation to NATO. The WWIII imagined by David Cameron could only happen with the UK as a member of NATO, in or out of the European Union. As for Boris Johnson’s fears of Turkey ever joining the EU, he needs to remember that Turkey is part of NATO.

The Defence and Security Review

The UK National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 is the first strategic review incorporating a small section focusing on the European Union (Paras 5.40-5.44: read it online). The section notes that ‘the EU has a range of capabilities to build security and respond to threats, which can be complementary to those of NATO’ (our underlining). The 2015 Strategy also emphasizes that the UK will ‘continue to foster closer coordination and cooperation between the EU and other institutions, principally NATO.’ Primacy of NATO and the complementary role of the EU are therefore highlighted in the Security Review 2015, but not all the way round.

United Nations Security Council

The UK is one of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council. Together with France, the UK is one of the only two European countries that are permanent Security Council members. Under the UN Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security and all 193 UN Member States are obligated to comply with the Security Council resolutions. In or out of the EU, the role the UK plays as a permanent member of the Security Council will remain unchanged and undiminished.

International law and order

Regarding law and order, the UK is a member and cooperates with many international initiatives and institutions such as INTERPOL. INTERPOL aims to facilitate international police cooperation for its 190 member countries even when diplomatic relations do not exist between them. The EU has created some parallel security organizations such as Europol, which at EU level assists countries ‘in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism.’ Leaving the EU could probably result in the temporary erosion of links between the UK and Europol and other similar EU bodies. However, why it needs to be conceived that the UK would not be able to realign its network of security alliances if it left the EU?


It has been argued by David Cameron that staying in the EU is essential for the UK as it enables greater sharing of intelligence about terrorism-related activity. However, the recent terror attacks in Belgium exposed, firstly, deficiencies concerning the sharing of information between Belgium and France, and secondly, the inability of EU members to track effectively suspected terrorists across the Schengen Area. In addition, despite EU common security goals and cooperation, there is no end to the refugee crisis now threatening the very architecture of the Schengen project. Boris Johnson and the out camp have spoken even less about counter-terror and other equally relevant security issues.

The Transatlantic Alliance

At least in areas of international security, a special relationship between the UK and the United States does exist. Evidently, the American establishment would prefer for the UK to remain part of the EU. It is just cheaper and simpler for the Americans to have the UK lobbying the EU on their behalf as a fully-fledged member. In or out of the EU, however, there are reasons to suspect that the transatlantic security alliance will continue growing in strength. Moreover, as the UK and the US are both NATO countries and permanent Security Council members, they are natural allies.

Military interventions

Indeed, being part of international alliances can facilitate the coordination of peace and reconstruction missions –The UK is very active on this front, and so too its formidable array of private military companies and personnel. However, experience shows that when it comes to military interventions, national imperatives prevail over international aspirations and goals. The UK, for example, was heavily involved in the Iraq conflict as part of the US-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’ that included various EU countries but not all of them. British involvement in the Afghanistan conflict between 2001 and 2014 was largely organised around NATO-led operations. On August 30, 2013. the UK Parliament rejected joining the US-led strikes targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, and so on. In short, there is no discernable EU footprint underpinning the UK’s involvement in peace and reconstruction missions. If this is incorrect, for example in areas of diplomacy and logistics, successive UK governments have failed to argue the case.

If you believe that if the UK leaves the European Union the world faces Armageddon, please listen to David Cameron and vote to remain in the EU. If you believe that if the UK remains part of the European Union the country faces meltdown, please listen to Boris Johnson and vote to leave the EU. All things remaining equal, perhaps it is better for you to follow your heart. At least you can wake up on 24 June and think that you did what you just felt was right given the limited information available and uneven nature of the EU referendum debate. If state security was in your mind when casting your vote, we hope you found this post useful.

About militaryecology

MilitaryEcology.com focuses on topical global security issues. We approach them against the backdrop of the fast evolving military ‘ecology’ landscape populated by myriad public and private actors often explicitly or implicitly operating in public-private ‘security partnerships. This Private-Public Military Ecology blog is linked to PrivateMilitary.org’s aims, which are oriented towards the dissemination of security knowledge. We also encourage people to engage in constructive debate.


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June 2016
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