19 JULY 2018

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be giving this presentation on what is a quite complex question and one to date, which has yet to offer any concrete or authoritative answers.  At best, what I can hope to do is identify the contours of the situation and offer some insight into what might emerge from the ongoing negotiations between Brussels and London.

Indeed, if I may, I would like to propose that I address the question in the reverse order to how it is stated on the agenda: I will proceed with a perspective on the wider question of European security before situating the UK’s role in that security context and the impact that BREXIT might have.


I believe that European security can best be understood as a combination of linked solutions to a combination of security challenges.  It is also important to recognize that when we speak of ‘Europe’ in security terms, we do not necessarily mean the EU, as is so often the case in other contexts.

However, when we use the label ‘European Security’ in the BREXIT context, we are largely talking about the EU and as such we need to familiarize ourselves to a specific EU-way of thinking about security. 

At the outset, we must recognize that the concept of ‘soft power’ – the notion of using non-traditional military means as a measurement of power or security – is the preference of Brussels.  This should not be taken to imply that the EU does not appreciate the value of traditional ‘hard power’.  Rather, it is a rationale choice to do things differently, to underline the sui generis nature of the EU project and to offer an image of post-modern security.  In short, this concept of security is as much a statement of values as anything else.

Critics might and indeed have argued that the EU’s ‘soft power’ preference is a convenient cover for the fact that there is no ‘hard power’ and as such what passes for ‘soft power’ is mere posturing behind the mailed fist of the Euro-Atlantic NATO and in particular, US military might.  Given the comments of President Trump at a recent NATO summit, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is how he at least sees the world.

At best, we can see differing perspectives on what constitutes security in Europe and at worst, the beginning of the end of one particular form of collective European security.  Both ways and at this juncture, such fissures are far from welcome.

I think it is also fair to mark EU security concepts as ‘evolutionary’, a process so to speak and one, which has yet to realize its full potential.  It would be churlish to gloss over the success of the EU enlargement process and to deprecate the impact it has had on European security in general terms.  Similarly, initiatives in the wider Black Sea region or the Balkans have also contributed to peace and stability. 

However, we also have to recognize that what many of us have believed was peaceful expansion is actually viewed by others as an exercise in encroachment and bad faith.  Russia’s annexation in Crimea, her involvement in Ukraine and the less than subtle threats to the Baltic States are in part linked to a different concept of security in Europe.  There are some commentators in Russia for example, who believe that the negative turn of events in Ukraine can be clearly linked to EU hubris or at least a lack of solid risk assessment.  The point is, however, that European security, as far as the EU was concerned, always recognized the importance of expansion as a means to help dampen regional tensions or disputes.  It seldom, if ever, paid sufficient attention to what others might think.

Finally, it would be remiss to consider European security without the plethora of agencies and laws developed by the EU.  The passage of years since the EU’s early foray into security and peace-making in the Balkans in the early 1990s has witnessed a spectacular growth in committees, initiatives, permanent military structures and laws to satisfy the requirements for more mature and permanent forms of security.  Taken together, these facilities ranging from the Intelligence and Situation Centre to PESCO and military expeditionary HQs, offer the appearance of a more robust and substantial security effort than is actually the case.  It would be unfair to suggest that the EU indulges in form over substance but it would also be unfair to ignore the difficulties inherent in creating dedicated forces without duplicating the assets already assigned to NATO.  That square has not been circled. 

In summation, European security is dynamic and at times difficult to pin down.  Perhaps for us, it might be easier to assess the efficacy of the effort against the range of threats and challenges to that security?


Europe undoubtedly is facing a series of significant security challenges.  Furthermore, they come at a time when the EU itself is mired in institutional difficulties, perhaps not existential but debilitating nevertheless. 

Arguably, terrorism is the primary security consideration and it is no accident that certain European leaders have now openly stated that there country is at ‘war’.  This language in itself is remarkable, as even after the events of 9/11, EU leaders could not bring themselves to consider terrorism as anything but a criminal, law enforcement issue.  Yet today, should you walk around parts of Paris or Brussels, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country was under martial law.

Unfortunately, terrorism is also impacting on other parts of Europe that hitherto had been immune or at least suffered little from terrorism, such as Sweden or Denmark of the Netherlands. 

The response has been predictable and proportionate: better intelligence collection, enhanced information sharing, wider surveillance and the exploitation of new technologies, especially to support electronic surveillance.  Projects to better understand terrorism dynamics have also been prominent, including de-radicalization or social integration.

Yet can we really say that this represents new thinking?  The jury is out on whether this represents ‘old wine in new bottles’ or ‘improved recipes’ but either way, the EU in particular, should be well placed to foster reinforced cooperation in counter terrorism.

Arguably, this task has been made more difficult due to the ongoing problem of mass migration, another clear security challenge.  Without rehearsing the old debates about policy towards refugees, war victims or economic migrants, the 2015 migrant crisis led to the injection into Europe of over a million unregulated and for the most part, undocumented people into the Schengen area.  We really should not be surprised that some of these people were criminals, some had radical views and some were prepared to carry out terrorist attacks.  Should we have been surprised that some of these people would inevitably bring their indigenous disputes with them?

Putting aside the scare propaganda emanating from IS websites about sending thousands of ‘fighters’ into Europe disguised as refugees, just the fact that a few possible suspects who did enter Europe under cover of the human tide of refugees in 2015 went on to be involved in terror attacks in mainland Europe simply cannot be ignored. 

One might argue that the migrant crisis lies at the bottom of much, which is dysfunctional about current EU policy at the moment.  Identifying the right policy response to mass migration has pitched the European Commission against member states, member states against each other and a veritable shaking of the foundations of the Schengen System, a flagship and iconic symbol of EU ‘values’.

Not a few of the consequences of policy inadequacy regarding migration are already having an impact on security.  Relations with the Maghreb Region and to a lesser extent, the Sahel Region, are fraught over the EU’s desire to have local states create ‘registration camps’ for illegal immigrants seeking to come to Europe.  Recently, the EU brokered an internal deal to do something similar within the Union but only to have it nullified by those same states claiming they will not set up ‘repatriation centres’ on their territory – a throw back to the sanctity of EU values.  Yet few European states are prepared to admit that the deals with Libya and Turkey for example, to prevent flows of migrants reaching Europe, are anything but a stopgap and much reliant on both countries acting as a point of stability. 


Oddly enough, one of the suggestions of the new so-called ‘populist’ government in Italy was to involve Russia in the Mediterranean Sea alongside NATO to prevent mass migration to Europe.

Of course one of the immediate problems with such a suggestion is that the EU views Russia as a clear threat to its security.  The most immediate cause of this tension results from the Russian invasion of Crimea and the support shown to Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.  Add to this, the shooting down of a Dutch KLM passenger airliner and the chemical attacks against people in the UK and critically, Russia’s support for President Assad in Syria, one could be forgiven for thinking that the frosty relations are set in aspic.

Serious as are the above, Europeans do, however, have a more nuanced approach.  As US President Donald Trump so brutally pointed out, Germany has an energy and economic relationship with Russia, which is at odds with the views of many of its European allies and for some, could be construed as ‘dependency’, although this is contested in Berlin. 

Similarly, there are many in Europe who, whilst acknowledging Russia’s military misadventures in Syria, appreciate that this support has helped dampen the conflict and vanquished – in part – the IS in Syria and Iraq.  Indeed, it this Russian involvement in Syria and – by proxy – Iran, that the EU hopes to exploit in order to maintain the JCPOA agreement with Iran despite the US withdrawal.  Whether it likes it or not, the EU will have to set aside its own position on human rights if it is to gain Russian solidarity in maintaining the JCPOA against the wishes of its largest security partner and ultimate guarantor of its security, the USA.  Perhaps what we are witnessing is the EU’s CFSP being mugged by reality?

Turning now to ‘hard power’, where does Europe or more particularly, the EU stand?

It is rather difficult of late to say anything positive or upbeat about the state of Europe’s hard security power.  A quick glance at the military capabilities of most European countries will underline the fact that most have been ‘hollowed out’ and incapable of significant levels of engagement, despite having some funding.  In fact a most recent study into the health of the German military was both revealing and shocking: a once major NATO military power was basically bereft of direction and capabilities, with much of its former military hardware in storage.  That said, the same could be said of most others.  Of course this is in stark contrast to the efforts of the likes of Poland and the Baltic States who are striving to sharpen the edge of their capabilities and others like Sweden who are desperately trying to recapture some of its former military posture and deployment.

Even the UK, traditionally the frontrunner in hard military power, has been struggling to maintain defence spending, although government ministers can cite massive defence projects such as the construction of two aircraft carriers, the coming into service of state of the art fighter jets and the deployment of seriously sophisticated UAVs as a statement of intent.  The government has also determined to have a new ‘fusion doctrine’, a policy to engage in hybrid conflict.

However, Europe is once again being ‘called out’ by the USA – think of the recent President Trump exhortations – to spend far more on defence than it does at the moment and this time, the veiled threats behind non-compliance by European states might become quite real.  When it comes to hard power, Europe has found itself with no place to hide.


By and large, the UK remains the most potent European power.  However, London’s perspective on security is through NATO and not the EU.  This has always been the case and although the UK has contributed to security initiatives of one sort or another from Brussels, there has always been a stark calculation that such projects should not come between London and the guarantor of European security, the United States.

It also has to be recognized that the UK has a much wider set of security interests that Brussels: the UK is a member of the UN Security Council, it is a nuclear power and has residual post-colonial responsibilities around the world.  The view from Whitehall and Brussels might often be shared but that is not a given and indeed one only has to think of events in Iraq in 2003 for example to see clear divergence. 

Of course it is far from clear if the UK will be willing and able to pay the price of this sui generis position.  Voices in the UK have begun to question whether the country should be a ‘first-rate’ military power and argue that punching above the weight is simply a dated concept and taxpayers’ money could be better spent elsewhere.

It is unlikely that such outlier calls will be adhered to, especially when new and sophisticated weapon systems are being introduced within the UK Armed Forces as mentioned earlier, including two new aircraft carriers, new fighter jets, sophisticated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and missiles based on Artificial Intelligence.

When looked at in cold, calculating terms, the UK is still likely to be the EU’s biggest provider of security.  This clearly includes a vast array of intelligence and counter terrorism assets and experience, which has made the UK an indispensible European partner in combating terrorism. 


Based on the current BREXIT ‘White Paper’, outlining the UK’s vision of a post-BREXIT relationship with the EU, the British Government has proposed a ‘Security Partnership’.  Admittedly, this is a negotiating paper, which means it is merely the basis for an agreement.  Nevertheless, the proposed security arrangement is comprehensive and addresses all the main aspects and instruments of security policy, from counter terrorism and bio-preparedness to protecting critical network infrastructure and cyber security.  The implication behind this proposal is quite clear that the UK would like ‘business as usual’.

 From a UK perspective, there would seem much to like here – indeed, what’s not to like?  Yet the recent dispute between the Commission negotiators and their British counterparts, concerning the removal of the UK from the Galileo Satellite System project, which is a flagship science and security project in which UK companies have been integral, would seem to suggest that in the security arena, there are divergences of opinion, much of it relating back to the ideological point that a country leaving the EU must not be better off for leaving it, as far as post-departure arrangements are concerned.  This spat came on top of other declarations by EC officials that the UK would also be cut adrift from law enforcement and intelligence databases. I think it is fair to say that this position caught the UK unawares.  In fact in short order, the Director of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, a global security surveillance player pointedly reminded the EU in June 2019, that it was UK information that had recently averted a number of terrorist attacks in Europe.  It shouldn’t have been lost on the EU that this comment was made from NATO HQ in Brussels.

Even at this juncture, where negotiations on BREXIT remain fluid, it is hard to think that some form of security partnership cannot be agreed.  Could there be a complete rift and breakdown of cooperation?  This seems unlikely, particularly as there are a number of bilateral agreements in play, particularly between the UK and France and especially as so much could be done in the security field via NATO.

Given the current security circumstances in which Europe finds itself, there is a pressing need for the EU to get real on security.  In fact, the Member States most likely agree with this assessment and could start pushing their preferences on the EU’s BREXIT negotiators. 

In summation, BREXIT does not have to mean a reduction in security – close relationships can and should be maintained.  The UK’s absence will certainly allow those in the EU calling for deeper defence cooperation to have their day without British obstruction.  However, the recent US intervention on European security is likely to muddy the waters, even on this project and deciding on a European Army over NATO or even within NATO is fraught with complications.  BREXIT is important but circumstances might relegate it to the back of a much wider and tension-filled debate about how Europe sees its security posture in the future.