Europe and Russia

What Happens if the United Kingdom Leaves the European Union? Security Implications Post-“Brexit”

April 22, 2016  • Mary Catherine Bitter

Key Points

  • The United Kingdom is a core member of the European Union. Can the EU hold itself together if the UK makes a "Brexit" (British exit)?

Above, watch panelists discuss the many challenges facing the European Union, including the potential departure of the United Kingdom, at the 2016 Aspen Security Forum: Global.

Ideally, the overarching goal of the European Union is to establish a common identity between its members on a variety of fronts, including the economy, politics, and humanitarianism. Through taking steps like adopting a common currency and abolishing border controls, it’s no secret that the EU is, “one of the most integrated forms of international cooperation,” that the world has ever seen, said Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, at the 2016 Aspen Security Forum: Global.

However, it is also no secret that some member states are not entirely content with their EU status, particularly the United Kingdom. As announced by Prime Minister David Cameron this past February, the UK will votein June to decide whether or not to remain in the EU.

But what is the story behind this? Why is the UK so disgruntled with its likeness to its European neighbors?

Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, asserts that the UK has, “never been entirely comfortable being a member of the European Union.” Some believe that the UK gives more to the EU than it gets back, considering its already-high economic indicators and large contributions to the EU budget — which have led to the belief that the UK would be better off on its own.

In Niblett’s opinion, there could not be a worse time to hold this referendum. This is the moment when, “people least trust governments and authority,” he asserted, a problem that he acknowledged is far from unique to the UK. Taking on the voice of the British public, he explained that the government comes off as, “[not knowing] how to run security defense operations” post-Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and that economic issues such as high levels of debt and heavy income inequality still exist after the global financial crisis.

Niblett said that if a British exit, or “Brexit,” occurred, there could be a variety of scenarios and implications. Taking one path, EU members might seek to underplay the significance of a departure. The UK’s European neighbors could take steps to encourage further integration. In this scenario, integration would accelerate, but also create domestic political conflicts for all EU member states.

“The security effects on Britain would be damaging,” Wainwright added. “The UK would be disengaging itself from this far more elaborate set of…instruments that we’ve built,” referring largely to the Schengen Information System, the largest security database in Europe. If the UK left, the British would not have the same ability to identify individuals crossing their borders, including those convicted of serious crimes like sex offenses and murder.

“To take that away…[would have] a huge, dislocating effect for the other member states,” he said.

Overall, the United Kingdom can’t have the best of both worlds. Even though they could negotiate terms that would mitigate the impact of a Brexit on EU security concerns, such as retaining access to these tools and databases, there are more challenges to overcome.

“If you’re going to have access to this kind of confidential information, and if you’re going to be acting upon it…you need a legal framework,” Niblett pointed out.