Splendid Isolation? – Evaluating the Security Implications of Brexit


As the Brexit debate rages on in the UK it has become widely accepted that both sides seek to push their arguments through fearmongering. A large part of this fearmongering has been applied to notions of security post-Brexit, leading to intense questioning of what security is, and how best it can be achieved in post-Cold War international order. It questions what Britain’s role is in both European and global security, and if these roles can be maintained by a Britain outside of the EU.

In the late 19th century Britain adopted a policy of political non-interventionism from European continental affairs, embarking on the ‘Splendid Isolation’. This doctrine relied on British military and economic superiority; influencing global affairs with the threat of involvement. This specific historical episode may not be able to advise us directly on the Brexit debate due to differing circumstances, but knowledge of it, as well as the UK’s relationship with the European continent, is necessary to understand political and social attitudes toward the EU. The romanticised concept of Britain as an ‘Island Fortress’, was ingrained in generations of British policy makers during the Imperial era and has been resurrected in the form of the ‘sovereignty’ argument. The notion of lost British sovereignty due to EU membership forms the core of the Brexit argument with many claiming that Britain has lost its voice, and its freedoms. A popular case of the Brexit camp exemplifying this loss of freedom is Britain’s perceived inability to handle migration. Scapegoating aside, Britain’s membership to the EU is far too significant a decision to be made with the mind set of expired romanticised nationalism; it requires pragmatic evaluations and decision making which are demonstrated by an analysis of the security implications of Brexit.

As the global order continues to find itself in the midst of power transformations, it is evident that the future of international security will rest on transnationalism in an interconnected, globalized system. This necessitates closer cooperation between states through organisations such as the EU. Political power is expressed through state cooperation, particularly when a state is not a significant military or economic power. Isolating oneself from cooperation is essentially to move towards a scenario of international powerlessness. The November 2015 Paris Attacks highlighted the transnational nature of terrorism, and the need for multinational efforts to combat it. On an internal level, the EU facilitates structural relationships that strengthen internal security efforts such as the European Arrest Warrant which allows deportation of suspects in Europe to face national justice where they committed a crime. Counter-terrorism operations, and information sharing projects, exemplify how cooperation via the EU facilitates greater national security. Other transnational issues such as cyber-security, energy-security, and climate change also require cooperative frameworks to be tackled. Though the EU is primarily an economic entity rather than a security union, it has shown itself to be flexible in developing responses to security issues where there is a consensus, such as sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea, or being a major actor in the diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. In future scenarios where there is a consensus on how to deal with various transnational issues, it will be easier to develop necessary multi-level modus operandi ensuring a more efficient response to new challenges.

The UK is one of the top three  European defence spenders along with France and Germany, who together account for two thirds of EU defence spending and are at the core of EU security policy. On numerous occasions, David Cameron and Tony Blair committed themselves to the idea of security via EU frameworks. An example of this is the Saint-Malo accord of 1998 where the UK and France agreed that the EU required greater security capacity to act during times of international crises. Despite this executive level of convergence, Britain has traditionally been opposed to increased security links with Europe blocking suggestions of a joint military headquarters which would allow greater efficiency in regards to military spending. Professor Robert Keohane of Princeton University suggested that there is a paradox at the centre of the EU defence policy, and that between the need for greater cooperation to achieve European geostrategic aims, and the public opinion in most EU states, see an independent military is vital to national sovereignty.[1] This paradox hinders the development of a European foreign policy which would work to stabilise and democratise the European periphery as it did to the Eastern Bloc area in the post-cold war era. In stabilising the periphery, the EU minimises security risks and acts in the interests of the EU as a collective. The large number of refugees and increased risk of terrorism are consequences of instability in the EU periphery, and tension on the EU border with other great powers. By maintaining a position within the EU, Britain strengthens European and British security, providing a space for future transnational issues to be solved as well as allowing the potential for better tools to stabilise the area surrounding Europe reducing internal European issues. Exit from the EU, would lead to greater disunity and destabilisation of Europe, empowering Europe’s rivals to utilise the infighting in order to achieve their own goals.

David Cameron suggested that Brexit would be the preferred scenario for Russia and Putin.[2] Brexit weakens the perceptions and strength of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), potentially straining relations between NATO allies. British exit from the EU would smoothen the path to a stronger EU security policy for the other continental powers. In time, this would cause tensions between the EU and NATO over their roles in European security.[3] Brexit could also reveal cracks in the European security structure, as other nations may follow the path of referendum, leading to a European breakup; an outcome Russia would welcome.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, US National Security Advisor from 1977-1981, highlighted the dangerous effect of reduced EU security suggesting that in a less secure EU, member states would seek patrons elsewhere among other major powers. This would then open Europe up to factionalism, and power rivalries which the EU sought to eradicate via an economic community.[4] Brzezinski’s warning is more relevant when considering the shift of the United States geopolitical focus away from Europe and the Middle East, and towards the Pacific in response to global trends.[5] This change is evident in the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and is highlighted by constant geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea. This has the potential to weaken NATO’s defence umbrella over Europe which has maintained the initiative in defending Europe since World War 2. A strong and unified ESDP is necessary in maintaining stability, and security in Europe. In order for this to occur, Britain must remain within the EU where it can utilise and maintain its diplomatic weight despite recent defence budget cuts.

The EU amplifies Britain’s diplomatic strength. This idea is evidenced through a statement by President Obama, who warned that Britain outside the EU would see less diplomatic significance in the Pentagon.[6] Despite a decline of British power in the previous century, Britain still enjoys a strong diplomatic voice today including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This diplomatic status is a result of Britain’s previous global role, which gave rise to an experienced foreign policy allowing Britain to conduct a versatile global foreign policy.  The Brexit argument claims that the EU limits Britain’s diplomatic options, and pushes towards a Euro-centric foreign policy. The EU has demonstrated very little influence over the diplomatic direction and the national interests of its member states. This is particularly true for Britain who has the ability to ignore the EU when it is convinced that it is in its national interest. Examples of this are the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia despite an EU embargo, the rejection of the Euro currency, and staying outside of the Schengen area.[7] By remaining within the European Union Britain’s foreign policy gains the best of both worlds; obtaining all of the diplomatic possibilities and influence of the European Union, while maintaining a strong independent stance to deviate when in the best national interest. Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House, made the case that despite flaws in the EU institutions, working through them offers the best chance of influencing global events.[8]

Ultimately the predicted security implications of Brexit, as are all political calculations, based on informed ‘what if’ scenarios.  Brexit therefore can be argued both ways; however, the preponderance of contextual evidence from a security perspective suggests that this is a poor course of action.  When the amplification of power that the EU allows for British foreign policy and the increasing transnational nature of global affairs and threats are considered, it is ineffective to isolate from a collective that will be increasingly necessary in effectively dealing with new transnational threats. In tracking the security implications of Brexit on the EU and Britain, a perspective is necessitated which pragmatically factors the bigger picture of continental security rather than a romanticized image of a splendid isolation.


[1] http://www.europeangeostrategy.org/2016/03/the-paradox-of-eu-defence-policy/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/feb/12/we-must-stay-in-eu-to-unite-against-aggression-says-david-cameron

[3] http://www.cfr.org/united-kingdom/weighing-consequences-brexit/p37943?cid=soc-facebook-in-weighing_consequences_brexit-061216

[4] http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/04/17/toward-a-global-realignment/

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/barackobama/8895726/US-will-shift-focus-from-Middle-East-to-Asia-Pacific-Barack-Obama-declares.html

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/21/as-your-friend-let-me-tell-you-that-the-eu-makes-britain-even-gr/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/25/eu-parliament-votes-for-embargo-on-arms-sales-to-saudi-arabia

[8] R.Niblett – Britain, Europe and the World: Rethinking the UK’s Circles of Influence (Oct 2015)

Image source: youtube.com

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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