Europe should liaise with the UK on security, not ramp up defence to punish it for Brexit

Let's not forget one thing: Britain’s military engagements with Europe are mostly based on arrangements with bodies (like Nato) that have nothing to do with the EU

Protesters wave European flags in Trafalgar square during a rally in central London on September 13, 2017 to warn about the terms of Brexit, by EU nationals in Britain and UK nationals in Europe. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS
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With Britain's impending withdrawal from the European Union gathering pace, questions are inevitably being raised about the likely implications this will have on the continent's security arrangements.

Britain is not only Europe's largest military power, it is also home to Europe's most highly-regarded intelligence-gathering agencies. Apart from spending around £37 billion (Dh185 billion) a year on defence, the UK is also investing around £178 billion over the course of the next decade in state-of-the-art equipment, such as the new 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers, the first of which, HMS Queen Elizabeth, arrived at its home port of Portsmouth last month. Once the carriers enter service towards the end of the decade with their fleet of F-35B stealth fighters, one of their key tasks will be to patrol the vital shipping lanes of the Arabian Gulf.

Britain’s intelligence and security services, meanwhile, occupy a pre-eminent position among their European rivals, not least because of the close relationship they enjoy with their American counterparts, as well as their membership of the elite Five Eyes intelligence-gathering network set up at the end of the Second World War involving the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


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This means that the UK is uniquely placed to tackle Islamist terror groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL. Indeed, information acquired by British agencies has helped to foil a number of significant terror plots, both in the UK and Europe.

But concerns that the existing edifice of Europe's defence and security infrastructure will be weakened as a result of Brexit have now become a key issue of the negotiations over Britain's future with the EU, with both sides seeking to make political capital out of the subject.

The security issue first became something of a political football during last year's referendum campaign, with "remainers" arguing that Britain's ability to defend herself against threats like Islamist-inspired terrorism and Russian aggression would be fatally compromised by leaving the EU. Brexiteers such as myself, on the other hand, adopted an entirely different position, namely that the UK's relationship with the EU had little, if anything, to do with national security considerations.

My own reasons for voting Brexit were more to do with the fact that I wanted Britain’s democratically-elected parliament, and not some bunch of unelected, patronising European technocrats, to govern my country.

About the only argument, though, that tempted me to vote "remain" was that made by Field Marshal Lord Bramall, the former head of Britain’s Armed Forces, who is also a veteran of the D-Day landings that launched the campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany in June 1944.

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The Bramall argument goes something along the lines of: after all the blood and sacrifice Britain and her allies had made to save Europe from tyranny and end the enmity between long-standing foes, such as Germany and France, retaining the UK's membership of the EU was, for all the irkesome meddling of EU bureaucrats, a price worth paying in order to maintain peace and security on the continent.

In the end, I concluded this would be a valid argument were it not for the fact that, by leaving the EU, Britain is turning its back on Brussels, not Europe. On the contrary, after Brexit, the UK will continue to trade and work with our European counterparts in much the same way we do today – including in the realms of defence and security.

The key point to understand about Britain's military and security engagement with its European allies is that it is managed on the basis of arrangements that, with a few minor exceptions, are with bodies that have nothing to do with the EU.

Britain’s primary military engagement with Europe, for example, is undertaken through the Nato alliance, not Brussels.

Thus, Britain’s current military contribution to defending eastern Europe from further acts of military aggression by Russia operates under Nato command, not EU diktat.

Similarly, cooperation between Britain's MI6 intelligence-gathering agency and the rest of Europe is conducted on the basis of bilateral agreements with its European counterparts, with the secret service's long standing ties with France's DGSE intelligence agency and Germany's BND regarded being the most valuable.


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But British intelligence officers rarely, if ever, share any of their top secret intelligence material with the EU as it is regarded as being incapable of keeping such sensitive material secure from enemy agents.

Moreover, Britain's attitude towards the EU's existing security structures has always been lukewarm. London, for example, has long resisted the EU's attempts to establish its own defence force on the grounds it would undermine the Nato alliance. Thus, if the EU, as now seems likely, uses Brexit to revive its plans for an EU defence force, it will be doing more harm to undermine Europe's future security requirements than Britain's decision to leave.

Rather than seeking to build a new Euro-centric defence infrastructure to punish Britain for voting for Brexit, the EU would be better advised to take seriously British prime minister Theresa May’s offer this week for Britain to forge a “deep security partnership” with the EU after Brexit.

For if the EU decides to turn its back on the significant contribution Britain’s military and intelligence-gathering services have to offer, then it will be Europe, not Britain, that will ultimately be the loser.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor

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