Brexit: Implications for Counter-terrorism

Brexit will have negative consequences for counter-terrorism in the UK and in the EU. The UK will lose the possibility of enjoying the advantages the EU provides in this field and of fighting the threat transnationally, whereas the Union loses one of the most important members in its counter-terrorism effort.


Although Brexit has definitely been the news of these weeks, there is one aspect that has not received so much attention: the negative consequences the “rupture” with the Union will have for  counter-terrorism both in the UK and in the EU. As a matter of fact, even if it has to be recognised that the EU Counter-terrorism strategy is, in part, flawed, the UK will lose more than it will gain from the suspension – or at least the reduction – of the cooperation and data sharing aimed at fighting terror on the continent. And so will the EU.

It has to be highlighted that the EU counter-terrorism policy has always been considered a complement to national efforts by almost all the Member States, and this has also been the case for the UK. As a matter of fact, the efficiency of this country’s intelligence, its better organization, and the less inter-agency barriers, in addition to the need of a reduced and more verified entrance of people to the country through the closure of the borders, were all elements used to make a case for Brexit by the supporters of the “leave” option.

In this sense, it is true that the EU has a counter-terrorism system that is (very) far from perfect. A highly bureaucratization, a huge fragmentation, sometimes an unwillingness to collaboration, and too many different and contrasting approaches to counter-terrorism are the aspects of a system that has been described as too crowded, too institutionally focused, and very complex. All elements that  eventually produce a delayed and slow answer to a threat, that, on the contrary, requires the fastest and most dynamic response as possible.

Nevertheless, in spite of all these issues, the UK’s counter-terrorism will suffer from Brexit since the Union made the country more resilient and effective in fighting security threats. This depends, above all, on the both transnational and very local nature terrorism has nowadays – let’s think for example of local cells following the orders or the inspiration of a far away terrorist organization –. Clearly, against such a threat a strong transnational effort and a durable cooperation are more useful than having “closed” borders – if these may be useful at all –.

In this sense, although it is true that the UK, once outside the EU, may be able to negotiate different bilateral deals with the Member States, these are not likely to be as comprehensive and powerful as the ones formulated within the EU. Furthermore, once an “outsider”, the country will not be able to enjoy the advantages of the Union’s counter-terrorism strategy as may be the open access to the sharing of intelligence and data, the common formation of expertise, the mutual legal assistance, and the simpler and the quicker extradition process. Moreover, the country will not be able to take part in the decision-making processes that shape the EU’s strategy, including the sharing of data and the collaboration with non-member countries both locally and internationally.

Yet, the loss is reciprocal and the “divorce” from the UK will also have negative consequences for the European Union counter-terrorism strategy. In this sense, the EU will lose a very strong member, with a very efficient intelligence whose collaboration proved beneficial on many occasions. Moreover, its access to the data collected by the UK’s intelligence will also be restricted – if not denied – as will be the possibility of persecuting individuals in this country and to quickly extradite them. Furthermore, and at a more general level, losing a member exposes to criticism – and therefore makes more vulnerable – a project that is held together by a fragile ideal of an achievable “common good” through cooperation and burden-sharing.

From a counter-terrorism point of view, therefore, the UK remaining in the EU, in spite of all the flaws its strategy has, would have been the best option for both parties. The EU may not provide a perfect security network, but it creates a framework within which the Member States can join forces in the fight against terrorism which, as seen, is fundamental to defeat this kind of security threat.

Nevertheless, there is a valuable lesson the Member States should learn from Brexit. And this is for them to value more and take more seriously the European counter-terrorism strategy, which also means increasing the cooperation – and the mutual trust – among them and the EU bodies. This is in the interest of all the countries as it would reduce the flaws in the strategy and make it more efficient. But, above all, it would lessen the attractiveness of the “being better off on one’s own” option, by making the EU’s counter-terrorism effort more dynamic and competent and by giving a renewed sparkle to the project of fighting terrorism together.

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