‘Britain and Europe in the Brexit Years’, by Helen Ramscar and Michael Clarke

Published by The Strategy Bridge on 9 March 2020.

The 2020s look set to be difficult years for the security of all European countries. That would have been the case with or without the Brexit decision that finally took the United Kingdom out of the European Union on the 31st of January 2020. All the European second rank powers face a global environment where the Big Four of China, the United States, Russia, and India are flexing their geopolitical muscles more vigorously and in different ways. They face an economic environment that has still not recovered from the global crisis and where a return to an economic crisis is still entirely possible. And Europeans live in a world where liberal democracy is in retreat and is no longer even an exclusive force of natural kinship within their own European family.

It seems astonishing that as the biggest international market in the world—indeed, in history—the European Union has so small a strategic international presence and low aspirations to increase it.[1] This lacuna did not matter too much during the Cold War or even in the period of post-Cold War western primacy; but it may matter greatly in the era starting this decade.

Russia has long used what economic leverage it has, mainly over gas and oil supplies to European neighbours, for nakedly political purposes. China has used its predominant market power to cajole foreign governments to conform to Chinese strategic aims and punish those that do not. And over the last decade the U.S. employed targeted economic sanctions more extensively than ever before as a strategic policy instrument. The evident trend is that big economic powers or, in the case of Russia, an alienated power with some specific economic attributes naturally straddle and mix the economic and security spheres in the way they approach policy. The Europeans, however, for historical reasons, have kept both spheres institutionally separate in the European Union and NATO, with surprisingly little overlap between them across more than 60 years. That dichotomy is difficult to maintain in the face of the strategic pressures all European powers appear now to be facing. The statesmanship of the Continent’s leaders will be tested severely in the next few years. No less than for Brexit Britain itself, Europe is at a strategic tipping point.

The decade after the Cold War’s end transformed the European security environment in relatively benign ways that leaders felt within their control. But the tempo of potential strategic change has now increased markedly, even as the collective ability of the European powers to deal with it has declined. The Europeans have faced a challenging range of economic fissures with strategic implications, and strategic challenges with economic consequences. Over recent years, Hungary, Romania, Greece, and Poland have drifted away from EU policy, all on different but strategically important issues.[2] Large parts of Europe’s Mediterranean coast in North Africa have become a region of social upheaval; Turkey and even Italy have done separate deals with Russia that would have been unthinkable for two significant NATO members a decade ago; Germany risks energy dependence on Russia with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.[3] As one senior British defence official expressed it, European security has self-evidently not broken down, but the risks of it doing so are now considerably higher than in recent years.[4]

The European security equation is also at a tipping point as major external powers face significant changes themselves. The United States is self-evidently reconsidering its own commitment to uphold the previous global order, unless directly for the benefit of the U.S. public. President Trump has publicly mused about withdrawing the United States from NATO altogether, and caused a storm of discussion about it within Congress.[5] Vladimir Putin prepares for a continuation in power in Russia after his final allowable presidential terms ends in 2024.[6] There will be no smooth transition to a new Russia around that time, just the open-ended prospect of a country with less than two thirds the gross domestic product of Italy, holding the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, with a failing economy, a modernising military, and a reliance, as Putin professes patriotism as the only possible national idea for Russians.[7] The immediate danger to Europe is not of outright Russian military action against the European heartland, but rather of miscalculation and reckless gambles around the fringes of the neighbourhood and assertive attempts to achieve showy political goals with barely disguised military intimidation.

Not least, China’s emerging Belt and Road Initiative—covering 68 countries, 65% of the global population, and 40% of the global gross domestic product—is beginning to have real strategic effects on European economies. Chinese capital and investment are already more deeply embedded in European economies than any Soviet equivalent during the Cold War. Chinese influence is set to grow swiftly in the coming years. If Chinese policy elsewhere in the world is repeated in Europe, this economic involvement will come increasingly with political requirements dictated by Beijing. The security dilemma posed by Great Britain’s relationship with Huawei for its future 5G network is an example of the security decisions that all European governments will have to grapple with over the next decade.

Nor is the strategic environment for the Europeans only dominated by these big three powers. The fourth of the Big Four, India has shown in recent years that it is on a more strategically assertive path. In 2022, India will mark its 75th anniversary, “a golden opportunity to take India to new heights.”[8] Soon India will have the biggest national population in the world—with 1.3 billion in 2017 it will soon overtake China’s 1.4 billion—and from a low base, it is the fastest growing large economy in the world at around 7 per cent annually. Its size makes India a paradox in terms of political power. In a decade, it is said, “India would still be a relatively poor country, as China is now. But it would be a superpower.”[9] In the years following the 2008 economic crash, when attitudes towards new forms of global governance changed as the impacts of globalization began to be felt and the Western world suffered a loss of confidence and power, Indian leaders became more proactive and interested in shaping global trends by cooperating more closely with traditional mechanisms and power structures.[10] More than that, however, the rapid emergence of China to an explicitly global role has had the effect of galvanizing New Delhi’s strategic thinking. China and India both fear the other is intent on surrounding them to limit their freedom of action. China particularly fears Indian influence around its troubled west, including Xinjiang and Tibet, in addition to its borders with Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma. India fears China’s naval and port facilities across the Indian Ocean—its so-called string of pearls bases—that include a growing presence in Sri Lanka and now in Djibouti and East Africa.

In such a challenging strategic environment it has been somewhat perverse that so much attention has been given to what Brexit Britain might lose in being outside the European Union. The greater strategic question is what, in their present troubled state, the Europeans might lose without Britain. Indeed, for both Brexit Britain and the European Union, the focus for the immediate future is likely to be on strategic damage limitation.

Acting on their own, the EU nations, notwithstanding French armed forces, have no convincing ability to deploy major military force structures, even within their own continent, without British involvement. Whether in terms of defence procurement, mobility or combat enabling technologies, intelligence, command and control assets, or significant military command structures, the only plausible arrangements are those that can be made within NATO or else among all the Europeans and outside EU structures.[11] With Brexit, some 80% of all NATO defence expenditure is provided by non-EU members of the alliance. President Macron of France recognised this reality even as he accused NATO of being brain dead; and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel echoed the same realisation in Germany’s 2019 budget debate.[12]

Correspondingly, whether in or out of the European Union, Britain simply has no choice but to be part of Europe’s security. Throughout its modern history, one of the greatest lessons British leaders have repeatedly learned is that the country cannot pursue any other role in the world unless its immediate European neighbourhood is relatively safe and stable.[13]

But if both the European Union and Brexit Britain have a clear incentive towards damage limitation in the military sphere, it may not necessarily carry over to the broader security sphere. It will be even more difficult for the Europeans as a whole to maintain the consensus on sanctions against Russia over the Crimea and Ukraine crises. It will be more difficult to create a united response to Chinese political pressures on Europe if they start to build upon the basis of its economic involvement. It will be considerably harder—with Britain pursuing its own trade deals—to hold the line on global regulated free trade, which is coming under pressure from all sides.

In the first month of 2020, Britain found itself at odds with U.S. policy over tactics to deal with Iran, Britain’s decision to partially partner with Huawei, and plans to tax U.S. tech giants more heavily. London’s reactions on all these issues leaned towards greater unity among the European E3—Germany, France, and Britain—particularly on resisting US pressure to formally ditch the Iran nuclear deal. But the political price for E3 unity, especially for Britain, may increase steadily if the U.S. stays on its present course.

One of the most neglected security questions in the Brexit debate has concerned the law and policing aspects of having Britain outside the EU. The future effectiveness of Europol without one of its key members, and when Britain had done so much to make it the centrepiece of EU law enforcement, must be in question. So, too, the applicability of the European Arrest Warrant which has been a great success since 2005 and accounts for tens of thousands of swift arrests every year. Most importantly, the many information and intelligence-sharing systems that have burgeoned in recent years—particularly the Schengen’s SIS-II database, the European Criminal Records Information System, or the Passenger Name Records process—will all miss direct British participation.[14] Of course, there is a pragmatic willingness on both sides to cooperate as far as possible to compensate for what might be lost. But when the years from 2000 to 2017 witnessed a 40% increase in the number and operations of the 5,000 or so organised criminal groups across Europe, anything which makes police collaboration more cumbersome cannot be welcome to police and security services across the EU.[15]

The complex challenges of the 2020s were always set to be difficult for the European powers to contend with but the Brexit decision—the biggest strategic shift in policy within Europe since the end of the Cold War and one taken as an afterthought by a British electorate with other issues on its mind in the referendum—has increased the risks of strategic policy failure for all European powers. The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won his landslide victory at the polls in December 2019 on the promise to Get Brexit Done—starting on the 31st of January 2020. In reality, at midnight that evening, Brussels time, the real Brexit challenges begin for everyone. And a series of security tipping points are waiting out there for all the European powers.

Professor Michael Clarke and Helen Ramscar have co-authored Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s.

Helen Ramscar is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute where previously she was Director of Development (2017-2018). She has worked in China and Kenya, the UK House of Commons, the private office of HRH The Prince of Wales, and the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in London. She is a graduate of Durham University, the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, and Cass Business School. Her research interests include international relations and soft power.

Michael Clarke was Director General of the Royal United Services Institute from 2007-2015, where he remains a Distinguished Fellow. He has been an Advisor to three different UK Parliamentary Committees since 1997 and, in addition to a number of Visiting Professorships and Fellowships, is currently the Associate Director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter. In addition to Tipping Point, his books in 2019 also included The Challenge of Defending Britain.


[1] See, for example, https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/eu-position-in-world-trade/

[2] See, Valerie Hopkins and Michael Peel, ‘Hungary tests EU diplomatic unity with go-it-alone foreign policy’, Financial Times, 8 January 2020, on its EU consensus and democratic differences; ‘Romania Official at Odds with EU’, Associated Press, 10 January 2019, concerning judicial reform, corruption and future budgets; A. Makris, ‘Greece’s Too Close for Comfort Relationship with China’, Greek Reporter, 18 June 2017; ‘A Poland that is both anti-Russian and anti-European is a dream come true for Kremlin strategists…It appears that the Warsaw-Brussels conflict poses a serious problem for Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.’ See, Jeroen Bult, ‘Poland and EU at Odds: An uncomfortable Position for the Baltic States’, LT Daily, 21 January 2016.

[3] Jonathan Marcus, ‘What Turkey’s S-400 missile deal with Russia means for Nato’, BBC, 13 June 2019; Angela Giuffrida, ‘Italian PM to address claims League sought money from Russia’, The Guardian, 24 July 2019; Richard Milne and Henry Foy, ‘Denmark gives green light to Russia-Germany gas link’, Financial Times, 30 October 2019.

[4] Richard Barrons and Ewan Lawson, ‘Warfare in the Information Age’, RUSI Journal 161, no. 5 (2016); Sam Jones, ‘Britain’s “Withered” Forces Not Fit to Repel All-Out Attack’, Financial Times, 17 September 2016.

[5] Doug Mills, ‘Trump repeatedly discussed withdrawing US from Nato in protest over funding, aides say’, The Independent, 15 January 2019.

[6] Nikolai Petrov, ‘What Putin’s Constitutional Shakeup Means’, Chatham House Briefing, Chatham House, London, 16 January 2020.

[7] ‘Putin: Patriotism is only possible “national idea” for Russians’, Russia Beyond, 4 February 2016.

[8] ‘Full Text of Modi’s First Speech After Historic Election Victory’, Business Insider India, 26 May 2019.

[9] Martin Wolf, ‘India Will Rise, Regardless of Its Politics’, Financial Times, 5 February 2019.

[10] Amrita Narlikar, ‘India’s Role in Global Governance: A Modi-Fication?’ International Affairs 93, no. 1 (2017).

[11] Michael Clarke and Helen Ramscar, Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I.B.Tauris/BLoomsbury, 2019, pp. 203-206.

[12] ‘Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead’, The Economist, 7 November 2019; Chancellor Merkel, General Budget Debate, German Bundestag, 27 November 2019, see https://www.bundeskanzlerin.de/bkin-en/news/kanzlerin-bei-generaldebatte-1699808

[13] See, for example, Michael Howard, The Continental Commitment, London, Pelican Books, 1974.

[14] Clarke and Ramscar, Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, 2019, pp. 169-72.

[15] Europol, European Union, Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2017, Europol, Brussels, 2017, p. 14.