Memo to May: Britain needs European security

Theresa May has been urged by security chiefs not detach the UK from all EU activities © Reuters

Last month it was Davos, where she found herself lost in the shadows of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. This week, Theresa May is travelling to Munich. The UK prime minister is hoping for a more enthusiastic reception when she speaks to senior foreign and defence policy chiefs.

That will depend. Her audience at the annual Munich Security Conference will be looking for hard evidence that Brexit does not mean a retreat from Britain's commitment to shared defence of the continent. Mrs May can no longer get by with warm generalities.

Brexit is about more than redrawing trade relationships. European integration has always been about security as well as prosperity — the more so as troubles have flared in the EU’s near abroad. Nato remains the linchpin of Britain's defence, particularly when it comes to “hard” military interventions. But national security is also very much a co-operative effort within the EU. Beyond the obvious threat from terrorism, one of the lessons of the Syrian civil war is that flows of refugees defy national frontiers.

Whether it is applying sanctions against Russia, stabilising the western Balkans, countering Islamist terrorism, fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean or substituting economic development for radicalisation in Africa, European co-operation has become a vital thread in the fabric of national policy. Britain then leverages its role in the EU in organisations such as the UN.

Logic would say that both Britain and the EU27 will want to preserve as much of the present framework of collaboration. Mrs May said as much in September last year when she announced that, to borrow a phrase, Britain wanted a deep and special security partnership. But Brexit will see Britain’s inevitable departure from the EU’s common foreign and security policy and from Franco-German efforts, through so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation, to create a viable common defence capability. The UK will also fall out of the agencies and frameworks — Europol is one example — through which the EU co-ordinates security and antiterrorism policy.

Britain does have some cards to play in the negotiations. If it will no longer have any say in deciding, for example, whether to maintain sanctions against the Kremlin because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it does have intelligence capacities that the others value in the operating of those sanctions. By some accounts, 80 per cent of the work done to justify sanctions against named individuals close to Vladimir Putin’s regime originates in London. And, while its support for stabilisation operations in troubled regions of sub-Saharan Africa has been halfhearted, the UK, along with France, is among only a handful of nations able to launch expeditionary military interventions.

Britain’s own security agencies have told the prime minister that participation in some EU schemes — among them Europol, the common arrest warrant, and data-sharing through Schengen — is vital to national security. Without it, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies will find it much harder to track and detain terrorists. They will want Mrs May to use her Munich speech to give unequivocal commitments in this respect.

This means in turn that the prime minister must be ready to face down the hardline ideologues among the Brexiters who insist that Britain should detach itself from all EU activities when the European Court of Justice has an oversight role. The leading cabinet Brexiter Michael Gove pours scorn on the economic experts who have warned that Brexit will leave Britain poorer. Will he and his fellow hardliners now show the same disdain for the military and intelligence chiefs?

For Britain’s European allies, Brexit very much looks like a victory for Little Englanders. Mrs May faces a challenge to persuade them otherwise.

Further reading

Brexiters owe us clarity on the sovereignty dividend

“Voters are being urged to brave a hard exit that would tug at the seams of the kingdom, disrupt the economic life of the Irish Republic and risk some material cost to themselves. The least they should expect in return is an impressionistic picture of Britain’s post-EU economic model from the people who are keenest on the idea.” (Janan Ganesh in the FT)

Labour Remainers risk pushing away core voters forever

“Labour Remainers are living dangerously. Very dangerously. If they think they can manage their Brexiteer voters in the way they have until now — in trying to wreck the Brexit bill — and think they will get away with it, they may be in for a big shock at the next election.” (Labour MP Frank Field in The Times)

Britain’s best Brexit bet? The Jersey option

“Under the Jersey model, the UK would hardly be an EU vassal state. It would regain regulatory autonomy in services, which account for four-fifths of the economy, and in other policy areas currently covered by EU law.” (Philippe Legrain, founder of the Open think-tank, in CapX)

Hard numbers

The price of farmland in England and Wales dipped 2 per cent in the last six months of 2017, compared with the same period in 2016, while uncertainty over Brexit saw a sharp drop in the amount of land for sale. 

Prices have fallen 7 per cent since they peaked in the second half of 2015 — before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU — to an average of £10,260 an acre, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Agricultural University The number of those surveyed reporting a drop in land supply increased to its highest level since 2004, with a net balance of 43 per cent reporting a fall rather than a rise in land availability. 

A separate survey from Savills on Monday showed that when farmers do sell, they are increasingly doing so because of debts. One in five farmers — 21 per cent — cited debt as the main reason for selling, up from 6 per cent in 2007, mainly due to weak commodity prices during the middle part of that decade. Read more here.