Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The Brexit vote and Europe's security

The Brexit vote and Europe's security
Published 2 Jun 2016 

The Brexit vote has put on hold any major EU business. But one way or the other, the EU will change after 23 June, especially with regard to security.

Europe faces three related challenges: Libya and Turkey as key migrant transfer countries; Putinism in the East; and the need to stay globally relevant in the Asian century. If it is a 'yes' to Brexit, Europe's short term emphasis will be towards strengthened security through NATO and other ad hoc structures. But Germany and France have already clearly indicated that they will considerably deepen their security cooperation, with their final goal a European army.

Syrian refugees in Turkey. (Flickr/European Commission)

If it is a 'no' and Britain stays in the EU, Prime Minister Cameron or a like-minded pro-European successor will feel free to work with the UK's newly affirmed European partners to start tackling real problems such as the triad mentioned above.

With summer approaching, all European governments will do just about anything to avoid another wave of migrants washing over the continent, with its attendant chaos on old national frontiers in borderless Europe, babies drowning in the Mediterranean, threats of easy infiltration by militant and terrorist jihadists, and another surge in populist xenophobia exploited by right-wing politicians. As the wells of potential migrants on the south-eastern and the southern borders of Europe overflow, the only way to go is more muscular prevention.

The devil's pact that the EU had to conclude with an ever more authoritarian Turkey threatens to unravel, as Angela Merkel and the European Parliament have finally put their foot down with regard to visa-free EU travel by Turks in view of blatant human rights violations in Turkey's new anti-terrorist legislation. In response, 'Sultan' Erdogan has threatened to suspend his side of the deal and resume active encouragement of traffickers channeling migrants towards Greece. The notion of a militarily-backed border between Turkey and the EU looms larger than ever.

On the Turkish-Greek border this would engage NATO countries on opposing fronts, a traditionally unthinkable scenario. [fold]

This at a moment in European history when Putinism brings back vivid memories of the Cold War, when NATO of course was the main defensive tool on the Western side. The highly nationalist Polish government, generally hostile to all international commitments, makes an exception for NATO. Poland wholeheartedly embraces Western, especially American, re-engagement against what it sees as Russian revisionism on its borders and also in the Baltic States and Scandinavia.

Meanwhile, Libya remains a failed state without even the means, let alone the will, to prevent the migrant flow towards Italian shores. Last week's appalling news of mass drownings from overloaded migrant boats off Libya is a harbinger of worse to come if the mandate given to Frontex naval vessels (the Schengen-wide border protection authority) and NATO states remains restrictive. Both Cameron but also his immediate predecessor Gordon Brown have called for new measures, including naval patrols in Libya's coastal regions 'to root out the traffickers'. This could create the real possibility of direct engagement, including military confrontation, with Libyan warlords and their African partners engaged in human in human trafficking.

Adding to Europe's travails, long term strategic shifts such as the American pivot to Asia clearly indicate that the process of transferring the main burden for the old continent's defence from US to European shoulders is inevitable. As the US election campaign shows, the next American president will take office with a Congress and a public potentially more inward looking than any since World War II. Washington will in any case concentrate on its relations with China and the situation in the Asia Pacific. Messages to Europe — such as Obama's admonition to the UK to stay in the EU for reasons of national security — are as abundant and as clear as possible.

For evident strategic and economic reasons, but also due to geopolitical claims such as French possessions in the Pacific, Europe will have to remain a credible factor on the global chessboard. The test will come probably with Libya. US interests there remain indirect, whereas for the EU, the future is at stake. For Obama, intervention there was 'a mistake I regret'. For Europe it is the first decisive front line in its belated hard-security response to a migration crisis which has brought the Le Pens and their equivalents throughout Europe perilously close to real political power.

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