Security in the EU referendum debate

9 May 16

The theme of security has been prominent in the EU debate so far, but many details of the impact of Brexit have not been explored

Security has been a key issue in the UK’s EU referendum debate. This was established early in the campaign with Prime Minister David Cameron keen to establish a connection in the public mind between EU membership and national security. Subsequently issues of the UK’s ‘economic security’ and its ‘societal security’ have been prominent through discussion on the detrimental consequences on the UK’s economy of a Brexit and the ongoing impacts on UK society from the migration of workers from other EU member states.

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Concerns about the security threat from terrorism were also swiftly incorporated into the debate following the Brussels airport and Metro bombings. A number of Brexit campaigners drew almost immediate conclusions from the bombings, arguing that they highlighted why the UK could better provide for its own security against terrorism outside, rather than inside, the European Union. In the week following the bombings current and former members of the intelligence and security communities claimed that the EU did, or did not, play a contribution in the UK protecting itself from terrorism. The ability of the Brussels terrorists to operate across frontiers, and that they were part of network that operated across a number of countries, was a reminder that the terrorist threat is transnational. In the debate ahead of the 23 June vote, it triggered discussion on the UK’s capacity to provide for its security by control of its borders and the extent to which this is compromised by membership of the EU.

A comprehensive answer to the question as to whether the EU enhances, or weakens, UK national security can be considered by assessing the contribution of the EU to mitigating the key national security threats that the UK government has identified.

Terrorism is a ‘Tier one’ threat in the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) conducted in 2015. The NSRA places the domestic and overseas risks the UK faces into three tiers, according to judgement of both likelihood and impact. ‘Tier one’ risks are the highest priority based on high likelihood and/or high impact. The NRSA is a key part of the process that results in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review and which sets the framework for UK security and defence policy. The EU, however, is not prominent within the NSS and the SDSR as a key mechanism to address these threats. But a preponderance of the domestic and overseas threats listed in all tiers as priority concerns for the UK are currently being mitigated, in part, by policies pursued by the UK in combination with the EU.

These are particularly notable on environmental-related threats and issues of resource insecurity such as energy supply. Combating serious and organised crime, which is identified as a tier two threat falls under the activities of Europol, (the EU criminal justice and policing agency) in which the UK is a participant. A key component of addressing these issues is collective information sharing on criminal activities between the UK and the EU’s other member states to counter criminals, including sex offenders, people traffickers and terrorists. The UK currently cooperates, through its membership in the EU, with other member states on the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), Schengen Information System (SIS), European criminal records system and EU-Interpol cooperation. Whether these could be pursued as effectively by the UK if it is no longer a member of the EU has not yet been explored extensively in the referendum public debate.

There has been some speculation that if the UK public votes to exit the EU on the 23 June it would throw the EU into a crisis. The outcome of which might result in its disintegration coming as it would on top of the EU’s ongoing economic difficulties and struggle to manage refugee flows into Europe.  The NRSA identified ‘decay and failure of key [international] institutions’ and ‘financial crisis’ as potential threats to the UK. The UK can leave the EU but its national security will still be tied to its economic and political stability.


Professor Richard G. Whitman will be speaking at the CIPFA event How does the EU affect our safety and security? on Wednesday 25 May 6.30pm-8.30pm. Register for the event here. This is one of a series of events being hosted by CIPFA with the think-tank CoVi ahead of June’s referendum looking at the impact of the EU on public services. For more information and to register for the events, please visit:

  • Richard G. Whitman

    Professor Richard G. Whitman is a senior research fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe, Visiting Senior Fellow at Chatham House and Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

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