TSG IntelBrief: The Impact of Brexit on Counterterrorism
March 30, 2017

The Impact of Brexit on Counterterrorism


Bottom Line Up Front:

• On March 29, British Prime Minister Theresa May submitted the UK’s official notice of its intent to withdraw from the EU within two years.

• In her notification letter, there was an implicit attempt to link favorable trade deals with continued effective security cooperation.

• While the economic and political repercussions of Brexit are unclear—though likely to be significant—security cooperation will undoubtedly continue apart from other issues.

• Increased nationalism and economic considerations across Europe may aggravate security concerns, but cooperative counterterrorism protocols are likely to persist.


On March 29, the British government invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, officially triggering Britain’s exit from the EU within two years. The action marked one of the more momentous events in post-World War II European history. Britain has been a member of the EU and its predecessors since 1973. Though Brexit was initially signaled through a referendum, it is difficult to overstate the significance of Britain’s March 29 official step to begin the process. Britain’s exit from the EU is likely to cause substantial economic and political upheaval not only in Britain, but in other EU member states as well. The wave of populism that played a leading role in the vote for Brexit is not confined to the British Isles. 

Upon Britain’s official exit, the outlook for continuing the security cooperation that runs deeply, if imperfectly, throughout the EU is also uncertain, yet less negative than the outlook for the economic and political arena. The long-existing intelligence and security protocols that have helped Europe weather and manage waves of terrorism will likely survive Brexit—though it will not be easy. In her letter invoking Article 50, British Prime Minister Theresa May implicitly attempted to link trade deals between the UK and EU with security cooperation. Though the implication was later walked back, the message had already been received and rejected by the EU. Calling for a new ‘deep and special partnership’ on both economic and security matters to replace the current EU partnership, Prime Minister May warned that the shared fight against terrorism and crime could be weakened if no deal were reached.

The EU’s leading Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, flatly rejected any attempt to use security as a bargaining chip in larger negotiations. The EU is facing a serious and volatile internal political environment—which is exacerbated by external factors, such as Russia, that seek to turn Brexit into the first of many exits. Yet it is also facing a serious terrorism threat that is likely to persist for the foreseeable future. In terms of counterterrorism, Brexit will not be a positive development for a necessarily collaborative security effort already struggling with intelligence sharing and cooperation, but it will not lead to a complete return to stove-piped isolationism either.

The proliferating threat across the West of inspired terrorism—often involving some level of communication or instruction by known extremists—along with the potential for directed attacks, represents a serious concern for all of Europe. The British intelligence and security services are among the most effective European counterterrorism agencies, and will continue to coordinate and cooperate closely with EU countries such as France and Germany even once the UK is no longer an EU member. The threat posed by terrorism transcends borders and societal differences. Thus, counterterrorism efforts have long generated partnerships even among ill-suited partners, even if such partnerships have been narrow. Notwithstanding the issue of Brexit, the EU faces serious challenges in its current counterterrorism efforts—as well as certain security and intelligence lapses that must be addressed. Though Brexit will add another hurdle for Europe to navigate as it seeks to enhance security, collaborative counterterrorism efforts and capabilities are likely to remain largely intact, even as the wording of agreements change.


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