Brexit’s repercussions on UK-EU ties, notably in defence, are evident amid recent events like Navalny’s death and Russian threats. Despite challenges, closer integration seems unavoidable, exposing Brexiters’ impractical expectations.

S hortly after last week’s piece about Brexit, Russia, and defence went up, the news of Alexei Navalny’s death was announced, and although its cause is still shrouded in secrecy, it can hardly be regarded as an accident, if only because of the brutal regime obtaining at the ‘Polar Wolf’ penal colony where he was incarcerated.

It was a further reminder of the nature of Putin’s regime, and the anniversary, last week, of its unprovoked attack on Ukraine will provide another. That is even without considering the crazy threats last weekend from Russia’s former President and Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev that Washington, London, Berlin, and Kyiv would be obliterated by nuclear missiles if his country was forced out of Ukraine.

As I argued in that piece, the combination of the Putin threat and a possible Trump Presidency is provoking renewed debate about, and possible progress towards, closer defence and security integration between the UK and the EU. It is telling that, just as I was writing it, the German Finance Minister even floated the idea of closer Anglo-French nuclear weapons cooperation, with financial support from EU countries, so as to develop a European capability (not that last week’s events have been much of an advert for Britain’s nuclear prowess). Shortly afterwards, that idea was alluded to by a close ally of Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to London to discuss the UK’s possible role in European defence more generally.

Nuclear defence integration isn’t in prospect, but that it is even being discussed is an indication of the seriousness of the situation, and the integrative logic of that situation. That logic was certainly on display last weekend at the annual meeting of the annual Munich Security Conference, which brought perhaps the strongest statement yet from Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy that a Labour government would seek a deep security and defence pact with the EU. At the same time, Valérie Hayer, who leads the Renew Group, the third largest bloc within the European Parliament, indicated strong support for a new defence treaty with the UK.

School for scoundrels

If growing threats are once more teaching the perils of isolation, passing the test will not be easy. Even without Brexit, a defence agreement would have been difficult and Brexit has made it harder. Hayer referred to such an agreement as having been spoken of in Theresa May’s time. That’s true, but it has a convoluted history, which remains important. When May submitted the letter triggering Article 50 in March 2017, there was a strong implication, much resented within the EU, that the UK would use its security and military capabilities as a bargaining tool in the exit negotiations. It’s worth recalling this partly because there is a tendency as time has gone by to depict May as (according to taste) the reasonable and pragmatic face of Brexit or, as Brexit Ultras would have it, unwilling to play ‘hardball’ with the EU.

In fact, apart from security, it was May and the then Chancellor Philip Hammond who threatened the EU with an ‘alternative economic model’ of aggressive tax cuts and deregulation if the UK did not get the kind of trade deal it wanted. Recalling this isn’t just a matter of setting the domestic record straight. It is directly relevant to the present because, although UK-EU relations are now generally better than they have been, there is still a legacy of distrust to be overcome which is not solely connected to how Boris Johnson conducted himself. Having never exactly been an easy partner even before the referendum, Britain came very close to making itself a pariah state in the years after 2016 and the memory of that, along with the spectacle of so many Tory MPs and their allies still obsessively demanding a cleaner break with the EU, as well as derogation from the ECHR, means that creating a new relationship of deep trust will not be easy.

May became considerably less antagonistic in tone in her September 2017 Florence Speech, to the extent that ironically, as I observed at the time, it sounded more like an explanation of why the UK should be joining the EU rather than of why it was leaving. As regards security, specifically, she was also notably diplomatic in her own speech to the Munich Security Conference, in 2018, although as I discussed then it continued to have some ambiguities. (By contrast, Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, had used his appearance at the conference, the year before, to raise hackles by gloating about Britain’s “liberation” from the EU.)

However, it was the Russian nerve poison attacks on Salisbury, just a couple of weeks after May’s Munich speech, which really brought home – literally – the fact that the UK needed European allies. That provided the background to the possibility of a deep security and defence pact that Hayer referred to, which was envisaged by the Political Declaration that accompanied May’s Withdrawal Agreement. But once Johnson came to power, he and David Frost proceeded to question its parameters and once again it was suggested, including by Nick Timothy, May’s one-time adviser who had been a key architect of hard Brexit (and, reportedly, had had an input into the Article 50 letter ‘threats’), that security and defence could be used as “leverage” to gain concessions on trade.

It’s not clear that any such concessions were achieved and, at all events, what emerged in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement was, as regards security, a “dialled down” relationship and, as regards foreign and defence policy, no agreement at all. It was really only the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 which created an impetus to greater cooperation, but “the relationship remains unstructured”. As I argued last week, the continuing threat of Russia, plus the threat, and, if it happens, the fact, of a Trump Presidency – along with the advent of a Labour government – may well be a catalyst for a closer and more structured relationship. Certainly some Brexiters have become alive to that possibility, with the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard counselling that “if you want to keep Brexit, pray for a Biden victory” and Spectator article warning against attempts to ‘lock’ Britain into defence integration with the EU. It’s a reminder that however compelling the logic of cooperation, it will encounter opposition from the stubbornly unteachable, which in turn will undermine trust in the UK’s reliability.

Learning the facts of life  

Yet the logic is compelling, and exerts a remorseless pressure. The fundamental point concerns the interconnectedness of the UK and the EU, which didn’t cease to exist because of Brexit. It is an interconnectedness which takes numerous forms, certainly not just in relation to security and defence, but trade, supply chains, culture, education, science, and families. Some of that is to do with the simple fact of being in geographical proximity; some of it is because of the fact of the UK having been a member of the EU, or its predecessors, for almost fifty years, leaving a deep legacy of integration. Brexiters gave no thought to the implications of any of this, and seemed to imagine that many of the conveniences of membership would just carry on as before, despite leaving, whilst relationships with the rest of the world outside the EU, and perhaps even the social mores and values of life before the EEC, could just be picked up as if they had been pickled in aspic since 1973.

The consequence is that Britain is now a learner in the world that it created for itself with Brexit, and a very slow learner at that. The lessons of interconnected defence are being taught the most quickly because the Russian invasion of Ukraine was such a seismic event that even the dullest of pupils couldn’t ignore it. Similarly, galvanized by his self-imposed political imperative to ‘stop the boats’, Rishi Sunak is about to agree a deal, possibly to be signed today, to share information with Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency. It turns out that international irregular migration flows can’t be dealt with at national level, something underscored just yesterday by the news that Europol have dismantled a major gang involved in cross-channel people-smuggling. Who knew?

The same tutorials are being given in other domains. Reality just keeps intruding on Brexiter fantasies. Thus, despite some die-hard Brexiter bumptiousness, it has become obvious from impartial analysis that ‘doing our own trade deals’ is not just of virtually no economic value but is a lot more complicated than the early ‘sign up to anything’ approach that led to the agreements with Australia and New Zealand. At all events, UK trade remains strongly connected to the EU. The lessons about the interconnected nature of regulation are also gradually being learnt. Sometimes, as with the effective abandonment of the UKCA mark, it happens through the laborious process of trial and error. Sometimes, as with last week’s news that UK officials are lobbying the EU to tighten its financial services regulation, it happens through the belated realization that what the EU does actually has a huge effect on Britain and, in this particular case, that robust regulation serves a useful purpose. Once again, who knew?

Cookery lessons

A currently widely-reported example of these dawning realities is Rishi Sunak’s sudden attention to food security, and his newfound interest in farming generally. Much of that interest is no doubt motivated by widespread reports that Tory support in its rural English heartlands is imploding, many of the roots of which lie in Brexit, in (at least) four ways.

First, there is the issue of the increased barriers to trading with the EU, which have added substantial costs to UK food exports, with more costs to come with the introduction of full import controls this year. Second there is the adverse impact on farmers of the new post-Brexit trade deals. Third, there is the impact of freedom of movement of labour having ended. And, fourth, there is the continuing saga of the replacement for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system of payments and support. Clearly, all of these are inter-related, as the problems faced by farmers reduce UK production, thus aggravating food insecurity (something also brought into focus by the Ukraine war), and, alongside the increased costs of trade with the EU, this contributes to food price inflation and supply disruptions for consumers.

The replacement of CAP is a particularly sorry story. Here is something which was the bête noire of British Eurosceptics since the 1970s and so the one area, above all, for which they should have been prepared for when they finally achieved Brexit. Instead, the introduction of the confusing Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) was botched and chaotic, leading to endless reviews and delayschanges, and much of the promised financial support has never materialized. Even by Brexit standards it is a convoluted story, but the basic fact is that there is still no fully-functioning replacement for the CAP, or even any strategic clarity about whether the aim is to incentivize food production or countryside stewardship.

Computer club

If farming and food security is a case study in post-Brexit Britain’s slow schooling in reality, it also provides illustrations of one of the most significant, if least discussed, aspects of the theme of interconnectedness. A recent article by TC Callis in Kent and Surrey Bylines, discussing the introduction of import controls, drew attention, amongst other things, to how Brexit deprived the UK of access to relevant EU databases. It is a point I have stressed repeatedly in the past, but one which rarely features in media coverage of the issue. Indeed, even now, reports of the dangers of food crime under plans to shift testing facilities from Dover to inland Sevington ignore this issue. But Callis explains how food crime and other risks have been exacerbated by loss of full access to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) and, as I’ve pointed out before (although I failed to mention RASFF), there is a whole ecosystem of databases in this sphere, including the EU’s Animal Disease Information System (ADIS) and Trade Control Expert System (TRACES), to which the UK no longer has full access.

Such issues of data-sharing are part of the crucial, if unglamorous, infrastructure which, along with much regulatory infrastructure, keeps daily life going. A litter of acronyms, they are like the hardware and software of the computers we all use but which few people know or care about so long as they work. In the economic sphere, it is lack of access to the EU REACH database that has meant the UK having to develop a separate system, increasing costs in the chemicals industry*, and the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is set to be another (as discussed in previous pieces). In both these cases, linkage of the UK and EU databases may well be the ultimate outcome, underlining both the pointlessness of duplication as well as the persistent logic of integration and interconnectedness  

In the policing and criminal justice sphere, as with food and diseases, there is a complex EU eco-system of which the UK is no longer a part even though, of course, crime and other security threats to the UK are not confined to national borders. So we remain connected to Europe as regards these threats, but at best semi-connected as regards the means of meeting them. Thus some cooperation, albeit on reduced terms, continues, for example with EUROPOL and EUROJUST, but the UK has lost access to the Schengen Information System II (SIS II) and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), significantly undermining policing.

Notably, it is database access which is central to the deal, mentioned above, that Sunak is doing with the EU over cooperation with Frontex, notably the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR). However, that has another implication, which also applies to those EU security databases – like DNA, criminal records, fingerprints and air passenger lists – to which the UK has already negotiated post-Brexit access: it makes it highly unlikely that the UK could abandon the data protection standards of GDPR**. So, in this sense, interconnectedness in one domain begets interconnectedness in others.

Messy work

What we are seeing across all these areas, and many others, is therefore a very complex and untidy picture, which is almost impossible to summarise, or to characterize in any one way. It consists of a series of ad hoc accommodations, sometimes entailing duplication (e.g. UK REACH), sometimes entailing piecemeal deals with the EU (e.g. EUROSUR), sometimes simply meaning loss of functionality or capacity (e.g. SIS II). It should not be forgotten that all of these accommodations come at a financial cost, fragmented in ways which make it impossible to quantify, all of which used to be rolled into the UK’s budgetary contribution to the EU, in return for which we used to have full access to everything rather than to a jumble of patches.

To add to the complexity, almost none of these issues are static, with new systems – whether they be data management systems, regulatory systems, or sector-specific systems like farming support – being rolled out, each with varying transition or implementation periods. Likewise, to the extent that these developments involve recalibrations and redefinitions in particular aspects of the UK-EU relationship, they are also evolutionary rather than static. It is obviously also the case that the pace and scale of change in any particular area varies according to economic or political exigency, which is why the case of defence has a particular momentum just now, but they are all in flux to some degree or another.

But for all that the overall picture is messy and hard to characterize, in almost all cases the direction of travel is the same in pointing to integration. The well-documented tendency to non-divergence in regulation is an aspect of that, but non-divergence really only codes continuation of existing integration. The wider picture is one of closening relationships with the EU, either in the sense of reversing some of the distances initially created by Brexit (e.g. the Frontex deal or, not discussed in this piece, rejoining Horizon), even if in clumsy or sub-optimal ways, or in the sense of moving to a greater degree of integration than existed even as an EU member (defence being potentially by far the most important example). For Brexiters, all this betokens the failure to ‘do Brexit properly’, but what it really shows is the failure of Brexit as a concept, or at least as a realistic policy.

A slow and unwilling pupil

There have been many faces of Brexit over the years. The gurning anger of Farage. The blustering buffoonery of Johnson. The psychotic glitter of Braverman. The vapid pipsqueakery of Grimes. The blokeish thuggery of Banks. The creepy unctuousness of Gove. The mad narcissism of Cummings. The born-again zealotry of Truss. The porcine truculence of Frost. The smug spitefulness of Rees-Mogg.

They all still exist, but the dominant image, now, is that of a lumpen, sulky, schoolboy dullard. Kept in for an umpteenth detention, tongue-between-teeth, he ponderously repeats the basic textbook exercises that his juniors mastered long ago, and with painful slowness comes to realize that the things his teachers had been trying to drum in to him for years past are, indeed, true.

PMP Magazine

(*) Some of these costs have been reduced by recent government changes to the UK REACH system, although, as is typically the case with regulation, this involves trade-offs in terms of creating higher levels of risk.
(**) Were the UK to do so, the EU would almost certainly withdraw recognition of the UK data protection system, and that would have the effect of locking us out of those EU databases to which we still have full access, as well as having profoundly damaging consequences for the commercial use of data. It remains an open question whether the measures in the current UK Data Protection and Digital Information Bill will constitute sufficient divergence from EU GDPR to lead the EU to revoke its 2021 adequacy decision about the UK regime.


▪ This piece was first published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 27 February 2024 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Dreamstime/Stepan Popov.

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