The optimistic visions promoted by the post-Brexit Global Britain narrative risk overlooking a range of worrying security and defence implications for the UK, argues Ciarán Carey.

In her recent speech at the Munich Security Conference, Theresa May used the platform to tell an international audience that Brexit would not lead to British isolationism; nor would it lead to the UK abdicating its responsibilities in matters of security and defence. Indeed, she sought to promote the much-vaunted notion of a ‘Global Britain’, and to use the UK’s role in international security and defence as supporting evidence of that vision of a post-Brexit reality.

The ‘Global Britain’ theme appears to be based on the premise that the EU – indeed, the rest of the world – needs the UK as much as the UK needs it, if not more so. Whilst this assumption may not survive the first round of negotiations of new trade deals once Brexit is complete, in matters of defence and international security, it contains more than a kernel of truth. Other than France, no EU nation comes close to matching UK military capabilities. In that sense, security and defence policy is perhaps different from other policy areas which must be addressed in, and beyond, the Brexit process. Unfortunately, the wanton incompetence and unpreparedness which the UK government demonstrates on a near daily basis across the Brexit spectrum is also present in matters of security and defence.

Prime Minister Theresa May in Germany ahead of the Munich Security Conference, February 2018. Image: Jay Allen [CC BY-ND 2.0]

The default position for too many people in the UK – Remainers and Leavers alike – is that defence policy remains the sole preserve of national capitals and not Brussels, that the EU is not especially important for territorial defence and wider international security when compared to NATO, and that the UK’s security relationship with the United States is far more important than that which exists with Europe.

While all of these assumptions are largely accurate, they also underpin a complacence which the UK can ill-afford in the current political and security climate. Potential security risks prompted by Brexit may be overlooked if the Brexit process continues to be so badly managed by the current UK government.


In the first instance, if the overall economic impact of Brexit is negative – and at the time of writing, that appears to be a very safe assumption – then defence will suffer just like anything else. By definition, a shrinking economy means the government has less money to spend. A reduced budget could barely come at a worse time, given the already parlous state of the UK’s defences.

The fall in the value of the pound caused by the mere prospect of Brexit means the UK government may not be able to afford equipment which it has already ordered, and which the armed forces badly need.

There have already been stark warnings. For example, the National Audit Office warned, in January 2017, that Brexit-related currency fluctuations ‘threaten to impact significantly’ the affordability and successful completion of the Defence Equipment Plan over the next decade, to the tune of some £21 billion. In other words, the fall in the value of the pound caused by the mere prospect of Brexit means the UK government may not be able to afford equipment which it has already ordered, and which the armed forces badly need.

A US Navy Boeing P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. The MoD is set to purchase nine of these aircraft. Image: Greg L. Davis, US Navy [CC]

This Plan was drawn up on the basis of a Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015 which did not even consider Brexit as a potential scenario. It represents yet another example of what Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, then Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, described as the “gross negligence” of David Cameron’s government in failing to prepare – indeed deliberately choosing not to prepare – for the Brexit scenario we face today. This is just one reason why the assumption that ‘Brexit won’t affect UK defence because the EU doesn’t do defence’ is dangerously complacent.


Aside from the overall economic impact, there is a case to be made that Brexit in itself poses a direct risk to UK security, specifically by its impact on Northern Ireland. As much as all parties in Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels keep reiterating that they do not want to see a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland, it is far from clear that a solution which is both practically feasible and universally politically acceptable can be reached. In the therefore not unlikely event that a hard border does appear, that will imply drastic changes to daily life, not only in the form of customs checks but in the changes to the policing, intelligence and military apparatus which will become necessary. A hard border will place extra demands across the board but notably on the operational capacity of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The extent to which this could affect the overall security situation is not entirely clear and demands urgent attention and analysis.

Another danger posed by a hard border would be in the new economic realities and opportunities it might create on the ground. As in many conflict situations, during the Troubles, the links and overlaps between organised crime and paramilitary organisations were many and complicated – but they were a fact. These pertained to human security but also arms trafficking and as a means of revenue – some IRA leaders who made vast personal fortunes through smuggling activities across the Armagh-Louth border.

A customs post at Strabane, Northern Ireland, 1968. Image: henrikjon [CC BY 2.0]

So for many people, the Troubles were highly profitable. A hard border could re-create a similar situation, although it would not do so for the majority of people. And this leads to another issue. Poverty, unemployment and hardship always figure among the drivers of any conflict and that was certainly true of the Troubles. The negative impact that a hard border is expected to have on the economy of Northern Ireland is the only thing that all parties seem to agree on but, again, the potential that this would create an escalation of paramilitary activity has not been given the attention it deserves.

All that said, the political realities of Brexit are arguably as much a security risk in Northern Ireland as its practicalities. From a political perspective, the fact that Theresa May’s government is so beholden to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to push its version of Brexit through the House of Commons undermines – if not completely destroys – its ability to act as an honest broker in negotiations to restart the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. This has, of course, been vigorously refuted by the Conservative government but its protestations are less than convincing. As for the DUP, it finds itself in a situation where it has been able to charge a high price for its support without having to assume any political risk or responsibility for governance in Northern Ireland – all the while, facing no pressure from Westminster to restore a devolution settlement which the DUP – lest we forget – did not even want to begin with.

Perceptions count for a lot in Northern Ireland, as they do in every conflict and post-conflict zone. If the perception (let alone the reality) is that the Conservative government cannot exercise any form of leverage on the DUP because it is dependent on it to deliver Brexit, then that risks eroding (or outright destroying) people’s faith in the political process. Even if that weren’t true, because of the all-consuming nature of Brexit on the daily work of government, and indeed the pressures it’s exerting on internal machinations within the Conservative party, Theresa May could never drop everything and fly to Belfast for all-night crisis talks the way Tony Blair, for example, did countless times.

A Sinn Féin anti-hard border protest at Stormont. Image: Sinn Féin [CC BY 2.0]

If politics is considered to be the pursuit of war by other means, then all parties must feel that their voices can be heard, and their interests served, through politics and through democratic institutions. If that ceases to be the case, then those who continue to advocate violence as a legitimate course of action could find their hand strengthened.

This concern is nothing new; it was always there. The achievement and subsequent implementation of the Good Friday Agreement depended heavily on persuading paramilitary leaders, often with little tangible evidence, that politics would offer better outcomes than war. It is imperative to continue making – and winning – that argument, above all by restoring the devolved institutions in Belfast. But that is where Brexit risks becoming dangerous: whilst it is not of itself responsible for bringing about the existing political deadlock in Northern Ireland, Brexit has created a situation which makes that deadlock much more difficult to resolve.

The achievement and subsequent implementation of the Good Friday Agreement depended heavily on persuading paramilitary leaders, often with little tangible evidence, that politics would offer better outcomes than war. It is imperative to continue making – and winning – that argument.

All of this matters to security and defence because the impact of Brexit, both in its practical applications and in the political arithmetic it entails, means that the resumption of some level of violence in Northern Ireland must be considered a possibility because it revives – possibly even exacerbates – the drivers of conflict which never disappeared to begin with.


In that eventuality, the repercussions are not just local. And they may also weaken the ‘Global Britain’ concept currently being promoted by the UK government – any resumption of The Troubles may actually weaken the UK at a time when it already looks vulnerable.

It is important to remember that Northern Ireland’s Troubles were never only an ‘internal’ UK matter. Instead, they were a key element in the relationship between the UK and the United States and were recognised as such in Washington. American government involvement in the peace process came about because of a number of factors; domestic political considerations in the US and the concerted efforts of the Irish-American lobby among them.

But there were also strategic security considerations behind the American desire to end the conflict which have too often been overlooked. Consider the comments of George Schwab – President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy – in 1994:

“[The US is] concerned about the implications of the resources that Britain commits to the north of Ireland year after year and the effects of paramilitary violence on Britain. For how long can these conflicts remain manageable? For how long will Britain be able to endure the conflict without compromising its commitments elsewhere?”

Schwab’s comments came at a time when the UK military was better resourced and possessed a greater range of operational capabilities than it does today. If there were a deterioration of the security situation in Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit, then the UK’s already waning importance as an ally to the US would be diminished even further. Add to that the economic downturn which Brexit will inevitably cause – is already causing – and which will deepen the state of crisis which the UK armed forces already find themselves in, then the process becomes irreversible.

In that event it will no longer hold true that the security relationship with the US is so important, that Brexit doesn’t matter for defence. Again, that is not a prediction: it is already happening. To quote Michael Graydon, former chief of the UK Air Staff: despite polite words from Washington, we are simply not listened to in the same way we once were.”

In short, while the UK’s existing status as an important player in defence and security issues (relative to every other country in the EU, besides France) does constitute a potentially productive avenue of negotiation with the EU during Brexit talks, that status should not be taken for granted. It certainly doesn’t do enough to justify the hype surrounding the post-Brexit Global Britain vision.

Of far greater concern though, is the potential of Brexit to irreversibly damage the UK’s already-struggling armed forces, and to bring about a return to violence in Northern Ireland. In both cases, on its current course the pursuit of Brexit implies that, far from opening itself up to the rest of the world as per the Global Britain vision, the UK is opening itself up to threats to its own security and defence.

Ciarán Carey is a policy advisor on foreign and defence policy. He has worked, among other places, at the House of Commons as an advisor to the SNP, in the Balkans with the OSCE, and for NATO, both at its headquarters and in Afghanistan.

Feature image: Prime Minister Theresa May gives a speech outlining the UK government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU, 17 January 2017. Image: UK government.