On 23 June 2016, the voters of the United Kingdom will decide the fate of their country’s relationship with the European Union. “Brexit” — a blend of “British” and “exit” mirrors Greece’s aborted “Grexit”, and is a term fraught with volatility and prone to demagoguery and abuse in public discourse.
One major issue is the net effect of European Union (EU) membership on the security situation in the United Kingdom. The question is not whether Britain is better off with or without the EU, but whether its security situation will change in any meaningful way. Despite conventional wisdom, Brexit will probably not have a significant impact on Britain’s national security at all, for better or worse.
Realistic Brexit Fears?
A host of personalities, politicians, and experts of all stripes have commented about Brexit’s consequences, both for the UK and the EU. Sir Richard Dearlove, former Director General of MI6, believes the impact would be minimal, and that Europe gets more from the UK than the UK receives from Europe. Sir Dearlove bases his position upon the demonstrated utility of the UK’s bilateral security relationships worldwide which eliminate dependence on EU institutions. On the other hand, the Director of Europol, Rob Wainwright, a former British law enforcement officer, claims Brexit would make it harder for the UK to protect its citizens from terrorism by adding, rather than removing barriers for cooperation. Unfortunately, declarations on both sides correspond more with domestic political interests and a desire to shape public opinion than with reality, leaving the British population confused about the real pros and cons of EU membership on their security.
Sensing this, Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the United Kingdom’s strength and security as a EU member state during a 9 May speech at the British Museum in London. He highlighted four reasons the UK should remain in the EU: to lead from a position of strength in Europe, to maintain a spirit of collaboration with European neighbors, to develop closer security cooperation between member states, and because he believes the EU amplifies Britain’s power by allowing it to influence other EU countries. This special position enables the UK to achieve its strategic goals by placing its interests among the top of EU priorities.
Though his points were important, Prime Minister Cameron probably exaggerated the benefits of EU membership in order to make his case. He presented his arguments with sensationalism, repeatedly suggesting Brexit would automatically weaken defenses against terrorist networks such as Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). He claimed that some useful tools like the European Arrest Warrant, the Schengen Information System, and membership in Europol, would be unavailable should Britain leave. These statements certainly misled some to believe Brexit will prevent extradition from EU countries or prohibit British access to EU information and intelligence despite numerous examples of effective cooperation of this type with non-EU nations.
Cooperation Outside the EU
International cooperation in law enforcement and security is based on solid bilateral relations between states. International organizations augment this cooperation with capabilities that may be unavailable to some members. This occurs in both a regional context, via EU agencies like Europol or Frontex, but also globally, with Interpol or various United Nations agencies. These organizations provide mechanisms for diverse cooperation agreements ranging from operational ones that include the exchange of personal data, to technical or strategic agreements with third parties that provide benefits for “full members” of the organization.
These organizations do not limit these benefits just to their member nations. Europol, for example, has cooperation agreements with eighteen non-EU states including the United States of America, Switzerland, and Australia, among others. Most of these important partners have full access to available data of an operational or strategic nature. For example, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is a participant in the Europol Focal Point Travellers agreement, a sensitive program that collects and distributes intelligence from participants in order to facilitate the search for “foreign fighters”.Leaving the EU would not affect such programs nor weaken cooperation between British and European security organizations.
The Sky is Not Falling
All UK citizens, including Northern Irish and Commonwealth citizens over eighteen who are resident in the UK, and UK nationals living abroad but who have been on the electoral register in the UK in the past 15 years, will be eligible to vote in the referendum. These voters will determine the destiny of one of the strongest players in international security. Yet, when the referendum is held on 23 June, citizens of the UK should be aware that leaving the EU will not have the impact on their internal security that some of their leaders claim.
Though leaving the EU is arguably not helpful for Britain’s continued security against terrorism and organised crime, the UK’s strong bilateral relationships on security affairs will not be diminished and would continue to operate effectively. What is important for Britons, is that no matter how they vote later this month, their country’s strong relationships with its neighbors and other international organizations is the real source of Britain’s security and will continue regardless of the nature of its relationship with the EU.
Victor Perez Sañudo is a Spanish Law Enforcement officer with more than two decades of professional experience in international cooperation working for the UN, NATO, EU and OSCE. Victor has been Project Manager in relevant EU projects for law enforcement agencies, like the European Explosive Ordnance Disposal Network (EEODN) and the EU Bomb Data System (EBDS) among others.
As the catastrophic Syrian civil war carries on, the exodus of refugees into Europe has become a security issue, creating a crisis that has become dangerously divisive within the EU – and has left hundreds of thousands of refugees within Serbia’s borders. But, there is more to it. This crisis has the potential to either supercharge or undermine Serbia’s domestic and foreign policies by becoming domestically divisive or altering its EU accession potential.
This gives rise to an extremely important question the EU must ask itself – what about Serbia?
As Nick Avila wrote in “Flashpoint Europe: The Refugee Crisis and the Fate of the Union,” Syrian refugees are increasingly using travel routes through the Balkans since the cessation of Operation Mare Nostrum. These routes have been of critical importance since antiquity, being used for trade and war between two mighty continents. Therefore, the Balkans have always been considered on “the crossroads” between them – a coveted geostrategic location that has given it a tumultuous past, including 500 years of foreign occupation by multiple empires.
But Serbia is now on the crossroads in terms of the migration crisis. In the geographic sense, this is obvious. However, in an ideological sense, Serbia finds itself in a liminal state between the EU’s “community of values” and rationalist security paranoia of its members on the periphery. Sonja Licht best summed up this sentiment in her appeal to the EU given at the 2015 Belgrade Security Forum:
The EU is witnessing the 21st century’s first large migration wave moving towards its borders. This influx of people has forced countries on its Balkan route to manage hundreds of thousands of desperate, destitute people. Not yet EU members, these countries met the task with humanity and relative efficiency – only to find out that some EU countries had suspended the principles of human rights and other basic values that the Union is built upon. The image of the EU as a community of values with high standards of human rights protection is seriously undermined.
Setting the Security Stage
Currently, the EU’s Balkan periphery states are treating the influx of migrants as a threat to their social and economic sectors. This has come about in large part by institutionalizing post-war “securitizations.” To clarify, after WWII, Europe “securitized” itself in order to prevent another war. This meant the creation the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU. Along with NATO, this secured Europe during the Cold War. However, this strategy was disrupted by the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which significantly traumatized both the Balkans and the EU. From a liberal perspective, the chaos that unfolded in the 1990s highlighted the EU’s inability to mobilize and act internationally in the name of its liberal core values. From the rationalist perspective, it highlighted an inability to protect regional stability at its borders.
This trauma intensified and expanded Europe’s institutionalization of security in the social, political, and military sectors. More specifically, these considerations led Europe to “securitize disintegration,” and adopt a policy of “universal values,” eastward expansion, and integration. It even led to “the European pillar” of NATO – the European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI).With all of this in mind, it becomes clear why and how EU members became so security-focused.
Serbia’s Move to Europe – a Delicate Balance
Serbia’s move toward Europe has not been easy, in large part because of deep-rooted domestic political divisions. These divisions, combined with Serbia’s international role in the migrant crisis, have created a delicate balance which, if disturbed, could lead to significant European consequences. This balance has two main facets – the “us/them” dynamic and security divergence.
First, there exists a delicate balance with regard to the “us/them” relationship between Serbia and the EU. Even after the NATO air campaign, Serbia has made it a priority to move towards a stable, modern Europe, thus reducing the “us/them” gap. Serbia has arguably been on this path since October 2000, when the “Bulldozer Revolution” symbolized a popular intolerance of totalitarianism, communism, aggression, and violation of human rights. This is not to say that nationalists stood by; they put up a fight to widen the gap between Serbia and Europe, and the two primary discourses in Serbia – the nationalist-liberational and the civil-democratic (pro-EU), became deadlocked. This became readily apparent in 2003, when Dr. Zoran Đinđić, the “first democratic prime minister,” was assassinated for his pro-EU reform agenda and his abrupt extradition of Milošević to The Hague in 2001.
In 2008, the pendulum arguably swung in the direction of Europe when Serbia reelected Boris Tadić as its president, and his coalition won a victory soon after in the parliamentary elections. However, due to recent delays in Serbian EU-accession, the Greek financial crisis, and the EU’s proclaimed “enlargement fatigue,” the nationalist-liberational discourse has been gaining momentum, swinging the pendulum away from Europe. According to the Serbian Office for EU Integration, public support for EU membership fell from 72% to 51% between 2003 and 2012. Similar numbers were shown by other polls, including one done in 2014 by the EU Delegation to Serbia and Medium Gallup.
However, the “us/them” dynamic isn’t the only complicated balance. The second one is a divergence in terms of security. Instead of moving closer to Europe’s culture of securitization, Serbia has been prodded along the path of desecuritization. Sanctions, war crimes tribunals, and international isolation have pushed Serbia to abandon nationalism and accept responsibility for the breakup of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, EU accession requirements have driven desecuritizations with regard to minority rights, normalization with Kosovo, and economic privatization.
This divergence of securitization and desecuritization has led to a emphatic conflict between the liberal universalism sold by the EU and the massive border securitization/nationalist bickering among EU member states. More problematic is the deportation and isolation of refugees in Serbia by EU neighbors who have rebuked Serbia for ethnic intolerance in the past. Some Serbs find this hypocritical.
Upsetting the Balance
So, what does this mean? It means that people in Serbia are already on the fence collectively with regard to EU accession, and as time progresses, the EU loses supporters within Serbia. This negatively upsets the political balance in Serbia, but so far not too severely. However, the bickering and the closing of borders with Serbia by EU members as a result of the immigration crisis, further endangers the balance by (1) exacerbating the “us/them” dynamic between Serbia and the EU and (2) emphasizing an ideological tension with regard to security and values.
Along with added political peril, however, this situation also provides opportunity and political capital for both Serbia and the EU. For instance, as early as December, 2014, according to the UN Refugee Agency, Serbia was already dealing with over 270,000 “population of concern” as a result of the crisis. In response, the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, praised Serbia for treating the refugees “with dignity, in line with international standards.” This is a change in tone from the same man who announced last September that “enlargement fatigue” would prevent Serbia from joining the EU for at least five more years due to “technical issues.”
Serbia’s involvement in this matter is a more than a technical issue, and it will likely influence Serbia’s EU accession. Therefore, the migration crisis connects Serbia urgently to European Union security politics. In other words, the attraction of the EU is waning in Serbia’s view, and the degree of how well (or poorly) Serbia is supported during this crisis will influence the degree of Serbia’s impact on European affairs.
That being said, Serbia’s positive reaction to this crisis represents an enormous bargaining chip with potential to influence its accession negotiations and possibly re-prioritize or hasten them. It also gives Serbia political leverage when dealing with its regional neighbors on a bilateral basis. Serbia is even better-positioned considering its current chairmanship of the OSCE. The elites in Serbia are proven rational actors, so it should be expected that they will immediately translate Serbia’s goodwill and emphasis on humanitarian assistance into political capital domestically, regionally, and throughout Europe.
Conversely, if Serbia misses this opportunity to leverage its political capital with regard to its handling of the refugee crisis, the nationalist-liberational discourse will continue to gain momentum by selling the crisis as another instance of abuse by the West. Serbs are already frustrated with changing conditions regarding EU accession, and lack of support on the part of Europe could push the Serbs away. This is a security risk in multiple sectors, both for Serbia and the EU. If Serbia is forced to face this risk alone, it will potentially seek resolutions eastward, (and already-degraded hopes for a re-emergence of positive OSCE influence might be undermined). According to the Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić, “Serbia cannot resolve this issue, and Serbia is not the migrants’ final destination, but only a transit country…that the migrants do not want to stay in Serbia because the country does not have enough jobs even for the people who were born in it… [t]he EU has now been put to the test.” The Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, has echoed a similar tone, hinting at relations with the East: “We seek to join the EU, to achieve its standards, but also to preserve our good relations with Russia…”
What About Serbia?
So, again, what about Serbia? The specific answer remains to be seen. Europe has spent the post-WWII years securitizing in order to protect its sovereignty and its values, but this institutionalized security culture has now collided head-on with those values, leaving a desecuritized Serbia in a unique position. There is no question that this crisis represents a potential watershed event with regard to Serbia’s political future, both domestically and internationally, but at a tertiary level, this delicate situation represents a significant turning point for European security policy. Even President Obama and President Putin have recognized this at the UN General Assembly, highlighting Serbia’s position and importance. When thought of this way, the consequences for Serbia take on a greater level of significance.
MAJ Michael Anderson is a U.S. Army Armor Officer with extensive combat and humanitarian experience with the 82nd Airborne Division’s RSTA units and a 2013 Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from USMA in 2004 and his M.A. in International Security from University of Belgrade, Serbia in 2015. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Army or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.
 “Securitizing,” in the non-financial sense, is to frame an issue as an existential threat to some highly-coveted referent object. Securitzations occur throughout a linked series of sectors, including social, economic, and military. In the case of immigration, the referent object is usually cultural identity or economic stability. See Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997) by Buzan, Wæver, and de Wilde.
Also, this article will not delve into the Iraqi or Syrian power vacuums or their causes – that merits a separate analysis.
 The ESDI has evolved as a way for Europe to decisively intervene internationally without NATO, and is now known as the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).
 Ejdus, “Serbia, Culture, and Identity,” 47. Originally, the nationalist-liberational discourse is a product of the 500-year struggle to free Serbia from occupation and imperialism. More recently, it has asserted general disdain through polemics against the EU, NATO, the West, and the US. On the other hand, the civil-democratic discourse in Serbia is newer, rooted in political freedoms, respect for human rights, democratic values, and shared identity with Europe.