Ever since the Islamic State assault on Paris in November 2015, Brexit campaigners have sought to draw a link between Britain’s partnership with Europe, and the vulnerability of its cities to similar attacks. In the days after the atrocities, prominent Leave proponent Richard Tice took direct aim at In campaigners when he said: “never again should they say the United Kingdom is safer in the European Union.”
Until Britain takes back control of its borders, argues UKIP’s Nigel Farage, it cannot be “isolated” from the threat posed by Islamic extremists. The use of the word “isolated” should not be overlooked – it holds a special place in history, and reveals the fantasy in the thinking of those advocating the UK’s exit.
The belief that, in an ever-more interconnected world, Britain’s geography could somehow allow its government to pull up the drawbridge, as if Britain is some sort of impenetrable fortress, is simplistic and old-fashioned.
It’s a mindset reminiscent of American isolationism before Pearl Harbor. People felt assured their great oceans and friendly neighbours would keep them safe. When the Japanese attacked, the US had to adjust its conceptions of national security, and what it takes to achieve it. US strategists decided to push America’s interests and assets out into the world to interdict future attacks from afar.
Britain’s own history of European isolationism in the first half of the 20th century also failed to provide security. Efforts to play a balancing role between France and Germany from offshore failed twice to prevent the emergence of a major rival on the continent. Britain was unwilling to station troops in Europe, or at least rapidly deploy sufficient forces in an emergency. This led to German calculations that decisive military force either could not, or would not, arrive in time to prevent aggressive expansion.
All this demonstrated that what happens in Europe is close enough to affect even an isolated UK.
The modern terror threat
Modern terrorism is a transnational threat. Empowered by the tools of globalisation, a terrorist based in a foreign safe haven can direct attacks on the UK without getting anywhere near British territory, radicalising the country’s own citizens through online propaganda and manipulation.
What’s more, those who target the UK do not do so on account of its EU membership. Its historic role in the world, and what the US secretary of defense, Ash Carter, recently dubbed its ongoing “outsized role on the global stage” are far more relevant.
The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and Britain’s imperial meddling in the Middle East; its role in creating Israel; Tony Blair’s unwavering support for the War on Terror, and close ties to what are seen as apostate Arab regimes all make the UK a prime target for Islamic extremists.
The illusion that in some way the UK can escape its history by retreating behind the cliffs of Dover is naïve.
The ‘Europeanisation’ of British counterterrorism
As a primary target of Islamic extremism, Britain benefits significantly from its counter-terrorism partnerships across the EU. It drew upon decades of experience in combating terrorism to play a key role in formulating the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy, introduced in November 2005.
Based upon the British government’s own counter-terrorism strategy, the joint approach ensures EU counter-terrorism efforts align with the UK’s wider foreign policy agenda. That includes an explicit focus on what Britain judges as the root causes of instability and radicalisation. The UK couldn’t hope to have such an influence over the counter-terrorism priorities of other European countries from outside the EU.
The EU also organises joint counter-terrorism exercises and studies between specialist police forces. Then there is the EU9 group, jointly founded by the UK and others. This brings together the interior ministers of the European countries most affected by the flow of foreign fighters And of course, being part of the EU means the UK can implement the European arrest warrant to detain terror suspects while also enabling easier extradition and deportation.
The “Europeanisation” of UK counter-terrorism has pushed the frontiers of British security well beyond its own borders. It buys time and space for security services in the fight against terrorism.
Britain’s significant contribution certainly benefits its continental partners, but being able to exploit the EU’s partnerships also enables it to confront terrorism on multiple fronts. It can use fellow members' resources to neutralise threats before they fully materialise.
Terrorist groups are adept at searching out and exploiting weaknesses in the security architecture of states, establishing safe havens from which they can recruit, plot and strike. By operating in concert with its European neighbours, Britain is able to help firm up its allies' defences. Common standards of security across the EU make it easier to disrupt plots that could ultimately be aimed at the UK.
Today’s global threats transcend traditional 20th-century notions of borders and nationality. The multilateral partnerships of the EU, as opposed to the outdated small island isolationism of Brexit campaigners, offers the best security for the UK in this context.