The Brexit Debate: Brits IN, please

Daniela Irrera

7 May 2016

Four years ago, while in Oxford as a visiting scholar at the Department of Sociology, I used to pass most of the time working at my research project. Any free time I had was spent running to the Department of Politics and to the European Studies Centre to attend as many seminars as possible on the EU’s foreign policy and its position as an international actor. It was an extraordinarily vivid learning experience. Looking at the EU and international relations from the point of view of the British academics was of great help to me, an Italian and very pro-European scholar, to broaden my understanding of Europe as a whole.

In contrast to the great inspiration the abovementioned experience instilled within me, I am deeply worried about the Brexit option. I’m particularly concerned that Brexit will have negative consequences and that it will also affect international stability. Three reasons come to my mind to explain this view: these are the main reasons that explain why the Britain’s role in conflict resolution and management definitively needs to maintain its uniqueness, within the EU context.

Responses to terrorism

Britain has contributed significantly to the fight against terrorism and to shaping the EU’s rules and policies. The country is one of the European states which, much like Italy, Germany and Spain, sadly has more experience and expertise in this field than some others do. The conflict in Northern Ireland was first of all a domestic affair but it exerted some implications on regional security as well (particularly following the building-up of the Maastricht Treaty and the ambition to create a zone of stability and democracy). Britain had to face and tackle the effects of terrorist attacks whilst simultaneously trying to balance a divided society and attempting to find an institutional solution to the conflict. Finding this solution implied commitments from the Republic of Ireland but also the investment of significant resources from the EU.

The British strategies and policies, developed over the years, were not only relevant from a technical point of view, as a model for counterterrorism (in terms of law enforcement, policing and intelligence), but also from a political perspective. The divisive Northern Irish elite (both Protestant and Catholic) had to finally approve the Good Friday Agreement, and experiment with a sophisticated power-sharing system. Many of these elites were members of the European Parliament and used their position to “Europeanise” the conflict. Additionally, the EU established the PEACE programme, launched in 1995 and subsequently renovated several times, with the aim of supporting peace and reconciliation and of promoting economic and social progress in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the resolution of the conflict took place within the EU context, consistent with communitarian values and approaches.

Military capabilities

Britain is a large contributor of military personnel to EU missions, with a numerous and constant presence in many areas of conflict, from Bosnia to Iraq, to Mali, and to Somalia, to name just a few. Despite its position on major crises not always being clear, the country continues to assure its support within the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) framework, in line with its performance on a global level—Britain is the seventh larger contributors to UN peacekeeping missions. Recently, the Royal Navy has also sent one of its ships, HMS Bulwark, to the Mediterranean in order to assist in rescuing migrants and refugees.

The link

Britain is the EU’s transmission belt—its gateway—to the special relationship with the US. This link has always had diverse implications on global and regional security, with changes depending on historical events (such as the Cold War) and political leaders (for example the Reagan–Thatcher relationship), but in any case the link has arguably added value to the development of transatlantic relations.

It may appear quite rhetorical to affirm that Brexit would affect the EU project as a whole. Brexit is, however, something more than that. The international system has for several decades faced increasingly global challenges, and the political processes required to address these challenges have developed through the integration and adaptation of ‘old’ concepts, like sovereignty and borders, rather than exiting alliances and closing borders. The fact that the UK’s membership of the EU is still under question thus constitutes a real concern.

About the Author

Daniela Irrera

Daniela Irrera is Associate Professor of Political Science and IR at the University of Catania, where she teaches International Politics and Global civil society.

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