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Brexit: Bad news for peace

The leaders of the European Council, European Commission and European Paliament recive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU in 2012..

Amidst all the current political and economic uncertainty from the UK vote to leave the EU one thing is clear: Brexit is bad news for peace. The EU, despite all its well-rehearsed flaws, is one of the major ‘peace engines’ of the last 50 years.

In 2012 the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its contribution over six decades to ‘the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe’ and to ‘transforming most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace’. While the decision was derided by some, the EU was clearly a central player in the spread of democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The EU has grown as an independent security actor in its own right, for example, playing a major role in the successful Iran nuclear talks last year and supporting peace in a range of ways. The Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), for example, supports the capability of law enforcement and judicial and civil authorities worldwide in the fight against organized crime.

So what are Brexit’s implications for peace and security? First, it may turn out to be the beginning of the end of the UK as an independent state. A majority of the English and Welsh voted leave, while a majority of the Northern Irish and Scots voted to remain. It seems likely, therefore, that Scotland will now push for a second independence referendum. While a Scottish separation would be peaceful, the situation in Northern Ireland is more volatile. Peace in Ireland was possible in part because the UK and the Republic of Ireland’s common EU membership enabled free movement, settlement and working rights across the respective borders. This hard-won peace and progress in Ireland may now also be at risk, although it could also conceivably open the door to a united Ireland.

Second, the referendum brought a harsh spotlight onto England’s own multiple divisions – between the cities and the country towns; the rich and the poor; and the young and the old. The murder of Labour MP and humanitarian activist Jo Cox eight days before the vote by a supporter of the nationalist party Britain First reflected a deep-seated problem coming to the boil. And since the vote, there has been a large increase in racist and anti-immigrant incidents.

Third, nearly three decades after the cold war Europe is confronted by an array of new challenges, including cyber-attacks, a resurgent Russia and Islamist terrorism. Many of these threats are being nurtured in the fragile territories east and south of its borders, where state structures are either weak or disintegrating. Instead of reacting with a greater sense of closeness, the EU is facing the problem of growing disunity. The real danger is that such disunity becomes contagious, with disagreement on one issue making cooperation harder on others. This sense of uncertainty and risk was reflected at the Munich Security Conference and captured by its report’s theme: ‘Boundless chaos, reckless spoilers, helpless guardians’.

Brexit—already being widely perceived as a reckless spoiler—will simply add to the uncertainties and further undermine the EU’s ultimate role as a guardian of peace.

Fourth, UK-EU negotiations are likely to occupy the best minds in the UK and overwhelm the civil service for close to a decade. The divorce will be messy and long drawn out. This can only detract from what is needed from the UK in the UN Security Council and NATO, and in working to implement a whole range of international agreements, from the Paris Agreement on climate change to international cooperation to curb tax evasion.

With Brexit, Britain may, therefore, vacate more international space than its proponents would want. Within NATO, Brexit by default creates a more effective EU bloc within NATO to coordinate European positions (in advance of discussions with the Americans, Canadians and British). The much vaunted UK-US ‘special relationship’ is likely to lose some of its sheen as Berlin rather than London becomes Washington’s gateway to Europe.

But overall the consequences for the EU are severe. A member state with the second largest economy and a key pillar of its security is about to withdraw. Moreover, the rapidly fading connection between UK citizens and EU institutions is not just a British phenomenon. Populist, right-wing politicians in France, the Netherlands and Italy have already called for a similar vote in their countries. If corrective action is not taken, Brexit could be seen as the first part of a great unravelling of the EU project.

The founding values of the EU—collective security, international cooperation and the rule of law—have been seriously wounded by Brexit. But the EU is too valuable an achievement to forsake. A generation of Europeans has been able to take peace largely for granted. There is a rising sense now that this achievement is under external pressure and with Brexit and possible future exit pressures in other member states, it comes under internal pressure too. A new effort of collective will and action is required to start to put things to rights.


Dan Smith is the Director of SIPRI.
Dr Ian Davis is the Executive Editor of the SIPRI Yearbook.