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Foreign and security policy were not areas in which Prime Minister was seeking to renegotiate the relationship between the UK and the EU. However, the costs to the UK’s place in the world of a Brexit are likely to be one of the dominant themes in the UK-EU referendum campaign.

Prime Minister David Cameron is certainly keen that a connection is made in the public mind between EU membership and national security as indicated by speeches and statements that he has made since the opening of the formal stage of renegotiations on a new UK-EU relationship last autumn. It was a notable component of his remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 21 January.

Organisations seeking to make the case for the UK remaining an EU member such as British Influence and Britain Stronger in Europe have been giving considerable attention to a core message of membership providing ‘safety’ and ‘security’. This broad brush argument is attractive for ‘remain’ campaigners for two reasons. First, it appears to be a message to which publics respond positively, as indicated in recent polling by Comres. Second, it is a difficult argument for those seeking exit to counter because the post-Brexit situation is unknowable – and therefore easily painted as ‘insecurity’ or a retreat from ‘safety’. This security narrative has also been strengthened for the ‘Bremain’ campaigners by eurosceptic Conservatives such as Mark Pritchard MP appearing to concede that it is a powerful argument for maintaining UK EU membership. Thus, a focus on security would appear to favour Bremain rather than Brexit campaigns, and a Brexit is presented as exacerbating an already fragile European security environment.

The case for retaining membership as the best vehicle for the UK’s national security is also assisted by statements by key international figures, such as the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, allowing Bremain campaigners to highlight how a Brexit also has the potential to undermine other organisations which play a central role in the UK’s national security.

The argument that the EU is a positive ‘net contributor’ to the UK’s national security is likely to be an argument advanced repeatedly by the Bremain camp during the referendum campaign. This argument advances from the proposition that national security encompasses a very broad spectrum of activity: from traditional threats to the nation from overseas foes, countered by diplomacy and defence, to the challenges of environmental change and the societal challenges to security, such as mass migration. The EU will be presented as being an institution already involved in dealing with this spectrum of contemporary national security challenges.

The enlargement of the EU, which is considered by many analysts to be a core contribution of the EU to stability and security of Europe since the end of the Cold War, will likely be less prominent in Bremain arguments. This is primarily because of its association in the minds of the public with the labour migration from Central and Eastern Europe which Prime Minister David Cameron has sought to mitigate through his renegotiated terms of EU membership for the UK.

Also less sure footed would be Bremain arguments that rest on the successes that derive from the UK’s participation in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The CFSP’s achievements have been rather modest and mixed as the European Council on Foreign Relations annual EU Foreign Policy Scorecard illustrates.

There are examples of success that will be highlighted but these look rather less than spectacular when set against the challenges of contemporary international relations. The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) presents rather more fertile group for campaign messages from Brexit campaigners. As with the CFSP, the achievements of the CSDP have been modest and the ambitions for an EU defence policy have been downgraded across time.

The EU’s defence policy presents a challenge for Bremain campaigners in picking out strong messages of success. For Brexit campaigners the threat that an EU defence policy will lead to a ‘Euro army’ may provide more fruitful campaigning territory. Brexit campaigners have already sought to downplay the EU’s contribution to the UK’s security by making the argument that it is NATO, and the United States, not the EU, that has kept the peace in Europe since the Second World War.

As the public will be asked to make a decision on whether the UK should remain or leave the EU in the upcoming referendum, campaigners for each option will want to push their strongest messages. The terms of the UK EU referendum debate have already extended beyond the four areas in which Prime Minister Cameron has sought to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership. Security looks set to be one of the key issues within that public debate.

By Richard G. Whitman senior research fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe and a Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.


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