The 2017 decision of the British electorate to leave the EU was a shock to many within and beyond the UK. It is one of the most significant decisions in the UK’s history. It reflects a long-running uneasiness with the land mass across the Channel, not only because of geographical separation but also because of cultural disconnection.

The UK is one of few European countries not to have been occupied or oppressed since the Norman invasion of 1066, and hence has an independence of spirit which continues to flourish over any practical concerns. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the UK is leaving (politically) the EU, not Europe.

Effect of Brexit on UK security

The effect of departing the EU on 29 March 2019 – irrespective of any transitional period – will be long lasting and profound. In security terms, the UK will have still to contend with international terrorism, transnational crime and the global movement of people, all challenges which require widescale co-operation. The UK has traditionally been strong in meeting these risks, and has played a significant role in the development of EU policy on police co-operation and information sharing.

The declaration of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty formally notified the EU of the UK’s departure. After some delay, the UK Government has begun discussions with the EU and published a series of papers that set out its preferences in those discussions. Maintaining a seamless and frictionless border with Ireland is an early requirement from both sides. However, exactly how this is to be achieved is yet to be agreed. In terms of maintaining effective security co-operation with the EU, the aspiration is also high.

Reduced access to intelligence

Yet when the UK reverts to a third-country relationship with the EU post-departure, access to an organisation like Europol and databases such as the Schengen Information System (SIS II) will be much more limited. If an operational agreement with Europol is already in place when the UK leaves the EU, its departure should not have much effect on the exchange of core intelligence on matters like terrorism: Europol already has operational agreements with 19 third-country states including the USA.

The situation will be more problematic if the UK leaves the EU with ‘no deal’, although some reassurance might be drawn from Theresa May’s Florence speech when she said the UK was “unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security”.

The declaration of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty formally notified the EU of the UK’s departure
New arrivals to Britain from the EU will need to be registered in preparation for a new immigration system

It is in the area of border and immigration control that real problems look most likely to arise, largely because of the volume of traffic – both people and goods – to be managed. Migration was a key driving force in the EU referendum result, but without a register of EU citizens the UK is handicapped in achieving a declared target. Mrs May confirmed in her Florence speech that new arrivals to Britain from the EU will need to be registered in preparation for a new immigration system at the end of the two-year post-Brexit implementation period that she aims to negotiate.

Pressure on immigration checks

Significantly, pressures on the day-to-day operation of immigration checks at airports and ports will substantially increase if more passengers are required to have visas to enter the UK unless the system is fundamentally changed.

The Border Force budget has already faced enormous pressure, having been reduced by 15% from £617 million in 2012/13 to £558 million in 2015/16 while the number of journeys has increased. Among its longer-term programmes to improve capacity are the Digital Services at the Border (DSaB) programme, the successor to the e-borders programme with the aim of further developing risk-based digital identity management, and the Immigration Platform Technologies programme, which aims to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of visa and other immigration transactions with the public.

Illegal migration also needs to be tackled more effectively, as any increased restriction on legitimate travel from countries within Europe has the potential to increase the demand for forged and stolen documentation as well as risk new and more dangerous forms of illegal travel to the UK.

Managing customs at UK borders

There will also be considerable challenges in managing the flow of goods across UK borders after Brexit. HM Revenue and Customs has estimated that the number of customs declarations at UK sea ports and airports could rise from 60 million to 300 million a year after the UK leaves the EU.

The number of customs
declarations at UK sea ports and
airports could rise from 60 million
to 300 million a year

An ongoing programme to upgrade the UK’s customs system began before the referendum – before the government committed to seeking a new customs arrangement from March 2019 – and will be inadequate to cope with the substantial increase in customs declarations that will result if the UK leaves the customs union. According to the Road Haulage Association, there is a real danger of ‘everything grinding to a halt’. This will focus minds as the March 2019 deadline approaches and every effort is made to avoid falling off a cliff-edge.

Rethinking UK border operations

In sum, it is clear that against the backdrop of global migration trends, conflict and economic uncertainty, the challenges faced by the UK in defending its border are significant, and the practical difficulties are likely to be magnified whatever the final nature of the post-Brexit arrangements.

This will likely necessitate a major rethink of strategy, processes and, possibly, some substantive changes to existing structures. If only in practical terms, there will have to be a significant investment in people, resources and databases to cope with anticipated volumes of traffic through ports, airports and tunnels. Given budgetary constraints, this task will not be easy.

Equally, Brexit does offer the opportunity to rethink operation of the border and further deploy technology in order to realise further efficiencies. However, as is often the case, it is events, as Harold Macmillan once said, that may prove to be the real determinants of the outcome.

By Robert Hall, MBCI MSyl and Dr. Alison Wakefield, FSyl

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