Reactions to Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union – the so-called Brexit – have been diverse, ranging from uncertainty in the financial world to reports of increased racism on the streets in the U.K., but one thing that appears largely unchanged by the decision is Britain’s intelligence and military alliance with the United States.
The United States and the United Kingdom, along with other “Five Eyes” members Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, have long cooperated in intelligence sharing under what is known as the UKUSA Agreement.
While President Barack Obama has expressed some concern about trade and future growth in the wake of the Brexit vote, he has also made clear that other things will remain the same. “One thing that will not change is the special relationship that exists between our two nations,” Obama reportedly said. “That will endure.”
Some Americans have gone further than the president, such as former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who, earlier this year prior to the Brexit vote, wrote that leaving the E.U. would “make the Special Relationship even more special.” U.K. officials have made similar statements.
Writing in the British magazine Prospect in March, former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove said that “the truth about Brexit from a national security perspective is that the cost to Britain would be low,” with the potential for “security gains” in the form of “the ability to dump the European Convention on Human Rights” and increased control over immigration from the E.U.
“Would Brexit damage our defence and intelligence relationship with the United States, which outweighs anything European by many factors of 10?” Dearlove writes. “I conclude confidently that no, it would not.”
While other British former high-ranking intelligence officials such as former director-general of MI5 Jonathan Evans and former head of MI6 John Sawers argued against leaving the E.U., sitting U.K. Justice Secretary Michael Gove has said that the idea that remaining in the E.U. would be better for British intelligence and security concerns is “flat wrong.”
Other than President Obama and Bolton, other American officials have also stressed that the intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.K will remain strong post-Brexit. Secretary of State John Kerry has said America “could not ask for a better friend and ally” than Britain, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has expressed similar views.
In a call between Carter and U.K. State Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon following the Brexit vote, according to a Pentagon spokesman, “Secretary Carter emphasized that the United States and the United Kingdom will always enjoy a special relationship, one reflected in our close defense ties, which remain a bedrock of U.S. security and foreign policy.”
But it is perhaps to outside of officialdom that we should look for a more candid discussion of how much Brexit will change the world of intelligence and espionage, or not. Matthias Matthijs, a political economist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has reportedly said that the U.S. has been moving towards greater intelligence cooperation with Germany for some time, regardless of Brexit, but the U.S.-U.K. relationship will remain strong – not only in foreign intelligence, but domestically as well.
“The intelligence cooperation between MI6 and the CIA is very close, internally as well between FBI and MI5,” Matthijs said. “And these are links that have been established since World War II and are ongoing. I mean they’re very, very, very close relations, very close cooperators.”
Whether Britain’s leaving the E.U. marks the beginning of a broader shift in geopolitical power balances remains to be seen. One thing that seems clear, though, is that whatever the outcome on paper of any given voter referendum, for the elite military and intelligence establishment, like those in politics, the media, finance and elsewhere, the status quo is strongly preferred.