The UK’s decision to leave the European Union could be a big blow for United States national security – and for global privacy. The UK has always served as a bridge between America and Europe. Its decision to leave the EU makes it a less effective one.
In the wake of Brexit, the United States government is emphasizing continuity. President Obama is stressing the special relationship, and the intelligence community is saying its partnerships with both the UK and other European nations will not be affected. Of course, if Brexit triggers a breakup of the United Kingdom, which seems an entirely plausible outcome, the impact on transatlantic security would be quite severe.
Even if the UK stays together, the impact is certain to be negative. While it is true that NATO is far more important when it comes to intelligence and security, having the UK as a member of the EU was quite helpful for the United States national security community. Although the EU does not formally have a role in defense and security matters, the decisions of its institutions on issues like digital privacy can still have a big impact on intelligence and security. The United States has lost a vital friend and partner inside the European tent.
At the same time, the EU has lost considerable leverage in the continuing debate over reforming mass surveillance. This is a loss for privacy because the EU’s privacy rules are among the strictest in the world. As a result of Brexit, the EU’s influence over the UK’s mass surveillance programs is greatly diminished.
While the United States shares intelligence with many EU countries, the relationship between US and UK intelligence truly is a special one. The NSA cooperates closely with the signals intelligence services of the “five eyes” nations—the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The UK is the only member of the “five eyes” that is also a member of the European Union—but apparently, not for long.