How soft security matters in the referendum debate

regulation picPeople fear the extreme and demand their governments be tough on security, but in truth our safety comes largely through control of the mundane. Rita Hordósy, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Sheffield, and Matt Wood, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield, argue that the EU excels at this. This piece is part of the UCL European Institute’s commissioning partnership with openDemocracy.

Both the Remain and Leave campaigns in this referendum make appeals to security. The Leave side say Britain’s security is endangered by membership in the bloc, arguing that it increases the likelihood of terror attacks in the UK, makes an economic crash more likely, and hinders prosperity for British nationals via the higher level of immigration. The Remain campaign, echoing the prime minister David Cameron’s mantra of ‘safer, prosperous and more secure’ Britain, claims exactly the opposite.

Theresa May, usually tough on immigration rules and numbers otherwise, weighed in to support ‘Bremain’ with further claims on criminal justice measures, national security, and fighting terrorism. By contrast, on the Leave side Michael Gove said, “I think overall our national security is strengthened if we are able to make the decisions that we need and the alliances that we believe in outside the current structures of the of the European Union”. EU judges, he argued, dictate “what our spies can do and whether we can be kept safe … our security and sovereignty stand together. I believe that there are better opportunities to keep people safe if we are outside the European Union”.

We would suggest that security does matter in this debate, but not in the way you might think. The Brexit debate invokes security closely in connection with concerns about immigration and an explicit link to the danger of a terrorist attack. However, existing research shows such a link is very difficult to specify. By contrast, much of the EU’s regulatory tasks – setting standards for services from education and medicines to food quality and air travel – provide a perspective on security that does not make open borders an inherent ‘risk’, but instead an opportunity to make us all safer when living as well as travelling across the continent. In or out of the EU, this ‘soft security’ agenda will remain important for long-term economic and social stability.

Project fear and the immigration link

The focus on security, part of so-called ‘project fear’, has been intimately linked to immigration and specifically to its control. Brexiters view security as preventing dangerous individuals from entering British territory: “the simple point is that if we leave the EU, we regain control of our borders and we decide who comes in and who doesn’t”, as one article in the Daily Mail read.

For Bremainers, it is a similar case of avoiding the immigration threat. “Should Britain leave the EU there’s no guarantee those controls [at Calais] would remain in place”, Cameron’s spokesperson said. “If those controls weren’t in place there would be nothing to stop thousands of people crossing the channel overnight and arriving in Kent (southeast England) and claiming asylum”.

To some extent this debate confuses two quite separate issues – on the one hand the refugee crisis, and on the other the more general free movement available to EU nationals. Despite this, however, the debate quickly connects this vaguely imagined influx of ‘others’ with the potent and frighteningly clear imagery of crises, mirroring the horrific terror attacks in Paris in November 2015 or mass sexual assault in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Iain Duncan Smith, for example, explicitly linked Britain’s EU membership to vulnerability to a Paris-style attack:

There is another concern and risk: the migration issue, in meltdown around the EU, with the EU almost incapable, it seems, of handling this massive wave of migration … This open border does not allow us to check and control people who may come and spend time. We see what happened in Paris where they spent ages planning and plotting. Who is to say it is not beyond the wit of man that those might be already thinking about that.

As existing research on ‘transboundary crisis management’ shows, however, “these crises are impossible to predict, hard to detect, difficult to stop, and costly to recover from”. Prevention is incredibly difficult, and it is hard to identify membership of the EU either with increased or decreased threat levels. Duncan Smith’s assertion there is an “open border”, for example, is difficult to square with the fact that the UK is not part of the passport free Schengen zone. Moreover, the highly ‘differentiated’ and partial integration of the EU makes such wholesale assessment of its causes incredibly complex.

Soft security

It is interesting how both sides of the debate focus on arguments around ‘hard’ securities relating to the national level, identified as a lack of defence against heightened terrorism threats and economic turbulence. Through this debate both sides of the argument push away from discussing aspects of soft securities at the individual level. By contrast, however, the EU has been most effective in developing protections around more everyday aspects of our life, the things we take for granted in going to a restaurant, visiting the doctor, or taking a flight.

Security in this context means higher quality in services by setting basic standards for all European countries in major policy areas, via providing guidelines to be approved and implemented by national governments. Beyond the national focus, these measures facilitate mobility between the member states of the EU and result in similar quality of life and ability to access basic services no matter where you are in Europe. It also means that people living in the UK from elsewhere can also access those services, and vice versa.

Such standards are developed and monitored, for example, by a range of European decentralised agencies that might seem obscure but in fact play important roles. The European Food Safety Authority, for example, sets standards on food, while the European Medicines Agency regulates the safety of medicines and the European Aviation Safety Agency certifies aeroplanes as safe to fly in European airspace.

Recent developments in industry best practise are implemented throughout the EU to ensure similar standards wherever you are in Europe. Each agency has panels composed of industrial experts, practitioners, and academics making decisions on these issues. These agencies often only provide guidelines and ensure national level authorities talk to each other, primarily by collecting and distributing information. The European Asylum Support Office does just this, collecting crucial information on levels of asylum applications in different EU countries and how they are being managed in line with European Fundamental Rights requirements.

Similar standards are also set in environmental policy. Regulations are set on air pollution, the cleanliness of beaches, protecting bees, wildlife conservation and giving support to British farmers. In the area of education, the EU has supranational strategies in multiple different areas for schools, vocational education, higher education and adult learning. These strategies cover such crucial policy areas as the improvement of basic skills and competences; reducing the ratio of early school leavers; quality assurance in vocational education and supporting cooperation between higher education institutes across Europe. Furthermore, multiple mobility initiatives have made it possible for educators and students to travel to, and live in other European countries.

Open borders are an opportunity for security

This may seem a broad-brush assessment and only tangentially related to security, but once we see security as related to everyday life and standard of living, rather than only the absence of attacks and crises, then the links become clearer. The maintenance of common standards for services across Europe means that you (the reader) are less likely to get sick, be involved in a transport disaster like a car crash, or be the victim of crime.

Poor quality of life leads to an increase in these relatively mundane, but nonetheless personally devastating things. Good quality of life means less crime, crashes, and illnesses. Ultimately, these risks are far more likely to occur, but far easier to manage, than some of the more extreme crises that dominate current debates about EU security. Viewed from this perspective, ‘open borders’ (if we had them in the UK, which we currently don’t) offer an opportunity to manage risks, rather than representing a risk in themselves.

Returning to immigration and free movement, the issue has been portrayed as an inherently ‘risky’ issue, with EU exit either allowing us to control our borders more, or less, and the implicit assumption is that only in doing this can we prevent a big terror attack. But it may well be that neither Brexit nor Bremain can promise us salvation from these dangers.

What the EU does do is offer us one way of managing the quality of the things we do on a daily basis – the medicines we buy, the food we eat, the planes we fly on. These are more everyday issues that are not usually recognised in current debates, but they matter to anyone with a concern for the safety of their family and friends in Europe. Ultimately Britain will be ‘in’ Europe no matter what. We ought to notice how far embedded we are in EU laws and regulations and understand this not in terms of ‘excessive bureaucracy’ but in terms of the different rights and assurances these laws have, before we decide to put them at risk.


Rita Hordósy is a sociologist working as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield.

Matt Wood is a lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield and is currently undertaking an ESRC Future Research Leader’s project investigating the legitimacy of EU decentralised agencies.


This piece is co-published with openDemocracy. Featured image credit: Liz/Flickr. (CC 2.0 BY-NC).


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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