What Would Happen to Security in Europe if the European Union Broke Up?

By María Carmen Martín Palacios


When the Founding Fathers of the European Union first sketched the pillars of the soon to be born European Community of Carbon and Steel, they established the concept of common security as the cornerstone of their project. However, not even a century afterwards, the feeling of safety and protection within the European borders is more questioned than ever. In the past years, the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism and the rise of nationalist phenomena such as Brexit has plunged the EU into a scenario of uncertainty. The political identity of the EU has never been so questioned, and critics wonder about the future of the Union. We will center this essay on responding to an even deeper concern: what will happen to European Security if a hypothetical break-up of the Union finally takes place?

First, it is mandatory to understand what the concept of security entails. Throughout the years, scholars have sought a complete definition of the term. To ancient politicians, security barely meant the capacity of protection from external military threats. However, in the current globalized world, the concept of security has experienced a progressive redefinition. Richard Betts, Lea Brilmayer, Helen Milner1 and countless other experts on the subject have worked during the past years to develop a more detailed and wider signification. (Baldwin, 1997)

Their job led them to design an updated and more concrete definition of the term, which includes issues such as protection of human rights, health safety, economic balance, and prevention from criminality as relevant security subjects, in addition to the traditional dimensions of the word.

Having stated this we can proceed to analyze the different scenarios that may arise after a hypothetical break-up of the European Union.


It is said that there is a thin line between love and hate. This popular belief also extends to the field of politics. Sometimes, historical break-ups have created tense relations between countries that once seemed to work well together.

Take as an example the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Eastern- European scenario changed radically after the collapse of the USSR. It took years for the former communist republics to overcome the influence and control that the USSR had exercised in their political systems. Thereby, the normalization of their relations with Russia was a lengthy process and the lack of political security was present throughout it.

In fact, this adaptation process is still ongoing. Russia, nostalgic from its golden imperialist era, frequently tries to restore its past influence over some eastern countries such as Belarus and Ukraine. The latest conflict that has risen from this Russian will is the recent Crimean crisis, and it helps to show this lack of security guarantees in the easternmost part of Europe. (Delanoe, 2014).

Though the EU is not even close to what the political subject of the USSR were, we can learn a valuable lesson from its collapse: Breaking up long-term projects may lead to uncertainty, a feeling of mistrust and even a deadlock of political relations between former allies. In brief, a threat to security and balance.

It is true that EU countries are not tied by a common political ideology such as communism, but they share the idea of enjoying synergies from cooperation and common-policy making in certain areas. Throughout the years, EU members have progressively agreed to give up part of their sovereignty on behalf of the European Union. Therefore, if the EU collapsed, the will of recovering and safeguarding national power would probably be prioritised over other issues. This could create a hypothetical power vacuum and would pose a direct threat to security.

This scenario follows the logic of the Realist perspective, in which States seek to preserve internal security due to the Anarchy of the International arena. Consequently, governments struggle to guarantee their survival, guided by a major feeling of mistrust and suspicion towards the actions of other countries. Realist scholars such as Kenneth Waltz or Hans Morgenthau conceive the Realist paradigm from the perspective that States seek to safeguard security, rather than the pursuit of power (Ashley, 1981). This paradigm could be connected to the consequences of this possible post-break up scenario.

However, in the current globalised world, pure isolationism is almost a synonym of political obsolescence. Even countries which formerly believed in independent policy-making (for example Great Britain during the Splendid Isolation years2) have understood that they can ́t stay aside from being involved in foreign affairs if they want to maintain a relevant position in the international playfield. Not even after the Brexit.


This is the second alternative scenario that could follow the collapse of the EU. Even though EU members will initially seek to protect themselves from the consequences of the break-up, they will soon be likely to restore neighbouring relations, even if not tied by a common European project.

This logic of response can be divided into two phases. The first collective reaction will imply a fever of nationalistic protection. Former EU members will focus on guaranteeing security among their borders, aiming to safeguard themselves from the direct consequences of this potential break-up. As politics and economics are strongly tied together, a failure of the European project will be reflected in the performances of global stock markets. The strong bond that the EU project has developed among its members throughout the years will perform as a domino effect, so its dissolution will derive in a global political and economic crisis. The magnitude of this crisis will certainly surpass the 2007 mortgage crisis (Beattie,2015), as financial pessimism will go alongside a major feeling of political pessimism and uncertainty.

Nonetheless, the will of democracy and the need of restoring normality among European policy-making will prevail over this initial feeling of mistrust. Globalisation has emphasized the importance of cooperation policy instruments when seeking to preserve international security, which is understood as the major goal of modern international relations. (Davis, 2015)

That is why a post-EU cooperation scenario would be more likely to take place, rather than the birth of a hostile playing field. We have to bear in mind that the EU has never had its own proper military body. Rather, it has relied on the willingness of the member states of prioritizing peace and stability above all. This illuminates how modern European states have somewhat overcome the fear of aggression, not only between EU member states, but also between EU countries and their closest bordering-neighbours. Non-aggression treaties are no longer necessary, as this assumption of non-belligerency among European countries has been taken for granted since the fall of the Iron Curtain. (Péter Balázs, 2014)

This pursuit of common stability has been translated into ooperation agreements, as a major instrument to reinforce the bond between European countries. Trade has been the main promotor of these kind of pacts, and we majorly owe it Treaties such as the Schengen Agreement. The Schengen Area, operative since 1985, is the region that includes 26 European countries that have abolished passport and any other type of border control at their mutual borders. Thereby, Schengen mostly functions as a single country for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy. This Treaty is just an example of how current EU members collaborate even with other countries that don ́t belong to the Union (Switzerland, Norway, Sweden) to pursue European stability, and consequently to improve European security.

Treaties such as the Schengen Agreement or the current controversial TTIP prove that the cooperation willingness goes beyond the borders of the current EU alliance. Thus, if the European Union happened to collapse, it is reasonable to believe that its former members will still try to pursue mutual aid in order to shortly restore the rules of policy-making after the dissolution of common European institutions. In brief, cooperation will be used as a major instrument to fight against uncertainty and to preserve European security. Even if not tied by the common EU subject, European countries are aware of the motto “United we stand, divided we fall” and will surely seek to develop a safe European chessboard for its inhabitants.

We can base this hypothesis on the ongoing exit process of the United Kingdom from the EU, largely known as “Brexit”. Contrary to countless opinion polls before the referendum of the 23 of June, UK decided to leave the European Union. This decision brought a series of major concerns, whose core was the preservation of European and British security. Thus, the discussion of the situation of British expats and European citizens living and working in the UK immediately followed the result of the referendum. (Burton, 2016). Ensuring them minimum

levels of political security has become the trendiest issue of discussion and, consequently, a priority in the exit process. (Faleg, 2016)

Moreover, Brexit accounts for a learning by doing3 lesson. We will witness in the following months the results of the decisions taken both by the EU and the UK, but we can state in advance that securing the balance of governance and policy-making will be the main premises of the negotiating process. Consequently, we can extrapolate the current cooperative reaction of EU members towards Brexit and assume that they would follow a similar logic of procedure if the European Union finally happened to collapse.

The assumptions of this pro-cooperation scenario are funded in liberalist4 arguments. (Verhofstadt, 2012). As liberalism is the main theory that inspired the creation of the European Union, it is reasonable to think that its potential dissolution will also follow the principles of liberalism. Thereby if the EU broke-up, former union members would be expected to cooperate not only to guarantee their own stability but also to ensure the development of solid and peaceful bonds with other European countries in order to safeguard prospective political relations. (Faleg, 2016)


Ever since its initial constitution, the possibility of a break-up has been shadowing the development of the European Union. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm on the project and the willingness of European countries to be involved in it, (measured in the increasing number of entry solicitors per year), partially silenced skeptics during the first functioning decades of the union.

Nevertheless, the number of critic voices against the EU has risen throughout the last decade, mainly due to the failure of the European Constitution of 2004 and the evolvement of the 2007 crisis. The “PIGS5” rescue, the debt compromises and the several adjustments during the economic recession have triggered the pro-EU spirit, and several members of the union have shown their discontent with the common institutions. The “Grexit” hint and the ongoing “Brexit" process have proven that euro-skepticism is triumphing, and counteracting its effects is becoming a difficult labor for European Institutions.

Times have changed, and euro-skepticism is in vogue. Its flame is not only fueled by scholars, but also by first-line politicians. The rise of pro-nationalist parties in the parliaments of EU members is bringing back the question: is it worth it to remain in the project of the EU? Few scholars had foreseen the fast spread of populist ideas, nor did the EU expect this progressively increasing rise of detractors.

Thereby, the menace of a possible break-up of the union is vivid. It is not a mere hypothetical scenario. What is certain is that European states will seek to preserve security no matter if they are tied or not by a common project. On behalf of the common good, the break-up of the Union will ironically lead to a still pro-cooperative Europe, which will only leave aside bureaucratic bonds and common institutions. However, the harm of an EU break-up will impact beyond the political façade and the concept of European security will then be then more questioned than ever.


María Carmen Martín Palacios is a senior studyingBusiness Administration and International Relations at the University of Pontificia Comillas (Madrid, Spain).

1 Richard Betts, Lea Brilmayer and Helen Milner are prestigious scholars of International Politics and regular lecturers of the Universities of Princeton, Harvard and Stanford; whose studies on security issues have global recognition.

2 The Splendid Isolation is a term coined by the politician George Eulas Foster, used to describe the foreign policy of Great Britain during the end of the XIX century, which implied a minimal involvement on European Affairs (Monger, 1997)

3 Learning-by-doing is a concept in economic theory in which productivity is achieved through practice. (Ralph-C Bayer, 2013)

4 Liberalism is a school of thought within international relations theory which can be thought to revolve around three interrelated principles: Rejection of power politics as the only possible outcome of international relations and support of international cooperation. (Shiraev, 2014)

5 “PIGS” is a derogatory acronym that refers to Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, states that were unable to deal with their bank debts during the debt crisis. (Investopedia, 2012)


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