U.K. Huawei Leak Exposes Post-Brexit Security Peril
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It takes a lot to delight your enemies, infuriate your friends and alienate those you are trying to build new ties with. But in its public divisions over Chinese telecommunications maker Huawei, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May has managed to do just that. If this is a first peek at the way a post-Brexit Britain plans to conduct itself in world affairs, it’s not a great look.
Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, who was fired on Wednesday night, has furiously denied the government’s finding that he leaked a National Security Council decision to allow Huawei to build “non-core” parts of the U.K.’s 5G mobile network. The decision, not yet formalized, found its way into the Daily Telegraph.
It no doubt pleased China, too. In February, Williamson angered the Chinese by announcing that the U.K. would send its new aircraft carrier (which won’t even be ready until 2021) with a squadron of F-35 fighter planes to the disputed South China Sea as a show that Britain is still up to displays of power. The Chinese promptly cancelled plans to receive Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond.
But Britain’s relationship with the U.S has been most strained by the issue Williamson exposed, and that is not about to go away. Chinese law compels companies to cooperate on intelligence matters if asked, a requirement that the U.S. has argued makes collaboration with Huawei an unacceptable security risk (Huawei says the law is more restrictive). The U.K. has resisted pressure for a ban and says its cybersecurity evaluation center in Oxfordshire, set up in 2010 to vet Huawei’s equipment, can deal with any threats that emerge.
That claim is looking dubious. The center’s 2018 report identified technical issues in Huawei’s engineering processes “leading to new risks in the U.K. telecommunications networks.” Security experts also warn that the distinction between core (generally hub and servers) and non-core infrastructure (such as antennas) is not so clear-cut, a point made recently by my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Alex Webb. A report by Bloomberg news this week that U.K.-based Vodafone had discovered hidden backdoors in Huawei equipment in 2011 and 2012, which the company falsely claimed to have fixed, only reinforces the argument for extreme caution.
The argument has wider implications for U.K. security partnerships. A recent editorial in the The Australian argues that Britain’s decision on Huawei could compromise the Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprised of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada.
The Huawei affair exposes the hollowness of a slogan popularized in the 2016 campaign leading to the vote to leave the European Union and parroted ever since by May government: “Global Britain.” Intended as an expression of British self-confidence and reassurance that the U.K. would not become inward-looking after the divorce, it has come instead to symbolize the jumble of conflicting views about the meaning of Brexit itself.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee set out to unpack the concept, but threw its hands up. The Foreign Office was asked to submit “prioritized objectives and attendant metrics” for its Global Britain policy, but sent mainly generalities. The committee concluded that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s grand strategy for Global Britain amounted to “little more than a continuation of the FCO’s current activities, with modest adjustments in some areas.” Its imprecision, the committee added, “means that it does not clearly list the priorities of Global Britain.”
Some see the concept as a codification of euroskepticism. Global Britain, argues Oliver Daddow, an assistant professor in British politics and security at the University of Nottingham, is “a negative, defensive narrative that spells out what Britain is not (any more an EU member).” But he said “it does little to spell out a positive vision beyond a commitment to ‘believing’ in Britain’s new role in the world.”
One promise of Global Britain was that the U.K. would strike its own trade deals (though there is no evidence that these will come close to replacing the trade lost with the EU). But if the U.K. remains in the EU’s customs union — one possible way to get a Brexit deal through Parliament and the key demand of the Labour Party — an independent trade policy is no longer possible. What would Global Britain mean then?
The tension between commercial interests and security concerns predates the Brexit referendum and isn’t unique to the U.K. But Brexit makes it harder to show a common front. It also makes internal divisions more public as competing camps vie for control.
“There are different concepts of what Britain should be afterwards,” said Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform. “Probably, most of the rivals to succeed Theresa May would want the U.K. to be out there as a great trading nation, however that pans out in practice. But within the Conservative Party there is also a strong strand of economic nationalism that would say we don’t want to let in all this foreign stuff.”
If the U.K. leaves the EU this year as planned, it would eventually lose access to the second-generation Schengen Information System, which is used to share passport data and identify crime suspects. It wouldn’t have access to the European Arrest Warrant and the law-enforcement coalition Europol, both of which are important in crime-fighting. In an article in the Evening Standard on Wednesday, the head of Britain’s internal security service, Andrew Parker, warned that the threat of Islamic State attacks remains high and that countering them requires deep partnerships with the U.S. and Europe.
Ways will be found to continue that cooperation, especially on counterterrorism; it is of equally vital interest to Britain’s allies too. But any form of Brexit will make security harder to manage.
Nobody who voted for Brexit wanted to make Britain weaker or less secure. And yet Williamson’s firing is a reminder that balancing commercial and security interests — and balancing the desire to reclaim sovereignty with the need for vital cooperation — will become more complex in a post-Brexit world.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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