Has Brexit made us less safe?

Meme by the author

Prior to the referendum and for a few years afterwards, Sir Richard Dearlove appeared to dominate the conversation on security, at least from a pro-Brexit stance. Dearlove is a former head of MI6, the British security service responsible for countering threats from foreign sources. His omnipresence and stark opinions drowned out the voices of other former MI6 Heads, like Sir John Sawers, who was “C” from 2009 to 2014, and Sir Alexander Younger, who succeeded him.

Dearlove had retired from the post in 2004, so arguably his knowledge of how security services cooperate and what they need in order to succeed was over a decade out of date anyway. The range of threats we face has evolved significantly since his time in office: more threats from hostile non-state actors, cyber-attacks like the 2017 attack on our NHS, and an increasingly clandestine Russia. Our government, which had had enough of experts but hung on every word of those least qualified in any sector you care to name, chose to listen only to Dearlove and his outdated opinions.

While Dearlove admitted that Brexit would cost Britain in security terms, in his view that cost would be low. Whether any cost at all should be tolerated in a context of rising security threats was never discussed —but then there never was a rational debate on Brexit. Dearlove also did not specify what those costs would be so that others could comment as to whether the cost would be low or not.

He went on to say that Brexit would have two advantages from a security perspective. The first was that the UK would have, in his words, “the ability to dump the European Convention on Human Rights.” Just like that! He wrote off the European Union – a corner-stone in our defence against a conflict like World War II ever happening again, part of Churchill’s legacy, and a masterpiece of British diplomacy (the convention was largely drafted by British lawyers) —because the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) doesn’t always give a verdict he likes. And did so, apparently, without even realising that the ECHR is completely separate from the EU.

The second advantage he claimed was that our government would have greater control over immigration from the EU. He failed to mention that the UK already had controls on Freedom of Movement which our government, alone of all EU member states, had never implemented. Nor was there any explanation as to why it would be desirable to limit immigration from the European Union in a way that would strip 66 million British citizens of their rights to freedom of movement. The underlying assumption was that it was good and positive to make this massive sacrifice just to limit EU immigration (not from anywhere else), and was decided without any analysis as to the needs of our country and its citizens and businesses whatsoever.

The government stopped its ears to fact-based counter-arguments

Meanwhile, Sawers and Younger raised concerns. In 2018 Sir John Sawers told the New York Times that there was “real concern” in intelligence circles about losing access to various EU security tools, but that it was not often aired publicly because “intelligence and security issues tend to be dealt with behind closed doors.” Younger’s response was more temperate, telling The FT he would “always work with our sister agencies to strengthen our indispensable security ties in Europe,” and he did join other security heads in calling for continued access to EU security tools.

Younger’s comments are a reminder that security is not just the job of James Bond-style spies in MI6, but also of MI5, the domestic intelligence service, and the Police. Lord Evans, head of MI5 from 2007 to 2013, said, “I find it very hard to see any security upside from Brexit. It seems to me that our task is to minimise the downside…security interests remain international and globalised, because that’s where the threats come from.”

Sir Andrew Parker, successor to Lord Evans, also called for close cooperation post-Brexit. Addressing EU heads of state in Berlin in 2018 (the first time a head of MI5 has given a public address abroad), he said, “I don’t do politics, but it is of course political arrangements, laws and treaties that permit or constrain what we can do together as agencies protecting our countries and Europe. So, it’s as a security practitioner that I hope for a comprehensive and enduring agreement that tackles obstacles and allows the professionals to get on with the job together. We owe that to all our citizens across Europe.”

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick warned that losing legal instruments such as the European Arrest Warrant and membership of agencies such as Europol could potentially pose risks to the public. She was backed by the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) which called on government to retain the tools, or to urgently start planning to create what would inevitably be “expensive and inferior alternative to EU systems” as a matter of urgency.

The contested tools

So what are these EU-developed tools just about every expert going, from across the spectrum of political parties, said we needed to retain in order to facilitate the work to help to keep us safe? Arguably, the five most important are:

1. Europol: a pan-EU policing body that pools intelligence and conducts joint operations against international extremist and organised crime groups.

2. European Arrest Warrant (EAW): a simplified cross-border judicial surrender procedure that drives the extradition of up to 10,000 foreign offenders every year from the UK, as well as allowing British criminals to be brought back to face trial. In the case of the Salisbury attack, the EAW enabled Russian perpetrators to be extradited outside of the UK.

3. Schengen Information System II (SIS II): a huge database containing information on terrorists, criminals, missing people and objects, to which our police say there is ‘no alternative’. UK Police and Border Guards had been the third heaviest users of the database, with 571 million queries in 2019. This resulted in issuing alerts on 36,680 people and 259,824 vehicles, plus hundreds of thousands of other objects.

4. European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS): a decentralised system for exchanging information on previous convictions between the Member States. The security services warned it would be harder to keep Britons safe from terrorist attack without access to this system.

5. The Secure Information Exchange Network Application (SIENA) is a state-of-the-art platform that ensures the secure and swift transmission of sensitive and restricted data. It is a vital tool to promoting and enhancing the exchange of information on counter-terrorism.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said Europe-wide systems had made British officers “better at protecting the public” by improving their response to crime and terrorism. They help our police to identify criminals and missing persons who cross our borders, detain and swiftly surrender suspects under EAWs, quickly identify a suspect’s previous history of offending, and the sharing biometric data. Loss of these tools would mean police and law enforcement agencies face a significant loss of operational capacity, making it harder to protect the public from dangerous people.

Government complacency

In the last months of the mis-named Transition period, Government ministers sent alarming signals that they were not taking national security seriously. The first was the mooted appointment of David, now Lord Frost, as our national security advisor. Even Theresa May made her displeasure known on that point, as he does not have appropriate experience for that role.

May again clashed with the government when, in answer to her question about what government was doing to prevent the situation where UK police would be less able to fight cross-border crime due to lack of access to EU data, Michael Gove made the outrageous claim:

“… that there are many areas in which we can co-operate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside.” (Hansard, 19th October, 2020)

As late as 17 December 2020, Priti Patel was on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, claiming, “All the types of channels we have used in the past – we will continue to use going forward”. When Sheffield’s Labour MP Paul Blomfield challenged Gove on Patel’s misleading claim later that day, Gove replied “The Home Secretary is always right.” Blomfield concluded, “This Government aren’t bothered about the truth.”

100-day post-Brexit status

Julian King, who was the European Commissioner for the Security Union from 2016 until November 2019, said that the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) “is very much worth having, but leaves our security relationship dialled down.” However, “It is a damage limitation exercise, and disagreements over how things work in practice could yet cause future difficulties.”

The good news is that we are still in SIENA. In addition, we remain in:

  • the 2008 Prüm Decisions, by which EU member states agreed to search and exchange DNA data, fingerprints and vehicle registration data of suspects and convicts. This will be further developed to include facial recognition.
  • the exchange of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data between EU Member States and the UK will also continue. In return, the UK commits to sharing analyses generated from this data with the agencies Europol and Eurojust as well as the law enforcement agencies of the EU member states. 
  • a framework for an efficient exchange of information between police, customs and other authorities. Called “Cooperation on Operational Information”, it is a slimmed-down version of the EU Framework Decision on simplifying the exchange of information and intelligence between law enforcement authorities of the EU countries (the “Swedish Initiative”).

In addition, the TCA contains provisions for law enforcement and judicial cooperation on anti-money laundering, tackling the funding of terrorism, and the freezing or confiscation of assets.

The bad news is that we have lost full membership of Europol, we will not participate in the EAW and we no longer have access to SIS II or ECRIS. However, there are some mitigants:

  • Europol may continue to cooperate closely and intensively with the UK, and to this end there will be further negotiations to create working agreements. However, such negotiations will not include direct access to the Europol Information System (EIS).
  • Extradition will still be possible, under less efficient rules contained in the TCA that are similar to those Iceland & Norway work under.
  • The TCA provides a legal basis for exchanging security alerts bilaterally, although that’s not nearly as effective as a frontline officer being able to directly consult SIS II in real time. Instead of entering wanted persons for arrest into SIS II, UK authorities will now have to make do with the less effective Interpol channel instead.

It is possible that more intense bilateral cooperation can compensate for some of the loss, but nowhere near as much as it needs to. However, the 2020 revelation by the Intelligence and Security Committee in the now infamous “Russia Report” that, although British security services had warned the government as far back as 2014 that Russia was interfering in UK democratic processes, it decided to do nothing about it, was a bombshell. Britain’s reputation in the intelligence community has been tarnished and trust in the UK as a reliable partner diminished.

The verdict

Our ideologically-driven government put Brexit above the national interest, and now their Brexit has made us all less safe. Given government’s form on other issues, it is possible they have cynically adopted the ‘Pinto Principle’ — withholding information about defects and ignoring human rights for the sake of ‘profit’. We won’t all be victims of crime or terrorism, and government will shed crocodile tears for those that are, as it continues pushing its authoritarian agenda and filling its pockets at the taxpayer’s expense.

Dearlove played down the impact of Brexit because most intelligence sharing is typically done on a bilateral basis and would probably continue to be so, but government should have listened to those like Lord Evans who warned us that intelligence sharing is “only a small part of the overall picture.” Ironically, in July 2002, Dearlove warned ministers that in the US “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. That appears to be precisely what is happening in the UK now, thanks partially to him for promoting Brexit.

If our government’s complacency were edible, none of us would go hungry ever again.