Richard Walton is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Head of the Counter Terrorism Command at New Scotland Yard.
There will be no notable change to the UK’s security and safety as the post Brexit agreement is implemented on New Year’s Day, 2021. Criminals and terrorists will not be waiting their moment to seize upon a new window of opportunity to take advantage of a weakened United Kingdom. Our nation’s safety has never depended upon our membership within the EU.
Close cooperation and collaboration between our police and intelligence agencies with EU states will continue as normal with most international investigations, whether for serious crime or terrorism, extending well beyond Europe to nations across the globe.
The landscape has clearly shifted. After returning from a tense EU summit in Brussels in February 2016 (having negotiated the UK’s latest EU ‘settlement’), our then Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the date of the referendum to the nation, placing security front and centre of the justification for remaining in the EU: “I believe that Britain will be safer, stronger and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union.”
Despite strenuous attempts by some politicians in the subsequent debates, justifying the assertion that Brexit would hinder the ability of the nation to protect itself, few operational leaders from the police and intelligence services appeared overly concerned or vexed – the EU was a trade body not a security alliance. The public were not convinced either, and fears relating to security did not sway the decision to leave the EU.
Now, five years later, the Government has secured a deal with the EU that buries all fears that the UK will be less secure after fully leaving the EU.
The UK’s engagement and collaboration with EU member states on crime, security and counter terrorism has always been mutually beneficial, which is why special arrangements on collaboration and the sharing of information from important databases have been agreed.
Crucially, the UK will retain full access to two of the most important, the Passenger Name Record Initiative (PNR), which shares passenger airplane data and PRUM, an increasingly important DNA and fingerprint database.
The Agreement also enshrines the ability of the UK and EU states to share information relating to wanted and missing persons and objects as well as criminal records. A new Specialised Committee on Law Enforcement and Judicial Cooperation will oversee the arrangements.
The one area of information sharing where the UK will lose out will be automated access to two databases linked to Schengen, the Schengen Information System (SIS II) and European Records Information System (ECRIS), but it is hard to see how this will markedly affect operations on the ground, especially when bilateral cooperation between police and immigration officers across national borders is so routine and strong.
It remains to be seen, however, whether alternative routes to obtaining this information will be as quick and seamless as current arrangements. In time, the UK and EU may revisit this arrangement as the flow of information from these databases is currently two-way so the EU states may lose out as well as the UK, access being mutually beneficial.
The UK provides a role model for EU Member States for countering terrorism threats, which is why close cooperation will undoubtably continue. At a time of heightened threat of terrorism across Europe, EU member states will continue to seek access to the UK’s experience, intelligence and operational resources used in countering terrorism after the 1st January to prevent an increase in terrorism across Europe and further afield.
The UK’s longstanding counter terrorism strategy entitled ‘CONTEST’ (first developed in early 2003) is one of the most comprehensive of any country in the world, and has been used to shape and inform both the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy and that of the United Nations.
The UK will continue to engage with two long-established information sharing fora within Europe that have been dealing with national security and counter terrorism since the 1990s: the ‘Berne Group’ or ‘Club of Berne’ and the Police Working Group on Terrorism (PWGT).
Both have evolved over several decades and include EU member states and non-EU member states alike. For example, both groups include Norway and Switzerland which are not members of the EU. Neither group operate on a formal charter and both work outside of the formal institutions of the EU.
Intelligence relating to terrorist suspects and terrorist operations will remain on national security (classified) databases in individual countries and shared on a case by case basis and effective counter terrorism operations will continue to rely on bilateral and multi-lateral state-to-state intelligence sharing, often global in nature.
Unlike EU states, the UK will continue to have full access to the ‘Five Eyes’ – the closest international intelligence sharing arrangement in the world, a platform that enables the routine sharing of highly classified intelligence relating to security threats and terrorism between the ‘5 eyes’ states of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Arrangements for sharing of intelligence on terrorist financing and asset confiscation have also been enshrined in the agreement.
The UK will continue to have access and engagement with Europol although, like its sister agency Interpol (that represents over 192 member states rather than just 27), it is not a law enforcement agency in the conventional sense, has no executive powers, makes no arrests, does not proactively collect intelligence and does not undertake operational activity.
Nevertheless, the UK will be able to second liaison officers to Europol and vice versa with our National Crime Agency, attend operational meetings and take a full part in analytical projects and Europol Heads of Unit meetings. It will also be able to second a liaison prosecutor to Eurojust who will be able to attend strategic and operational meetings.
Replacement for the European Arrest Warrant
A new detailed surrender agreement replaces the European Arrest Warrant, with clear provisions set out for mutual legal assistance and time restraints for responding to requests. This provision means that the UK and the EU will not need to revert back the dated European Convention on Extradition (1957).
The security agreement between the UK and EU states enshrines the vast majority of existing arrangements into law, ensuring that close collaboration and cooperation continues unhindered. Brexit has not been detrimental to our security or safety, nor to that of EU states. There is a great deal of mutual respect between the police and intelligence agencies of the UK and EU states and this will continue to strengthen, as it always has, regardless of the UK’s EU membership.
As articulated in 2016 by the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd” “In the national security context, however, the threats and challenges to UK national security have not fundamentally changed as a result of the decision to leave. The UK remains fully and strongly committed to Europe’s defence and security and we continue to play an active role in security and defence cooperation across Europe.”
As we head into 2021, on matters relating to crime and security, it will be business as usual; a spirit of continuity will prevail with our neighbouring EU states.
This is the first in a series of pieces from Policy Exchange looking at specific issues that arise from the Brexit trade deal.