The idea that we can use security co-operation as a bargaining chip with the EU is implausibleby Arthur Snell / March 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. The same goes for threats: Theresa May’s Article 50 letter appears to link Britain’s desire for a generous post-Brexit trade deal with the possibility that it might withdraw high security co-operation. This has been seen as a threat by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, by the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, by senior European politicians and by recently retired Whitehall Mandarins. To Home Secretary Amber Rudd it was crystal clear: “There are two separate items here, one is on the economy, the other is on security.” Then she admitted: “it’s the same paragraph but it’s not in the same sentence.” Her attempts to reassure were undermined when she announced, “we are the largest contributor to Europol, so if we left Europol then we would take our information.”
A reasonable assumption must be that this was meant as a threat—even if the reaction to it had not been adequately considered by government. Like any threat, it can only have an impact if the chances of its being implemented are plausible. Here it fails immediately for two reasons: ethical and practical.
Let’s start with the ethics. The assumption contained in this threat is that at some future point during failed trade negotiations, the UK decides to stop sharing intelligence with European partners. Let us assume this new approach is clearly signposted by the British so the remaining members of the EU understand the impact of their choices. Then let’s imagine MI5 learns of an Islamic State (IS) cell led by Belgian nationals that have returned from Syria after the fall of Raqqa in late 2017. This cell is plotting to detonate suicide vests in Brussels’s railway terminals in a co-ordinated spectacular at rush hour. The UK does not inform the Belgians. The attack takes place, resulting in numerous casualties, including British nationals.
However cynical one’s opinion of our nation’s leaders, this does not strike me as remotely plausible. Even if there were no British citizens at risk, it is very hard to imagine our intelligence agencies refusing to share information to make a point in a trade negotiation. And then there are the political consequences: the morning after such an attack the British media would be demanding to know whether our intelligence had forewarning, and whether it shared what it knew. Any government planning a cover up would face media and public pressure. At present, the British authorities will share threat intelligence with countries with whom we have poor relations, if we believe it will save lives. The idea that we would cease to do so for our nearest neighbours while continuing to pass information to, for example, Russia, is not credible.
There are also practical reasons to doubt the letter’s threat. Amber Rudd says the UK must leave Europol and take its intelligence with it. Except it doesn’t work like that. If MI5 had intelligence regarding an IS cell in Belgium, it would pass it to its equivalent agency, the Belgian State Security Service (which happens to be the oldest security service in the world). There would be no reference to the EU or any other multilateral body. Other intelligence services might become involved, for example if the cell contains members of other nationalities or had operational connections with other countries. But a basic rule governs the way intelligence services share information: “the origin and details of the intelligence provided by the partner service will be protected according to its original classification, and will not be passed on to third parties: the so-called Third-Party Rule.” This convention governs the way almost all intelligence agencies co-operate. To restrict or conceal threat intelligence runs counter to the established culture and practice of British intelligence. And it poses a considerable risk to the UK: if we cut off our European partners’ access to key intelligence, can we expect them to continue to pass us information?
Whether or not Britain is a member of Europol, its intelligence agencies will still have liaison relationships all over the world. To threaten otherwise is to mislead the British public and our European negotiating partners.