After Brussels: Is Britain safer in or out?

Following the recent attacks in Brussels, the EU referendum debate on security has intensified. Both Leave and Remain claim that they offer greater security for the British people. But which side, if any, has the stronger case?


The EU has lost control of its external borders


Leave has gone on the offensive, arguing that the EU has failed to protect its citizens. It has failed to secure its external border. Thousands of undocumented migrants are entering Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. Who are they and what are their intentions? We don’t know.

Leave explain that the EU’s Schengen Agreement is the equivalent of hanging a ‘welcome sign’ above Europe’s door – including to terrorists. They remind us that up to 5000 IS terrorists are thought to have entered Europe among the migrants. Schengen facilitates their movement in Europe. Were terrorists to strike again, open borders could help facilitate their escape.

They point out that the migrants are overwhelming economic migrants rather than refugees. They are mostly ambitious young men with enough money to get to Europe illegally for a better life. Too often, Europe’s generosity is helping the ambitious rather than those most in need.


Existing security arrangements are important


The Remain campaign has responded by warning that Brexit would put at risk Britain’s existing arrangement with European intelligence agencies.

Theresa May has warned that Britain risks loosing access to intelligence from European partners were it to leave the EU. According to the home secretary, “there are things we can do as members of the European Union in terms of the exchange of data, but also working together within the EU, that is of benefit in terms of catching criminals”.

Meanwhile, Met police chief Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has warned that Britain faced a “bureaucratic nightmare” if the authorities had to renegotiate existing arrangements with EU partners.  Leaving the EU wouldn’t be worth the hassle.


Brexit could bring important security gains


However, others disagree. In an article for Prospect, Former head of MI6 Lord Richard Dearlove has said that were Britain to leave the EU, any costs “would be low” because Britain would retain its current arrangements with the US:

“Would Brexit damage our defence and intelligence relationship with the United States, which outweighs anything European by many factors of 10? I conclude confidently that no, it would not. The replacement of Trident, the access to overhead satellite monitoring capabilities, the defence exchanges that are hidden from public view, the UK-US co-operation over signals intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency/Secret Intelligence Service/Federal Bureau of Investigation/MI5 liaison and much more would continue as before.

Furthermore:

“Brexit would bring two potentially important security gains: the ability to dump the European Convention on Human Rights… and, more importantly, greater control over immigration from the European Union.”


Shared security interests trump politics


Remain campaigners might argue that close cooperation with European intelligence trumps these security gains.

However, Britons may not have to choose between the two. European intelligence services have an interest in continuing to work with British intelligence regardless whatever happens. As Sir Richard explains:

“Britain is Europe’s leader in intelligence and security matters and gives much more than it gets in return. It is difficult to imagine any of the other EU members ending the relationships they already enjoy with the UK. Furthermore, counter-terrorist and counter-espionage liaison between democratic allies is driven as much by moral considerations as by political ones. If a security source in Germany learns that a terrorist attack is being planned in London, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s domestic intelligence service, is certainly not going to withhold the intelligence from MI5 simply because the UK is not an EU member.”

If Sir Richard is correct then a British exit from the EU would benefit British security. It would involve “important” security gains at little cost. Leave could well have the better of this debate.