After Brussels: Is Britain safer in or out?

Following the recent attacks in Brussels, the EU referendum debate on security has intensified, with both Leave and Remain claiming that they offer greater security for the British people.

Leave has gone on the offensive, arguing that the EU has failed to protect its citizens. The combination of the EU’s failure to secure its external border from undocumented migrants from North Africa and the Middle East and its ‘welcome sign’ Schengen Agreement has played into the hands of terrorists.

Leave remind us that up to 5000 IS terrorists are thought to have entered Europe among the refugees and economic migrants. Schengen facilitates their movement in Europe, potentially making it easier for them to carry out attacks and then make their escape.

The Remain campaign has responded by warning that Brexit would threaten Britain’s security by putting at risk its current arrangement with European intelligence agencies.

Theresa May has warned that intelligence from European partners, catching criminals and extraditing suspects would all be threatened were Britain 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.

However, not everyone is convinced. 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, which “outweighs anything European by many factors of 10”.

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.”

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

However, there is reason to believe that Britons needn’t choose between the two since European intelligence services have an interest in continuing to work with British intelligence regardless of whether or not Britain remains a member of the EU.

According to Sir Richard, “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 because it would involve “important” security gains at little cost.

If Leave has the better of this argument, as it appears to, Remain will be hoping that the discussion moves on to another subject in which it does better.

However, there is the possibility of another Paris / Brussels-style attack taking place, this time closer to the referendum date. It has been suggested that if this were to happen, Britons would again turn their minds to security, with the result that a majority would vote to leave.