The recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium have fuelled a heated debate about whether Brexit or staying in the EU is better for the UK’s national security. This article will show that academic analysis demonstrates that on balance Brexit is far better for the UK’s national security than remaining in the EU.

Britain Stronger in Europe has recently claimed that:

Being in Europe, working together and sharing intelligence with other EU countries, is essential to Britain’s national security.

They cite a joint letter from six former Home Secretaries stressing that:

By sharing intelligence, pooling resources and working together, European countries add value to each others’ efforts to tackle terrorism.

The overriding priority for any British Government is to keep Britain safe. As the threat level rises we know that, without European cooperation we would be more at risk. (“Europe & You”, Jan.-Feb. 2016.)

This argument has been supported by Sir David Omand (former head of GCHQ), who contends that the UK would be the loser in security terms if Brexit is achieved. He concludes that:

We are part of an established information sharing network with our partners whilst still retaining control of our border. The best of both worlds. Why jeopardise the flow of information we receive?

He also suggests that the UK would become an ‘international pariah’ if we opted out of the ECHR.

In stark contrast, in a March 2016 article for Prospect magazine, Sir Richard Dearlove (former head of MI6) argues that ‘Brexit would not damage UK Security’. His comments have already been well-covered by UKIP Daily (Vivian Evans, ‘Trailing Through Today’s Papers’, 24 March 2016), hence there is no need to cover them in great detail here. Dearlove’s key point is that:

…the truth about Brexit from a national security perspective is that the cost to Britain would be low. Brexit would bring two potentially important security gains: the ability to dump the European Convention on Human Rights – remember the difficulty of extraditing the extremist Abu Hamza of the Finsbury Park Mosque – and, more importantly, greater control over immigration from the European Union.

This is echoed by David Davis (former shadow Home Secretary) who suggests that under the EU’s new visa deal with Turkey, jihadists would be able to enter the EU as it would be relatively easy for Syrian jihadists to obtain Turkish papers.

Dearlove concedes that Brexit would result in the loss of the European Arrest Warrant. ‘But its importance has been exclusively criminal and few would notice its passing.

In terms of intelligence sharing, the UK is Europe’s biggest intelligence player and gives much more to its continental counterparts than it gets back in return, which leads Dearlove to conclude that EU members would not end their intelligence sharing relations with the UK if there is Brexit. He feels that EU security bodies ‘are of little consequence’. Apart from Europol, they have no operational capacity, and ‘with 28 members of vastly varying levels of professionalism in intelligence and security, the convoy must accommodate the slowest and leakiest of the ships of state’. The larger powers will not risk putting their best intelligence into such ‘colanders’. He also makes the key point that the practical business of counter-terrorism and counter-espionage in the EU is conducted through bilateral (very occasionally trilateral) relationships between security services. ‘Brussels has little or nothing to do with them.’ This is largely due to the third party rule: the recipient of intelligence from one state cannot pass it on to a third party without the originator’s agreement. Politicians who talk about intelligence sharing seldom seem to understand that this is crucial for source protection; which is one of the keystones of trust on which successful security partnerships are built.

Dearlove suggests that Brexit would not damage the UK’s close intelligence relationship with the USA. UK-US co-operation would continue as before. Practical considerations ‘of living in a dangerous world and depending on true friends would win out’. Indeed, Brexit may even improve the UK’s intelligence relationship with the USA. Michael Hayden (former head of the CIA) feels that EU decisions are making it more difficult for national governments to maintain security:

Right now because of some of the positions that the Euro institutions have taken on surveillance and privacy, the capitals are finding it more difficult to provide for their citizens’ safety.

How should we judge between the competing arguments put forward by these two distinguished intelligence practitioners? Sir Stephen Lander (former head of MI5) observes that since the end of the Cold War, there has been an increased need for collaboration between states regarding terrorism, the proliferation of WMD, drug trafficking, and other such global issues on which good intelligence is vital. However, he suggests that these changes have not altered the underlying fact that intelligence services are national instruments that are required to be self-centred about their own national interest. Therefore, Lander proposes that the key test for international intelligence collaboration is not a desire for closer political relations or sentiment, rather it is utility:

Collaboration is not an end in itself. It is utility that drives collaboration.

It is instructive to apply Lander’s utility test to what is arguably the EU’s most important intelligence sharing project. In 2014, Europol launched the Focal Point Travellers initiative, a project to store information about thousands of people suspected of travelling across borders to engage in terrorism, including foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. This scheme never got a broad buy-in from governments – receiving information on only 2,000 suspects, less than half of the foreign fighters known to individual EU security services. Europol Director Rob Wainwright, a former MI5 analyst, concedes that ‘There is a black hole of information’. His efforts have been impeded by EU governments’ reluctance to share information, owing to political and cultural barriers. By the day of the Paris attacks, according to a report by Gilles de Kerchove (European Council’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator), only half of the EU’s twenty-eight member states had registered foreign fighters on the Europol database. Kerchove feels that this lamentable state of affairs is due to a lack of political will to share effective data on foreign fighters. Half of the information on the Focal Point Travellers database came from just six countries, including one from outside the EU.

In a March 2016 brief for the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), entitled ‘For EU Eyes Only? Intelligence and European Security’, Bjorn Fagersten (Director of the Europe Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs), points out that Europe-wide internal security co-operation is ‘not attached to the Union nor focuses on supporting EU policy per se. The node for such cooperation is the Club de Berne’, which focuses on a broad range of societal threats, and its offshoot the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG), which co-operates on a narrow focus on Islamist terrorism. The CTG includes all twenty-eight EU member states plus Norway and Switzerland. ‘While cooperation is fully intergovernmental, the CTG has a link to the EU’s IntCen [Intelligence and Situation Centre] and regularly briefs EU working groups and decision-makers.’ This supports Dearlove’s analysis that EU intelligence sharing has very little to do with Brussels, and that post-Brexit the UK’s security services could continue to co-operate with their continental counterparts very much as before.

For those who think that EU intelligence sharing can be easily reformed, Fagersten points to the ‘challenges of cooperation’: diverging preferences, power asymmetries, bureaucratic interests, and missing infrastructures. And, for those who think that these challenges can be easily overcome, Fagersten points to the ‘fallacy of grand designs’: self-selection bias, it is not entirely clear what advocates of an EU-style FBI want to do, and national security is still an area of member state competence.

In conclusion, Brexit is clearly the much better option for the UK’s national security.

  • First, the UK could opt out of the ECHR. This would not make the UK an international pariah; as the UK could then replace it with UK legislation.
  • Secondly, the UK would regain sovereignty over its own borders.
  • Third, Brexit would not harm UK-US intelligence relations; it may actually improve them.
  • Fourth, post-Brexit, the UK’s intelligence and security agencies could still continue to share intelligence with their continental counterparts. Indeed, most European intelligence sharing happens outside EU structures anyway, such as the Club de Berne.
  • Fifth, most importantly, in terms of utility, EU intelligence sharing does not actually work very well, as the example of the Focal Point Travellers database has shown.

In which case, the costs of membership far outweigh the benefits. On the other hand, the European Arrest Warrant does have some uses. However, they are dwarfed by the security benefits of Brexit. And, post-Brexit, the UK will be able to develop treaties that serve the same purpose as the European Arrest Warrant.

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