Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

This government is putting our security at risk

More focus is needed on how a no deal Brexit opens the door to overseas criminals and limits our ability to fight crime, writes Harvey Regrave

Security was initially viewed as one of Theresa May’s trump cards in the Brexit negotiations. The United Kingdom is an indispensable ally in combating terrorism, thanks to its globally respected security services and membership of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance. Britain has historically also played a leading role in European law enforcement through its contribution to Europol, which until recently, was run by a Brit.

However, following criticism of the prime minister’s (admittedly clumsy) attempts to play the security card in the negotiations, she subsequently rowed back, indicating earlier this year that whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the UK was committed to ‘maintaining Europe’s security’ following Brexit. Certainly, it is in both the UK’s and the European Union’s interests to continue close cooperation, given common challenges around terrorism and organised crime. But simply because close cooperation is mutually beneficial, does not mean politics will not end up getting in the way.
So what are the security and policing implications of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU? And what would they be if we were to end up crashing out without a deal? The most consequential matters are the European arrest warrant and future plans around data and information-sharing.

The EAW allows EU countries to extradite criminal suspects between member states. It works on the basis of ‘mutual recognition’, meaning that member states arrest and surrender wanted persons more or less immediately once a warrant is issued by another member state.

It is highly valued by UK law enforcement and has been used to arrest some of Britain’s most wanted fugitives, from drug traffickers to terrorists. According to the National Crime Agency, in 2017, the UK received 16,837 requests from EU member states and completed 1,510 arrests on the basis of the procedure, whilst the UK itself submitted 278 requests and had 201 arrests carried out in other member states. Currently, the average time it takes to have a suspect transferred is three months within the EU using the EAW compared to 10 months using other measures.

The much maligned withdrawal agreement commits to continuing with current extradition arrangements during the transition period, avoiding a cliff-edge scenario in March 2019. It is envisaged that the UK would then seek to agree a new EU-wide extradition treaty, as part of the future relationship, to ensure we continue to benefit from access to the EAW post-Brexit, post-2020 (though even this timescale may be optimistic, given the complexities).

However, if we crash out without a deal, all bets are off: we would lose access to the EAW on the day we cease to be a member state and would revert to previous rules under the 1957 convention. In effect, this will mean officers having to get a court warrant before arresting foreign nationals, even those wanted for serious offences; a process that is bureaucratic and slow. Indeed in a ‘no deal’ scenario, the National Crime Agency believe it could even lead to some overseas criminals deliberately moving to the UK to avoid arrest.

Just as vital to British security are the databases and information-sharing systems that allow police forces across Europe to share information on suspects and crimes. These range from the Europol information system to the Schengen information system, the latter of which is used by the UK 539 million times per year.

These systems mean that data on criminal convictions can be exchanged in real time between law enforcement agencies, judges and prosecutors in different EU member states, for example, helping the police make decisions about the risks posed by suspects or offenders and take appropriate action.

The withdrawal agreement secures continuing cooperation with the EU in these areas, at least for the period of transition, after which the UK will likely have to pay the EU for continued access. Again though, in the event of ‘no deal’ the UK will lose access to this intelligence on the day we crash out. Senior police officers have said that while it currently takes a maximum of 10 days to obtain information about an overseas criminal history, in the event of no deal this could increase to a maximum of 66 days. The House of Lords EU committee found that losing access to EU databases would be a ‘calamitous outcome’ posing a ‘severe threat to the government’s ability to prevent serious crime’.

When it comes to policing and security, the UK and the EU have enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship which has developed and strengthened over the years. There is an understanding that continued close cooperation in policing and security benefits us all and the Brexit negotiations have attempted to reflect that. Self-evidently, that cooperation is now in jeopardy, as a result of the risks of no deal. This in itself deserves to be the focus of a much bigger public debate.

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Harvey Redgrave is senior policy fellow for immigration at the Tony Blair Centre for Global Change

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Photo: FCO / Wikimedia Commons

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Harvey Redgrave

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