Common and borderless threats require strong intelligence cooperation and joint operations between European states to minimise risks. It is essential that the UK and the EU develop a new security partnership which reflects the depth of their current collaboration.
Europe is currently facing growing borderless threats; terrorism, violent extremism, nuclear weapons, misinformation, and cyberattacks to name but a few. While intelligence is at the heart of national sovereignty, the answer to those threats can only have a positive outcome with an increasing and durable intelligence cooperation, data sharing and joint operations among European countries. Security and defence collaboration has become a source of leverage for several prominent decision-makers and a cause for concern in the Brexit talks. In her speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2018, Theresa May stressed the need to maintain and strengthen security cooperation with European countries. Andrew Parker, gave the first-ever public speech of an MI5 Director outside of the UK in Berlin, emphasising the importance of the vital intelligence partnerships the UK has bilaterally and within European institutions. Although neither the UK nor the EU is willing to compromise the safety of their citizens and institutions, intelligence cooperation is being exploited by British leaders as a bargaining chip to minimise post-Brexit losses and by the EU as a threat.
The main reason for intelligence cooperation is pragmatic. However, such collaboration is highly dependent on common threat perception, shared interests and trust. States, therefore, tend to prefer collaborating bilaterally instead of multilateral settings where there are higher risks of data misuse, breaches of confidentiality to third parties and reputational damage. In the case of the UK, bilateral partnerships will not be affected by Brexit. Trust with European partners will not cease following Brexit as it has been proven over years of mutual collaboration. Furthermore, those partnerships take place outside of the European institutions, so it will not be negatively influenced by any deal outcomes.
At a European level however, the UK will most likely be forced to withdraw from European intelligence institutions after Brexit. While the necessity of European intelligence cooperation is certainly not called into question since it addresses common threats and shared interests, the access to key data and strategic intelligence platforms will be diminished. The main European intelligence sharing agencies or systems affected are Europol’s platform for criminal intelligence sharing and police cooperation, Intcen, the European intelligence entity providing analytical assessment on current threats and the Schengen Information System II (SIS), which allows European countries to include and check live alerts on missing individuals, suspects as well as goods. Additionally, the UK will be restricted in its ability to access the Passenger Name Record Directive (PNR), the system to better detect and follow criminals and terrorists travelling in the EU.
Theresa May, supported by Andrew Parker and the Heads of the foreign intelligence agencies of Germany and France among others, promotes the indispensable collaboration among European agencies. She also declared that a security alliance between the UK and the EU was “fully achievable.” Nevertheless, no such partnership illustrating the depth of UK-EU relations currently exists between the EU and a third country. Theresa May is right to defend the necessity of a strong alliance with the UK along with her affirmation of the importance of British intelligence. Michel Barnier, the EU chief Brexit negotiator, declared in June 2018 that the UK decided to leave the European “ecosystem” and could only expect to be treated as a third country. Nonetheless, the UK undeniably has substantial assets in the domain of intelligence. Firstly, it is one of the main participants, providing crucial data and resources to Europol, Intcen and SIS as well as further European security programmes such as the European Arrest Warrant or Galileo. The UK is also a close partner to the US, which provides significant intelligence and know-how in the domain of security worldwide. Lastly, the UK is part of the Five Eyes, which is the intelligence sharing arrangement of five leaders in the global intelligence community: the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
The UK possesses strong bargaining chips to conceive a potential special intelligence relationship with the EU. Yet, British decision-makers also need to be more realistic and reduce their red lines, particularly regarding the European Court of Justice, which should be recognised as the institution overseeing joint operations and resolving legal disputes with the EU. If no agreement on security collaboration is found or if the UK is seriously limited through the new alliance, the EU will lose a major source of intelligence and the security situation of both sides will end up worse off. Political realism and pragmatism must prevail to ensure the safety of European citizens.
Marine Paclet works in public affairs in London and holds a Master degree in Public Policy.