Brexit negotiations

Theresa May calls for new EU security treaty but status quo could be expensive to maintain

Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
February 19, 2018

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Theresa May has set out the government’s plans for a new framework for cooperation on security and defence once the UK has left the EU.

In a speech to the Munich Security Conference last week the Prime Minister called for a new “deep and special partnership” where the UK and EU can still work constructively for mutual advantage.

She said that new arrangements in foreign and defence policy cooperation should be in place by next year.

The prime minister urged the EU not to let the continent’s security become a bargaining chip in negotiations. “If the priority in the negotiations becomes avoiding any kind of new cooperation, then this political doctrine and ideology will have damaging real-world consequences for the security of all our people,” she said.

However, recognising the mutual benefits – and mutual damage if collaborative frameworks unravel – of close cooperation, negotiators on both sides of the table have been more emollient on security and defence than over more contentious issues like the customs union, freedom of movement and the European Court of Justice.

“Europe’s security is our security,” May said in her speech. “And that is why I have said that the UK is unconditionally committed to maintaining it.”

May cited the arrest of suspected terrorists and successes in dealing with people traffickers as examples of cross-border collaboration that reaped dividends

In her speech, May cited the arrest of suspected terrorists and successes in dealing with people traffickers as examples of cross-border collaboration that reaped dividends.

Such success could continue post-Brexit, she insisted, because the EU had productive relationships with numerous partners outside the EU. There should be no “no legal or operational reason” why security should be compromised by the UK’s departure from the world’s largest trading bloc.

Even the most ardent Brexiters have shown no desire to jettison cooperation over counter terror and intelligence sharing, even if they claim that the UK will be able to protect its borders more effectively outside the EU.

It’s no surprise then that Theresa May’s fragile minority government can seek a new security arrangement that is as close to the status quo as possible without worrying about riling hard-Brexit supporting backbenchers.

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said the “security bridge between the UK and the EU would still be maintained” and recognised that “you cannot mix it up with other issues.”

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the EU’s biggest economy, Germany, has said that while the UK could not replicate its existing membership outside the EU, she wanted relations to be “as close as possible”.

Myriad, complex issues

Nevertheless, even if such goodwill is sincere and remains uninfected by acrimony generated by other issues in the coming months, securing an arrangement close to the status quo is fraught with myriad, complex issues.

Membership of Europol, which gathers and shares intelligence within the EU, will definitely end.

“We’ll find other, more informal ways of influencing, but they will be less direct, less pronounced and probably less successful.” Outgoing director of Europol Rob Wainwright

Outgoing director of the body and British civil servant Rob Wainwright told the BBC that the UK was set to lose out however negotiations unfolded. “We will find other ways of influencing, more informal ways, but they will be less direct, less pronounced and probably less successful than they are now,” he said.

“I think it’s actually a shame for our European partners as well.”

As a ‘third’ country, the UK risks losing access to collaborative tools like Frontex, Eurojust, SIS II, the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), Prüm Decisions, Passenger Name Records (PNR), Eurodac, and the ECIS Visa Information System.

Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, told Prospect magazine that “We won’t be round the table with our voice, with our weight, stressing the vital importance of these data exchanges to our national security.”

The implications of leaving the EU for border security was explored extensively in a white paper produced by London First. Published on IFSEC Global the paper notes that restrictions on travel to the UK from EU countries might stimulate demand for forged and stolen documentation and more dangerous forms of illegal travel to the UK.

Robert Hall, founder of London First and an expert in security and resilience, said: “We are potentially in danger of cutting ourselves off from a lot of information sourcing, from databases held by the EU. But until the negotiation are complete, it’s difficult to know how we will fare as a result.

“Clearly, we don’t want to spend a lot of money replicating those services or manning our border force to 10 times their current strength when we don’t absolutely need to. We’ll give some sensible comment when we see what the final deal looks like.”

High price

Even if the UK does achieve something close to the status quo, it could come at a high financial price.

Replicating the European Arrest Warrant outside the EU – which took Norway and Iceland 13 years to negotiate and ratify – could be four times as expensive as operating the EU measure, according to a House of Lords report.

The number of border officials may have to double to cope with the a projected rise in customs declarations

The number of border officials may have to double to cope with the a projected rise in customs declarations from 60 million to 200 million if the UK leaves the customs union – and this at a time when Border Force is already struggling with spending cuts and staff departures.

And many observers argue that a hard border between the Irish Republic and the north of Ireland is inevitable if a hard Brexit happens.

For all the goodwill expressed over security collaboration, some EU countries do not want to set a precedent by giving a non-EU country any measure of influence over policy – even when related to defence and security.

That said, EU member states may be more ready to compromise when they consider the UK’s powerful pair of bargaining chips: its enormous resources – it has the second largest defence budget in NATO and the biggest in Europe – and its renowned expertise in counter-terrorism.

Negotiators cannot wall off some security issues because they are inextricably bound up with other, more contentious issues.

The European Arrest Warrant and data sharing protocols are governed by standardised EU data sharing rules – judicial oversight of which ultimately rests with the ECJ. Malcolm Chalmers, an analyst at the think-tank RUSI, has floated the idea of the UK continuing to accept ECJ authority in some areas for an extended transition period.

Defence cooperation

Brexit will wreak profound changes to cooperation on defence and foreign policy too.

Britain will surrender its seat at the EU’s foreign affairs council and political and security committee.

And if it participates in the Permanent Defence Co-operation (Pesco), a newly launched collaboration between EU member states, it will do so only after negotiating a separate arrangement as a third country.

The EU has also said the UK will no longer influence its common security and defence policy or command joint EU missions.

The impact of Brexit is already being felt with regard to the EU’s anti-piracy mission Operation Atalanta, which will have to relocate its headquarters away from London.

According to Fraser Cameron, a senior adviser at the European Policy Centre, it’s naive to suggest that the mutual benefits generated by close cooperation alone will ensure that both parties reach a satisfying agreement. “An amicable divorce would mean the closest possible co-operation in foreign and security policy, but an acrimonious divorce would lead to barriers being erected,” he told the FT.

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