The Corner

Brexit and Britain’s Security

The Jihadist horror in Brussels has once again brought the question of European security into focus, and will, of course, inevitably influence the direction of Britain’s debate over its membership of the EU, if not necessarily its outcome.

That makes this article by Richard Dearlove in Prospect, written, I imagine, before the Brussels killings, very timely indeed. To understand the author’s perspective, he is not arguing in this piece for or against Brexit, but merely saying that, from a British national security perspective, the cost to the UK of Brexit would be low (he also cites some benefits), an assertion difficult to reconcile with some of the scare-mongering by the Bremain camp. 

The whole article is a must-read, but here’s an excerpt::

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.

In addition, though the UK participates in various European and Brussels-based security bodies, they are of little consequence: the Club de Berne, made up of European Security Services; the Club de Madrid, made up of European Intelligence Services; Europol; and the Situation Centre in the European Commission are generally speaking little more than forums for the exchange of analysis and views. With the exception of Europol, these bodies 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 cannot put their best intelligence material into such colanders…The crucial practical business of counter-terrorism and counter-espionage is conducted, even in Europe, through bilateral and very occasionally trilateral relationships. Brussels has little or nothing to do with them, in large part due to what is known as the “Third Party Rule,” a notion that is little understood outside the intelligence fraternity but which is essential to intelligence liaison worldwide. This rule states that the recipient of intelligence from one nation cannot pass it on to a third without the originator’s agreement.

Naturally enough, Dearlove turns his attention to the UK’s strategic relationship with the United States, something that has also been the subject of scare-mongering, not least from John McCain, someone who appears to understand very little about how the EU operates.  

As it happens, I’d argue that Brexit ought to make the UK a more effective US ally, rather than less. Dearlove doesn’t claim that, but he does say this:

Would Brexit damage our defence and intelligence relationship with the United States, which outweighs anything European by many factors of 10? I conclude confidently that no, it would not. The replacement of Trident, the access to overhead satellite monitoring capabilities, the defence exchanges that are hidden from public view, the UK-US co-operation over signals intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency/Secret Intelligence Service/Federal Bureau of Investigation/MI5 liaison and much more would continue as before.

He finishes as follows:

There would be disapproval of Brexit in Washington, and some disappointment too, but the practical consideration of living in a dangerous world and depending on true friends would win out. In short, Europe would be the potential losers in national security. But if Brexit happened, the UK would almost certainly show the magnanimity not to make its European partners pay the cost.

And who is this Richard Dearlove?

The former head of MI6, that’s who. 

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