“What about security?”
It came from Yvette Cooper and related to the UK’s attempts to reach a deal with the EU before the end of the transition period.
Most of the “recent talk” about the negotiations, the Labour MP tweeted, had been about “trade or fish”, whereas the “top priority” should have been public protection, counter-terrorism and crime.
What prompted Cooper’s comment were two letters sent to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, which she chairs, setting out in stark terms the ramifications of failing to secure an agreement by the end of the year.
Martin Hewitt, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said Britain would “lose access to all” of the EU law enforcement and national security tools and capabilities and would “rely on contingencies”. The fall-back systems, he added, would be “slower, provide less visibility of information/intelligence and make joined-up working with European partners more cumbersome”.
Among the systems the UK would no longer be able to access was SIS II, a massive database of missing and wanted persons. “This loss will have a major operational impact,” wrote Hewitt.
The former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner said the country would also lose the ability to check criminal records via the EU’s ECRIS system, lengthening the process from six days to 66 days, while there’d be a “major impact” for those working in counter-terrorism and serious organised crime without access to passenger records, via an EU legal directive known as PNR.
The letter pointed out the serious implications of not being able to share DNA and fingerprint data, under the EU Prum protocol, as well as having to depend on Interpol and bespoke extradition arrangements instead of the fast-track European Arrest Warrant scheme.
In a second letter, Steve Rodhouse of the National Crime Agency, issued a chilling warning about the effect of losing access to Europol, the EU’s intelligence and law enforcement organisation, based in The Hague.
I visited the centre in 2017 and was really impressed by the close cooperation between EU member states, with representatives of each country on site every day, working, literally, side-by-side.
But Rodhouse said the “widespread operational use” by the UK of Europol’s services would be replaced by “very basic” provisions. The NCA’s Director-General of Operations said “several hundred” active investigations would have to be managed bilaterally, which was not as effective, and routine intelligence enquiries transferred to Interpol.
These EU-wide security structures have taken years, if not decades, to put in place. Some, like the DNA and fingerprint agreements, came into force in the UK barely 18 months ago. And yet the possibility that they could be dismantled - at least as far as Britain is concerned - has caused only a ripple of interest.
The Government’s public response to what could happen might be generously characterised as under-playing the significance of the issue, and less charitably described as complacent.
On August 24, James Brokenshire, the Home Office Security Minister, said the Government believed an agreement could be reached the following month. It was not.
Writing to the House of Lords EU Security and Justice sub-committee, Brokenshire acknowledged that although alternative EU security arrangements were “not like-for-like replacements” they were “largely tried and trusted mechanisms”. He added that the UK would continue to be one of the “safest” countries in the world.
In October, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, told MPs that “significant progress” had been made in security cooperation but the EU’s insistence that the Government accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over shared databases remained a sticking point. He suggested that border security was more effective through measures which applied to non-EU countries than those in the bloc - a claim met by an expression of disbelief from the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, who was listening from the backbenches.
The remarks from Gove were troubling and offered no reassurance that a security deal was close.
Perhaps it’s posturing. Perhaps the Government has something up its sleeve. Perhaps ministers believe a security accord will be reached because the EU needs it just as much, if not more, than the UK - that’s certainly one argument that’s been advanced, because of the volume and quality of intelligence which is said to flow from our shores.
In the meantime, in the absence of a deal, we should all be taking the question “What about security?” far more seriously.