The gaping hole in the UK-EU Security Deal
“Calamitous” is not a word that appears often in official reports.
But in July 2018 it was the word that an influential Parliamentary committee used to describe the impact of losing access to the Schengen Information System II (SIS II), a vast EU database containing millions of pieces of information about wanted persons, missing people and suspect vehicles.
The Commons Home Affairs Committee had produced a follow-up report about the security relationship between the UK and the European Union after Brexit.
The MPs heard from Sir Rob Wainwright, the highly-respected former head of Europol, the EU intelligence and crime-fighting agency, who’d said that because of the “volume of cross-border movements of so many offenders across so many criminal areas in Europe” databases such as SIS II were the only way for EU countries to share intelligence “on an efficient and consistent basis”.
This was not a partisan committee, or a committee stuffed full of "Remainers". It included MPs from across the political divide, among them the Conservative backbenchers Sir Christopher Chope, Rehman Chishti and Tim Loughton. Their conclusions were stark.
“Without UK access to SIS II, individuals who pose a genuine threat will be able to enter the UK or the EU without important intelligence being flagged to border officials,” the MPs warned.
“Losing access to it would be a calamitous outcome to the UK, which would pose a severe threat to the Government’s ability to prevent serious crime and secure the border effectively,” they added.
But in spite of the concerns raised by the Committee (and by many other experts over the past few years), the EU was unable to agree to the UK continuing to contribute to the database or see the daily real-time alerts issued by member states.
It is by far the biggest hole in the security deal the two sides announced last week - an agreement Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, hailed as providing “effective tools to tackle serious crime and terrorism”.
Although senior UK police officers had been expecting the loss of SIS II, the alternative arrangements they’ve been putting in place for exchanging urgent crime intelligence and information will be nowhere near as swift or comprehensive.
They will be relying on “red notices” and other messages from Interpol, the global police organisation which has 194 member countries. But where SIS II involves an automated system of alerts, the Interpol process, according to Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Richard Martin, who leads on the issue for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, is “very much voluntary” and requires much of the information to be inputted manually; some EU states may not upload alert details onto the Interpol system at all.
Under the new UK-EU security accord, Britain will also lose its place at Europol’s top table; senior law enforcement officers from the UK will be unable to shape the direction of the agency or ensure that particular operations are given priority. The fullest benefits of Europol go to EU member states and although the UK will retain a strong presence at the organisation’s headquarters in The Hague, it won’t have access to the intelligence it does now. The impact will be felt the most by the National Crime Agency and UK police units involved in tackling drug smuggling, human trafficking and other cross-border crime.
On the positive side, the agreement appears to set out a legal framework for the exchange of information between the EU and the UK on passenger names, criminal records, vehicle registrations, fingerprints and DNA. Some of the provisions are the same as those which exist now, for example on DNA, but others are different and it is doubtful whether they’ll be as “fast” as the Home Office has promised they will be, or as fast as they have been until now.
The new mechanism for extraditing suspects between EU states and the UK is also, on the face of it, similar to the European Arrest Warrant scheme, which Britain is about to opt out of. Although there’ll be relief in policing and legal circles that a pan-EU agreement has been reached, avoiding the need for reliance on the 1957 Convention on Extradition and bespoke bi-lateral arrangements, the late timing of the deal is likely to create confusion.
“They’ve attempted to mirror the European Arrest Warrant without doing so,” says Ben Keith, a barrister who specialises in extradition law.
“It’ll lead to a lot of problems in the next 18 months,” predicts Keith, who also sits as a Deputy Judge on immigration and asylum cases.
"It doesn’t seem to be a fully coherent strategy," he adds.
A new National Extradition Unit, with 40 staff, has been set up to co-ordinate the process across England and Wales. But if there’d been a few months to get to grips with the fresh system before its introduction, the road ahead might not have been as bumpy as it’s now expected to be; legal challenges are a very real possibility in new cases - and in those which are outstanding under the previous system.
In normal times, a new extradition agreement between the EU and the UK would be headline news, as would the downgrading of Britain’s role at Europol. These are not normal times, however, and it’s understandable that attention is focused elsewhere.
But the removal of the UK’s right of access to the SIS II database should not be glossed over or forgotten about. Senior police officers and officials, who are usually guarded in public, have spoken openly about the huge loss of capability that will follow. A cross-party Committee described it as “calamitous”. Surely MPs won’t forget that description.