UK need to cooperate with the EU on security after Brexit

Our negotiations with Brussels must address issues such as information sharing and cyber security.

The government’s 2015 strategic defence and security review identified four major threats and challenges to UK national security: terrorism and extremism; state-based threats; cyber threats and the erosion of the rules-based international order. Despite the extraordinary political upheavals of the last two years, including the Brexit referendum and election of President Trump, events have starkly vindicated that analysis.

Take just two examples. The so-called Islamic State is all but defeated in Iraq and Syria. But its affiliates across the world and the extremism it promotes still pose a major threat to this country. In the five years until the end of last year, only one British national was killed in an act of terrorism in the UK, compared with 60 British nationals overseas. This year, we have already seen five major terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, four of them deadly.

As for state-based threats, last month’s massive Zapad war exercises in Belarus were a reminder that Russia has become more aggressive and nationalistic, increasingly defining itself in opposition to the west, while North Korea’s nuclear antics have rarely been off the front pages.

Nor does the prospect of Brexit fundamentally change this assessment. It was clear to me as national security adviser that national security would be less directly affected by Brexit than many other policy areas. This is because security has always been the responsibility of individual member states, not the EU, as European Union treaties recognise. The EU, as an institution, is much less important to our security than Nato, the Five Eyes community on intelligence, our permanent membership of the UN security council and bilateral arrangements with key partners, such as the Lancaster House treaty with France. It is telling that, of the 89 separate commitments in the 2015 security and defence review, only one referenced the EU – to champion an EU-India free trade agreement. That is not to say that there are no implications. There are, and they need to be addressed in the negotiations. The most important is the network of information sharing and practical measures that help British law enforcement and intelligence agencies to tackle organised crime, securing our borders and combating terrorism.

We shall want to be as closely associated as possible with Europol on serious organised crime and cyber security; access the Schengen and Prüm databases – which store DNA, fingerprint, vehicle and other personal information – to keep track of criminals; get traveller information from the passenger name record system; and operate the European arrest warrant. All these systems are owned and run by the EU.

We need to find a way of maintaining the common travel area with Ireland, minimising disruption to the movement of people and goods, while operating increased security and customs checks. And we have to decide how much to be involved in the EU’s external security and defence missions.

We currently participate fully in operations against piracy in the Red Sea, illegal migration in the Mediterranean and in promoting stability in Bosnia. These missions are open to non-EU members, but they have very little say in the decision-making process. The UK has a strong national security interest in reaching agreement on all these issues so cooperation can continue smoothly after Brexit. In the last few weeks, the government has suggested a special security treaty, which would closely mirror existing arrangements for security, law enforcement and criminal justice, but without a role for the European Court of Justice.

I do not underestimate the legal complexity of reaching agreement on this ambitious approach. To take just one example, Germany’s constitution does not allow the extradition of its nationals to non-EU countries. The government will probably need to be flexible about the role of the European Court of Justice and to reassure the Commission that any data on EU citizens transferred to the UK will be properly protected. But I am confident that a deal will be reached. This is because our EU partners have just as great an interest in continuing to benefit from cooperation with the UK. Our intelligence services are recognised as the best in Europe, we have the largest defence and overseas aid budgets, and we arrest and send back to their countries eight times as many EU nationals under the European arrest warrant as we get back from the continent. In this sense, we are in credit on national security – which is not the case in many other areas of Brexit negotiations. This is not a crude negotiating card to exploit in the talks, but it will weigh in the balance when the heads of government are considering the overall deal. There are wider potential consequences of Brexit, which could affect UK security. In particular, national security cannot be divorced from economic security.

Put at its most basic, if the British economy suffers as a result of the prospect or reality of Brexit, then our ability to fund the ambitious 2015 strategic defence and security review will be put at risk, whether we continue to spend 2% of GDP on defence or not.

Much of the defence equipment the government plans to buy, including F35 fighter aircraft, Apache helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft from the US, is priced in dollars. Already, the MoD is facing a budgetary squeeze as a result of a lower pound and unrealised efficiency savings. The government’s current “mini-strategic defence and security review” to address this shortfall will face difficult choices, even before Brexit negotiations conclude.