14 September 2017

Beware a Brexit that makes us less secure


Intelligence has been in short supply in Westminster of late. Much ado has been made about the celebrated Henry VIII powers – the use of secondary legislation to amend the text of primary legislation. But this Tudor Brexit route isn’t a new one. Lord Pearson’s proposed bill from 1997  alread recognised the practical need for a similar provision. Indeed, the democratic deficit associated with the mechanisms of the Royal Prerogative has been critiqued since Tony Benn’s day.

The trouble is, all this is a distraction from the work that our politicians should already be doing on key policy areas.

At the Red Cell we have endeavoured to give them a nudge in the right direction with our new paper, B+1: Policy Priorities and Prep for Brexit. In it, we identify various areas that they should be hard at work on – such as VAT rules, since the UK will no longer be constrained by the Sixth VAT Directive.

It also reflects on opportunities that could be pursued to save lives, urging unilateral action, even if in breach of EU law, where existing rules are physically harmful. This could pertain to the Clinical Trials Directive, or even procedures, such as the power of the Home Secretary to deport dangerous criminals where that capacity is currently constrained merely by the fact of EU nationality.

Our main concern, however, is with another failure in intelligence.

We are not considering intelligence carefully enough. Brexit should force us to do so. But it barely features directly in the Government’s position paper which was published on Tuesday. Foreign Policy, Defence and Development: A Future Partnership Paper has been widely dissected by Veterans for Britain. Their key concern lies in the observation: “The UK would like to offer a future relationship that is deeper than any current third country partnership.” An element briefly touched upon specifically includes “classified information exchange to support external action”.

Together with a number of other security elements in the report, it generates a position that includes in its spectrum the possibility of a deal that weakens Nato, or at least undermines the UK’s remarkable security relationship with the United States. Central to this is the admission that one plan involves retaining very significant institutional linkage with the EU.

This would be short-sighted and dangerous because it is quite clear from track record that close EU association has evident track history in harming UK capability.

We can start with the ECJ which has long had a pernicious relevance. One might consider the cases of Iranian-born Abbas Radiom (whom the High Court had originally ruled had no right of entry, supporting the Home Office objection that he spied on dissidents) and Singh Shingara (accused of supporting Sikh extremism). The ECJ ruled their EU passports secured them particular rights that limited the Home Secretary’s powers. That was as long ago as 1997.

But it is not just about the clash between UK and Luxembourg judges over the sensible limits of human rights law. This is an area in which the EU has had an intent to legislate, to engage, and to develop its own central capability for years.

We could then consider the major review by European Parliament of the Echelon system back in 2000-01, where MEPs also reflected on the human rights implications of (other peoples’) strategic capabilities. Policy in that regard seems to have been partly driven by an absence of direct consequence for those nationalities tinkering in it, although the impact on the UK was obvious.

Meanwhile in terms of policy ambition, the EU has been operating its own intelligence entity as part of its SITCEN probably since 2002, and quite possibly in some form since 1999. EU INTCEN now sits as a unit under the remit of the External Action Service, supported by the EU’s Satellite Centre. Statewatch in 2013 put its staff figures at 67, two thirds of them being analysts – certainly not massive, but a growing and clear strategic pointer. For context, Supo – the Finnish security agency – employs 290. But Mr Juncker’s state of the union address this week puts expanding this capability firmly on the agenda.

None of this means that the EU is on the cusp of running its own CIA, or that its lawmakers have usurped all national powers, or that every act of its judges has completely hamstrung our national security. But these examples, and others, do disprove the case that the EU has not had a negative impact on the UK’s national security. Or that a Brexit deal that ties us closely to these institutions is devoid of risk.

And if you want another early pointer of the developing reality of our times, you can turn to the former East German security services. In July 2000, representatives of the KDF movement lobbied MEPs in protest at a number of their former colleagues – charmingly styled “Scouts of Peace” – who were still in prison 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I still have a copy of that letter. The argument ran that their espionage activities contributed to peace in Europe, so they deserved to be let off.

Regardless of their cause, the Stasi-types had the good sense to spot – 15 years ago – sources of foreign power and influence sitting within the EU, who might be interested in their case and be in a position to do something about it. But then, that was a core part of their professional skill set. Our Brexit negotiators should take note.

Dr Lee Rotherham is director of The Red Cell, a Brexit think tank