In the run-up to last June’s Brexit vote, a range of experts and commentators spoke up to warn that a vote for Britain to leave the EU would harm efforts to tackle organised crime and terrorism both in the UK and the rest of the Europe.
A few months before the poll, the head of Britain’s National Crime Agency Lynne Owens cautioned that a Brexit vote could damage the UK’s ability to share intelligence with other countries. Accepting that cooperation between Britain and other member states would be unlikely to cease completely, Owens warned that vital information-sharing relationships could be disrupted while alternatives to the EU mechanisms that facilitate them were hammered out.
Speaking days before the vote, Europol Chief of Staff Brian Donald told the Sunday Post that Brexit would be a boon for crime chiefs, noting that 40% of his agency’s work involves British police officers and security services. Donald said that any third party agreements UK law enforcement authorities sought to strike with Europol and other EU crime-fighting institutions would be inferior to full membership, and would limit the information Britain had access to, and how quickly it could be accessed.
Donald’s boss Rob Wainwright spoke out on the eve of the referendum to tell voters that a leave vote could seriously harm UK law enforcement and the wider intelligence community. Speaking with the Guardian, Wainwright said any new cooperation agreements struck in the wake of Brexit would be only “partially as good” for Britain as what had gone before.
While it was encouraging that the UK opted to remain part of Europol in November last year, it did so “without prejudice” to future negotiations over its eventual departure from the union, meaning its membership could be rescinded when exit talks begin. The fact that Britain has signalled its determination to play a leading role in Europe’s law enforcement agency in the future could end up counting for very little if the country’s former partners decide to make Brexit as difficult as possible for the UK government, an option many of their leaders have made clear they favour.
Some commentators argue that remaining EU members will be reluctant to make things difficult for Britain when it comes to cooperation on crime, due to the fact that UK police and security services are so deeply embedded in European law enforcement institutions. After the leave vote, National Police Chiefs’ Council Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt said it was vital that cooperation continued between EU law enforcement agencies and their counterparts in the UK while Brexit was being negotiated and beyond. Since then, however, questions have been raised about the potential tone of exit talks when they finally begin, suggesting that some senior EU figures have no intention of giving UK negotiators an easy ride.
Cooperation on crime must not be used as a political football by EU leaders seeking to use Brexit negotiations as an example to other member states of just how difficult exiting the union could be for them. Those who would like to make the UK’s exit from the EU as difficult as possible could force the British government into complicated renegotiations of its intelligence-sharing arrangements with member states and union law enforcement agencies. Vital partnerships could be put on ice while these talks take place, effectively blocking lines of communication that are regularly used to thwart extremely serious crimes and terror attacks.
Negotiations over the UK’s exit from the union are likely to turn nasty. Britain’s former EU ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers this week warned that the process will most probably descend into name-calling and verbal fist-fighting, while arch-Europhile Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister, has said the UK must not be granted a better deal outside the bloc than countries that remain inside.
Regardless of how unpleasant negotiations become, law enforcement cooperation between Britain and the EU must not be used as a bargaining chip by either side. The threat Britain and the EU currently face from terrorism, people smuggling and other forms of serious and organised criminality has never been greater. To close off vital information-sharing and other forms of law enforcement cooperation between an independent Britain and the rest of the union would be hugely damaging to both parties.
Criminals and terrorists will be the sole beneficiaries of any weakening of ties between EU crime-fighting institutions and their counterparts in the UK. It is vital that information about the activity and movement of organised crime groups and terrorists is shared freely between every country that currently makes up the EU as swiftly as is possible, regardless of their future membership status. If anything, law enforcement cooperation between EU countries facing a range of common threats should be strengthened, irrespective of the political wrangling that will almost certainly come to define negotiations on Brexit.
Allowing the opposite to happen will only serve to worsen the financial and social harm that organised crime inflicts on every country in Europe, and make it much more likely that terrorist groups seeking to launch mass-casualty attacks on the continent’s people will be able to strike successfully more often.