EPA/Michael Sohn

May’s warning to EU over security has been called blackmail – but it’s more likely a bluff

In her letter to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50 and formally registering the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU, Theresa May signalled that a failure to reach an agreement with the EU on trade could damage the UK’s security relationship with Europe in the future. May warned: “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.” But how serious, and indeed, how realistic is this threat?

The UK’s main intelligence partnerships are outside the EU and will not be formally affected by British withdrawal. The so-called “Five Eyes” alliance is made up of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By far the most important of these relationships for the UK is that with the US. Indeed, the relationship is so close that anecdotally it’s said that agencies who consume Five Eyes intelligence aren’t always able to tell whether it is from British or US sources.

This closeness to the US, and the UK’s substantial contribution to the EU’s overall defence capabilities – RAND Europe thinks Brexit will reduce this by a quarter – has led some in the government to believe that the UK’s chosen negotiating position is a strong one. However, May’s hand may not be as strong as it looks.

Waning influence

First, the Five Eyes relationship is less valuable than it was just a few months ago – and not because of Brexit. The instability in the White House and its hostility towards its own intelligence community, not to mention the administration’s alleged ties with Russia, have led to allies and partners seriously reconsidering whether the US government can be trusted with fragile secrets. Intelligence sharing between the US and the UK is already under threat – right now, Britain’s EU partners are looking a lot more reliable than US decision makers.

That’s not of course to say that informal contacts won’t remain close – but the US cannot be currently considered as a reliable security partner at an intelligence level.

EU structures

Second, the UK is significantly more embedded in European Union security structures than government rhetoric would suggest. The European Arrest Warrant has become a mainstream tool for law enforcement in the UK as well as in the rest of Europe – there were 228 warrants issued by the UK in 2015 resulting in 150 arrests and 123 people surrendering into custody. These warrants could only be replaced by cumbersome extradition procedures that would certainly not improve security in Britain.

Though the UK isn’t part of the Schengen zone, it does have access to its databases, giving it the capacity to screen for wanted criminals at the border – again, not a capacity that can easily be replaced.

The 2005 Prüm Decision – which calls for better cross-border cooperation in order to combat terrorism, serious organised crime and illegal immigration – allows the automated searching and transfer of DNA information as well as exchanging fingerprint and some number plate data. Finally, Europol co-ordinates the joint European response not only to cybercrime but to organised crime and terrorist attacks.

Rob Wainwright, the British director general of Europol, is considerably less sanguine about the UK’s security outside of these structures than are government ministers. He told the BBC:

To help keep Britain safe from these threats, its law enforcement community has become dependent on the unique operational benefits offered by key EU instruments: over 3,000 cross-border investigations of organised crime and terrorism were initiated last year at Europol by UK agencies, a rate 25% up on the year before.

Concrete threats?

Brexit does pose some concrete threats to British security. As RAND Europe pointed out, the withdrawal of the UK from the EU cuts Britain loose from any future defence integration and will likely reduce its access to significant EU research funding. As the UK is more reliant on EU funding than other member states, Brexit could significantly affect its ability to fund new research in the defence arena and will almost certainly mean that the UK loses any influence over the future agenda of EU defence research.

And the elephant in the room is always Northern Ireland: the recent collapse of the power-sharing agreement has been under-reported in the rest of the UK, along with signals that the north could remain part of the EU if it voted to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. Serious, violent instability is never far from the surface in the north. Any loss of access to EU data could have direct effects on the security services’ ability to counter the ongoing terrorist and organised crime threats that this presents.

The UK therefore has a lot to lose from disentangling itself from the rest of Europe when it comes to security, and despite its relatively high defence spending, does not hold all the cards by any means. Moreover, the military defence of Europe is the responsibility of NATO, which is unaffected by Brexit - so any veiled threat to withdraw UK military clout holds little weight - while access to, for example, Schengen Information System databases at the UK border is of obvious ongoing benefit to Britain.

Positioning, positioning

May had a very strong grasp of her brief as home secretary and will be fully aware of the benefits of a continued close security relationship with the EU. What tends to be discounted is the extent to which the prime minister is hemmed in by the hardline pro-Brexit extremities of her own party.

Her position, in the absence of a functioning opposition, is dependent on canny party management. And it is with this knowledge that her rhetoric should be understood.

Much of the hot air on the security relationship with the EU comes down to somewhat cack-handed positioning: but for a domestic audience, not an international one. Although it was, of course, just such internal positioning that got the UK into this mess in the first place.