Over the past years, the heated debates over Brexit have only reinforced the widespread belief that Britain is an awkward partner in EU affairs. However, no matter how controversial Brexit is, Brexit is not the end of Britain’s ties with the EU.
Rather, it’s the continuation of these. This is particularly true in the field of intelligence cooperation. Paying attention to practices – what those in charge of intelligence ‘do’ – sheds light on long standing intelligence ties between Britain and the EU that will persist despite Brexit.
To understand this, it is necessary to take a look at who does intelligence. Today, intelligence is no longer just about intelligence services, spies and espionage but involves an increasing number of law enforcement bodies with responsibility for countering terrorism, organised crime and other security threats.
One telling example is the police and its intelligence units located in each of the 43 police forces across the UK, among which the late Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police (before its merger with the Anti-Terrorist Branch into the Counter-Terrorism Command) is the most famous example.
A feature of these units is that they also cooperate with European counterparts. Since the late 1970s, a network of British police representatives – also known as liaison officers – has been established in European capital cities and EU internal security agencies, such as Europol.
The daily job of these liaison officers provides an insight into how Anglo-European intelligence ties have been forged, and continue to this day. Most of them are directly embedded in the host service and have their own office. This is the case of the British liaison bureau at Europol, which is located in the premises of the EU agency and consists of representatives of various UK law enforcement agencies.
A significant part of their work consists of constructing working relationships with local counterparts through which a great deal of intelligence sharing takes place. As these relationships are maintained by liaison officers over time, working with European partners becomes a daily practice.
This explains how European cooperation comes into being and why it is important to these police officers – their practices show that British intelligence is increasingly about the police and European security.
Against this background, what does Brexit mean for Anglo-European intelligence relations? There are two ways of approaching the issue. First, we have to go back to what happened before Brexit. Brexit is, of course, embedded in a history of recurring negotiations of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
In the field of security, the most recent example is that of the UK opt-out from Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) in 2014. At that time, the British Government decided to leave some JHA measures on police cooperation and criminal justice, and later rejoined selected ones after discussion with the EU.
Brexit is a mechanism similar to that of the opt-out: it’s an in-and-out process which involves leaving the EU while forging a new relationship with the EU on security issues. This is demonstrated by the deal reached last December, which retains the participation of UK law enforcement in a number of EU arrangements.
Second, we need to think about how UK law enforcement responds to a political decision like Brexit. Brexit, like the opt-out from JHA, suggests that security issues are also political.
Politicians recognise the need to maintain security cooperation with the EU, but this does not prevent them from defining it according to political arguments such as ‘national sovereignty’.
Despite what politicians say or want about Brexit, the need to ensure post-Brexit cooperation caused UK policing to embark upon a significant programme of engagement with European law enforcement agencies in the months prior to EU exit.
This signalled that they sought to pragmatically manage any disruption that Brexit might have brought and ensure continued mutual cooperation.
During the period leading to EU exit, the potential loss of access to policing tools such as the Schengen Information System (SIS II) and the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) caused UK policing bodies to critically evaluate international policing mechanisms and to identify contingency measures that would mitigate any potential loss of capability.
Significant investment was committed to building policing structures that would provide operational support to police forces across the UK and to better manage international requests for operational support. The creation, in 2018, of the International Crime Coordination Centre (ICCC) is the most obvious example of these efforts.
The long history of joint intelligence sharing and existing networks, such as the UK liaison officer network within Europe, provide a solid base upon which expanded future cooperation arrangements must be built. Moving forward, the law enforcement mission must be to ensure that future cooperation is as seamless as possible.
For a number of years, the UK has marginalised Interpol in favour of Europol. The post-Brexit loss of SIS II and other European policing tools has caused British law enforcement agencies to once again see the importance of this long-established international policing organisation.
Consequently, the UK has invested resources into Interpol while continuing its commitment to Europol, albeit as a third country rather than a full member.
This clearly indicates that the UK is seeking to strengthen international policing arrangements rather than adopting an insular, ‘Little Englander’ approach, which many commentators incorrectly stated would become a defining characteristic of Brexit.
Ultimately, and despite the mixed outcome of the Brexit deal for access to policing tools, law enforcement cooperation will continue, and the value of collaboration is clearly understood by UK and EU policing agencies.
Hopefully, in time politicians will also recognise that effective, timely sharing of intelligence and operational resources are more important than political points of principle.
If that does happen, then perhaps history will come to regard Brexit as the catalyst for a deep and lasting security relationship between the UK and the EU, that goes beyond simple politics and prioritises the safety of all our citizens.
By Dr. Hager Ben Jaffel, research associate, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris, France, and Dr. Jeremy Pearson, senior lecturer, University of Sunderland.