The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

24 Mar 2021

Relationship with the EU

Although the final Brexit deal agreed between the UK and the EU contained a mutual commitment to future security and law enforcement cooperation, there is no doubt that the settlement resulted in an overall lessening of policing capability.

While law enforcement agencies will undoubtedly work hard to close the operational gaps resulting from the loss of access to EU policing tools, the future might well contain increased levels of risk for members of the public.

While many commentators have made reference to the policing challenges associated with Brexit, very few have described what the changed arrangements look like in reality for operational officers.

To examine this in more detail, we need to look into how the loss of access to just one of the EU policing tools, the Schengen Information System (SIS II), has impacted police officers in the UK and Europe.

SIS II is an alert based information system that is used by policing agencies from EU states to circulate details of wanted or missing persons, property and vehicles as well specific items of intelligence.

Examples of these intelligence items might include important information concerning travelling sex offenders, or organised criminal gangs that are thought to cross international borders.

British police officers were able to access and use SIS II from April 2015, and it was launched as an operational system that integrated seamlessly with the Police National Computer (PNC). This meant that British police officers, while conducting PNC checks, were also simultaneously checking the SIS II database.

While many UK police officers remained blissfully unaware that SIS II checks were being undertaken on their behalf, the practical benefits were significant.

For example, if a fugitive from any EU country were checked in the UK, officers would instantly be made aware of that individual’s status as a wanted person. The officer, upon receiving this news, would be able to immediately arrest the suspected fugitive using the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) that invariably accompanied their circulation.

Since losing access to SIS II (and the EAW) as part of the final Brexit settlement, police officers within the UK are now unsighted on European policing alerts and in the case of our fugitive in the example above, would be unaware of whether he (or she) was wanted by any European policing agency.

The practical consequence of this situation is that British police officers are now unable to determine whether or not a foreign national might in fact be a dangerous offender that represents a threat to British communities.

Of course, this highly unsatisfactory arrangement is a two-way street, and European policing agencies will be similarly unsighted on whether dangerous British offenders are at large in continental Europe.

This level of ‘operational blindness’ also extends to circulations of vulnerable missing persons, stolen vehicles, and objects such as firearms.

We now face the very real scenario that the UK may become the destination of choice for European organised crime groups, due to the inability of UK policing to properly understand who and what they are. Equally, British criminals may well seek to expand their operations within Europe for similar reasons.

To mitigate against the loss of SIS II, policing agencies within the UK have looked to the system of international alerts operated by Interpol as a replacement. The benefits of the Interpol system are that it is a long established and trusted system that provides world-wide coverage, extending the reach of circulations far beyond the EU.

Unfortunately for UK policing agencies, the Interpol system does not feature PNC integration, and checks must be conducted separately by police control rooms.

A long awaited (and delayed) replacement for the PNC system has resulted in the UK Government being unwilling to commit funds to any upgrade of the existing system that might allow full Interpol integration.

Consequently, Interpol warning notices are still being created manually within the UK, causing considerable resourcing difficulties for the National Crime Agency (NCA), who manage the Interpol Bureau on behalf of all UK policing agencies.

Returning to our earlier example, an officer now checking a suspect on the Interpol system might be notified that they are a wanted person, circulated internationally on an Interpol ‘Red Notice’. Previously, no legislation existed that would have allowed the officer to arrest the suspect under these circumstances.

Unlike notification of a SIS II alert for a wanted person, the Interpol circulation carried no power of arrest that might allow the officer to detain the suspect at the scene.

The UK Government quickly announced its intention to close this loophole with new powers for officers that are currently in the process of being implemented.

However, until the new controls are fully applied, the possibility of some persons identified as potentially dangerous foreign fugitives, being able to simply walk away from officers who are powerless to detain them, is an operational reality.

While loss of access to SIS II has resulted in a lessening of policing capability in the UK, it is clear that this also applies to EU law enforcement agencies.

Extensive pre-Brexit engagement between UK and EU law enforcement agencies established that future mutual policing cooperation was essential and policing professionals hoped that common sense would prevail during the political negotiations.

Unfortunately, the EU resolutely adhered to the view that access to the benefits of EU membership (such as SIS II) was restricted to members of the EU.

Prior to EU exit, the UK was one of the biggest contributors to SIS II and by refusing to countenance future UK access to the system, the EU has lessened the ability of its own policing agencies to see and understand criminal risk. This decision should be reconsidered, and a pragmatic stance adopted by politicians in Brussels.

The safety and security of our citizens is an issue greater than political dogma and police officers in both the UK and the EU should be allowed to do what they do best – work collaboratively to keep people safe from those that would cause them harm.

By Dr. Jeremy Pearson, senior lecturer, University of Sunderland. 

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