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Internal security, including the fight against terrorism and organised crime, has traditionally featured as one of the highest concerns of the British population. In 2015, the Guardian conducted a survey, which revealed that terrorism and law and order issues ranked among the very top concerns of the population. However, with the exception of brief references by Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith to free movement being linked to the possibility of further terrorist attacks, internal security was barely mentioned in the referendum debate. Given the traditional importance of this policy area, how can we then explain such paradox?

I believe there are three reasons for an absence of debate in this area. Firstly, there was a general consensus among political elites and the public that the UK’s security was not particularly dependent on EU cooperation. This erroneous perception was circulated by a number of people, namely by Sir Richard Dearlove, who earlier this year mentioned that the consequences of Brexit for the UK’s security would be rather limited. His line of argument was essentially based on the idea that member states would feel a moral duty to inform the UK of a possible terrorist attack, even if the country was no longer part of the EU.

Officials working in the area of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters have clearly remarked that the sharing of intelligence is not a simple matter of moral duty, but rather one of existing agreements, communication channels and technical compatibility. Following a detailed investigation into the causes of the 2015 Paris attacks, we now know that a lack of appropriate intelligence sharing among EU countries substantially contributed to the attack. Clearly, this communication problem cannot be boiled down to France or Belgium’s lack of moral duty to pass on relevant information. Furthermore, officials working in the field have also been quick at clarifying the UK’s degree of interdependence regarding European instruments. As mentioned by Rob Wainwright, the UK is involved in half of Europol’s coordinated operations against organised crime (2016). This high level of participation is essentially due to the fact that the UK is disproportionately affected by organised crime activity.

The second reason corresponds to a general eurosceptic approach at the basis of UK- EU relations in internal security. Naturally, this argument is not exclusive to this area, and many commentators mentioned how the referendum debate had been hijacked by a eurosceptic tone. Such approach has, however, been particularly visible, since 1997, in the area of internal security given the UK’s selective participation in police and judicial cooperation. Such form of participation has allowed the UK to avoid being subject to specific EU rules, which are considered to threaten its national sovereignty.

The hesitant character of the cooperation became even clearer when the UK government asked for a full opt out from police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters back in 2013 (around 130 measures). The decision, which in a way can be seen as a trial run for Brexit, was sparked by similar concerns as the EU referendum (namely sovereignty). Numerous actors, including the House of Lords EU Committee and practitioners, responded to this decision by presenting a vast array of evidence on the consequences of a mass opt out, which eventually pushed the government to backtrack by opting back into 35 of those measures, including Europol and the European Arrest Warrant. It was difficult to expect a government who has a history of being skeptical towards EU security cooperation instruments to suddenly start defending them.

The third reason is related to a fundamental misunderstanding of how terrorism and organised crime operate. As mentioned previously, the limited references to this area underlined the need to ‘take back control’ of the UK border, based on the idea that border reinforcement would automatically prevent criminals and terrorists from entering the country. However, given the reality of criminal strategies, this is a rather problematic rationale.

Firstly, this idea is based on the presupposition that the UK has no domestic organised crime and terrorism, and that in order to develop their activities in the UK, criminals and terrorists actually have to cross borders. As recent attacks on UK soil demonstrate, most individuals carrying out acts of terror were born and raised in the country. Secondly, this rationale also assumes that the UK is not in control of its borders, strongly suggesting that free movement of people and the Schengen system are often mixed up in people’s minds. The right of EU citizens to settle in the UK (free movement of people) is a completely separate matter from the possibility of travelling freely across EU countries (Schengen system, which the UK does not use).

To enter the UK from any country except Ireland, all travellers are prompted to show a form of identification. As such, any possible terrorist or member of an organised crime group has to show his/ her passport when going through the UK border. Finally, the need to ‘take back control’ of UK borders also assumes that borders are an effective instrument to counter criminal activities, which they are not. A border is only as good as the information that appears on border guards’ screens when a passport is swiped. As such, the key to fighting terrorism and organised crime does not lie in physical barriers themselves, but in the information systems that underpin them. The key is intelligence, which requires cooperation to be complete.

Dr Helena Farrand Carrapico is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. She has received funding from the UK in a Changing Europe initiative for a project on UK internal security.

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