Of course the economy is important. So is the health service, education, our trade figures, immigration and many of the other issues debated in the run up to the European Union referendum vote in a few weeks’ time. I venture to suggest the issue of first order, making all others secondary, is the safety and security of the UK.
Interestingly, the Vote Leave camp has not made it a priority. The increasingly rabid Boris Johnson will no doubt dismiss European co-operation on safety and security as poppy cock. Michael Gove, probably more cerebral and certainly more courteous than the aspiring Tory leader, had little to say about our security as he gallantly tried to salvage the Vote Leave’s floundering campaign. Perhaps it’s because he knows he would find himself pitted against the most senior and well-informed intelligence and police chiefs in the world.
When Barack Obama employed the might of the American presidency to appeal against isolationism, it was in the context of trade deals. He could have said the same about intelligence.
America and Britain have the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world. In or out of the EU, they will remain the most powerful agencies in the world but if Brexit prevails we will all lose out. Relationships built up over years will count for little, and in an increasingly uncertain world, as Europe faces extraordinary challenges, it seems a strange time to put years of institutional and political intelligence at risk.
Every country within the EU benefits from the UK’s intelligence and counter terrorism operations, and the UK benefits from the intelligence and expertise of other EU members. Since austerity is a global issue, it is impossible for each member state to afford comprehensive intelligence services. Instead each country makes a judgement on where to concentrate their capabilities. For example, France and Spain have better intelligence on North Africa than most EU countries, and we benefit from their expertise. For attacks by jihadists and other people, the UK is more likely to depend on intelligence sharing with Germany and Italy than from Canada or even the United States.
There is not a European-wide intelligence service, and nor is there is ever likely to be. Most intelligence relationships are bilateral, and will continue to be so until the intelligence services are uniform throughout the EU. Promoting common standards, sharing intelligence and co-operating among the security services, however, contribute hugely to successful counter terrorism as Europe faces threats from the so-called Islamic State, contemplates China in the ascendency, Russia flexing its muscles, and the US expecting more co-operation from its partners.
At a high-level briefing of security chiefs in London recently, they unanimously warned against a vote to leave the EU. At present, we know where we are, they said, whereas we’re moving into unknown territory if we leave. Ergo we will be less safe and less secure.
While the UK selectively shares its high level intelligence, it is more relaxed about sharing data and middle grade intelligence with all EU counterparts. Travel data, telephone records and financial records, fingerprints, vehicle registrations, DNA markers, are all valuable sources in the battle against counter terrorism. These activities require a legal framework, so it follows that a Brexit vote would make data sharing more complicated, and would lead to more anomalies amongst the nation states. Equally, if the UK is out of the data-sharing club, it could neither promote best practice nor benefit from the best practice of others.
Police forces in Europe have been co-operating since the IRA posed a threat in the 1970s, and they are adamant co-operation should continue. If UK leaves, say the experts, we will weaken this country and those we could help. Criminal activity does not recognise borders so reasonably the police and intelligence services do not want to become “prisoners of national frontiers”.
Having made the arguments for staying within the EU, however, the intelligence chiefs conveyed no sense of complacency. They readily admitted the need for improvement but were insistent that outside the club their influence would be minimal, and progress would be stymied.
Theresa May’s recent intervention in the referendum campaign smells of political expediency. Hardly able to contradict the overwhelming evidence of the security and intelligence chiefs, the Home Secretary urged voters to stay in the EU because it would make us safer from the threat of terrorism but, no doubt as a sop to her Eurosceptic wing, whose votes she will need if she wants to succeed David Cameron, she argued for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.
However the vote goes, in or out, Europe will still be there and the UK will have to deal with it. Does Britain want to be a bystander or part of the decision making process? That is the choice at the polls on June 23.