Few people suppose that the terrorist massacre in Brussels on Tuesday, which so far has claimed thirty-one lives and caused injury to over three hundred, is an isolated event.
Following the terrorist attack on Paris last November it is much more likely to be just the beginning of a jihadist campaign by so-called Islamic State throughout Europe. Britain is unlikely to be exempt. Will we be safer if we remain in the European Union or if we leave it?
As the facts surrounding the Brussels attacks begin to emerge it is becoming apparent that it was the work not of an isolated cell of Islamic militants based in Belgium but of a much wider network of jihadis in Europe. We already knew of the link between the Paris terrorists and the Molenbeek district of Brussels, home to a large Muslim population and where the last fugitive suspect of the Paris attacks, Salah Abdesalam, was seized last week. Now we also know that DNA traces were found at one of the sites of the Brussels attacks, the airport, of Najim Laachraoui, believed to have been the terrorist who made the explosive devices that created carnage in Paris.
The terrorist threat we now face is clearly a European-wide one. Dealing with it requires Europe-wide co-operation. That much is uncontroversial. But whether that co-operation is best achieved through membership of the European Union is much more contentious. Inevitably the issue has become, at least for the time being, the central focus for both sides in the referendum campaign on whether Britain should remain in or leave the EU.
The government is clear that the terrorist threat hugely strengthens the case for Britain remaining in the EU. The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, argues that at a time when the need for countries to work together to counter a common threat has never been greater, it would be folly to quit the EU. The home secretary, Theresa May, cites specific EU policies, such as the European Arrest Warrant, as examples of where the EU acts to promote our security against terrorism.
But their view has been challenged by an authoritative voice from outside politics. Sir Richard Dearlove, who was the head of MI6 from 1999 until 2004, argues that there could actually be ‘security gains’ for Britain from leaving the EU. In an article for Prospect magazine, he wrote: ‘Whether one is an enthusiastic European or not, the truth about Brexit from a national security perspective is that the cost to Britain would be low. Brexit would bring two potentially important security gains: the ability to dump the European Convention on Human Rights – remember the difficulty of extraditing the extremist Abu Hamza of the Finsbury Park mosque – and, more importantly, greater control over immigration from the European Union.’
He dismissed Mrs May’s citing of the European Arrest Warrant as an example of the security advantages we have as a result of belonging to the EU by saying that its importance has been exclusively to do with criminals rather than terrorists and that ‘few would notice its passing’.
Central to a European-wide assault on Islamic terrorism is the sharing of intelligence. Clearly this is not yet good enough and the ability of the Brussels bombers to carry out their atrocity has been in part blamed on failures of shared intelligence. The lesson from this, however, is that co-operation on intelligence needs to be enhanced rather than reduced, as supporters of Britain’s continuing membership of the EU claim would be the result if Britain were to vote to leave. They cite co-operation through Europol as being at the core of sharing intelligence.
But here too Sir Richard is sceptical. He says the role of EU security bodies such as Europol is ‘of little consequence’. He argues that intelligence is not shared throughout all twenty-eight members of the EU because many of them act potentially as a ‘colander’ through which vital information might drip.
However one of his former colleagues in the intelligence services takes a quite different view. Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ, acknowledges that many intelligence services in other EU countries are far inferior to Britain’s. But he argues that Britain needs to stay in the EU in order to help those other intelligent services up their game in the common struggle against terrorism.
Those who support Brexit argue that all this can still be done without Britain remaining in the EU. They say that intelligence-sharing is best done on a bilateral, ad hoc basis as circumstances dictate. And they argue that it would be absurd to suggest that other European countries would stop co-operating with Britain on intelligence if Britain were to leave the EU for the simple reason that Britain’s intelligence services are far and away the biggest and most sophisticated in Europe. Other countries would not want to cut off their noses to spite their face.
To supporters of Brexit there is one overwhelming security reason for Britain to be outside the EU and that is the control of our borders. David Davis, the former shadow Tory home secretary, points out that the Schengen agreement (of which Britain is not a part) does away with border controls between member states that are signatories to it and this enables terrorists to roam freely between several EU states. This problem will be exacerbated, he claims, by the recent deal agreed with Turkey to allow 75 million Turks visa-free access to Schengen countries. He believes that will be exploited by terrorists in Syria, who will easily forge Turkish papers in order to enter the EU.
But more importantly than this for the question of Britain’s future in the EU, he says, is the principle of free movement of people within the EU including Britain. So long as we remain members of the EU we are unable to prevent EU citizens, including potential EU-born terrorists, from entering Britain. We need to leave the EU to regain control of our borders, he says.
Supporters of continuing British membership retort that regaining control of our borders cannot protect us from Islamic terrorism for the simple reason that so-called Islamic State recruits from within the British Muslim community. Those responsible for the London bombings of July 2005 were British citizens. They argue too that many of the scenarios supporters of Brexit paint of how life would be after Britain had left involve a continuation of the free movement of people to Britain from within the EU.
It’s clear that so long as the threat remains alive of terrorist attacks in Britain of the sort that have already caused carnage in Paris and Brussels, the security dimension will dominate argument about whether Britain should stay in the EU or leave. Is cooperation within Europe against the terrorist threat enhanced or not by British membership? How serious a threat to British security is the EU policy of the free movement of people? How much would we actually regain control of our borders by leaving? And what might be the effect on the level of terrorist activity within Europe be if we were to leave?
What’s your view?
- How important to you is the security dimension to the wider issue of Britain remaining or not in the EU?
- And which side do you think has the stronger case when it comes to Britain’s security?
Let us know what you think.