Being in EU doesn’t undermine Five Eyes

by Jon Day | 04.05.2016

Myth: EU membership puts the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing relationship at risk

InFact: Our partners in the relationship, led by America, value our EU membership. It is Brexit that would undermine Five Eyes.

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Five Eyes refers to the UK’s uniquely close partnership with the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which lies at the heart of our intelligence capabilities. The governments of all the other “eyes” are unambiguously against our leaving the EU. They believe that we all benefit from the lead role the UK plays in both fora.

Out campaigners couch arguments about intelligence almost entirely in terms of operational counter terrorism and migration – and you cannot overstate the threat from ISIL at home and abroad. But the UK is a big country with widespread interests and responsibilities, and our intelligence needs reflect this. Standing up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, countering cyber threats to our economy and infrastructure, and helping to reverse the state failures on which ISIL and Al Qaida thrive are also fundamental to UK interests.

Leave supporters often recall that the EU is only one element in the web of security, intelligence and defence networks through which we meet these diverse threats. But that is the point. There has never been a single model for harnessing our own intelligence capabilities and working with like-minded countries. And while Europeans depend on the US for key aspects of our security, that will remain the case.

One former intelligence boss has suggested that Washington is reluctant to share its best intelligence with European bodies because they are colanders. In the era of Wikileaks and Snowden, this a red herring.  Constraints on sharing are usually about mechanisms for handling secret material rather than letting our partners know what we know. That is partly because intelligence is used increasingly to persuade policy fora such as the UN, NATO and the EU that assessments can be backed up by evidence, which means more sharing not less.

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Other out claims are equally distorted. Conspiracy theories about a takeover of intelligence by EU bureaucrats or ECJ judges reflect uninformed paranoia. The UK is, by some way, the leading EU player in intelligence. Others have a long way to catch up.  But this is not a one-way street. We all gain from cooperation; and because our enemies do not respect national boundaries, our own arrangements must be similarly agile. It is hard to believe that our chances of tackling today’s threats would be improved by doing less together. Indeed, there is a whiff of hubris around those who argue that we can learn little from our neighbours.

Most importantly, the Five Eyes relationship is not a credible alternative to working with Europeans. The UK gains great benefits from our partnership with the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. We share values, a global perspective and global coverage, and we have common capabilities and a culture of cooperation. The US is first among equals but the rest of us contribute niche and regional expertise.

The US invests in the Five Eyes model because of what it gets from its partners. In the UK’s case, that includes our insights on what is happening in our part of the world, which in turn reflects the intelligence we have gleaned from our web of relationships across Europe. Some of this the US could get from its own sources but only by shifting effort from elsewhere. And there are European countries who will talk to us more frankly because we are EU partners.

This helps explain why Americans up to the President have come out so strongly for staying in. There is some sentiment in the transatlantic relationship. But not very much.  For the most part, Five Eyes cooperation is transactional, based on pragmatism and self-interest. Washington and the three other capitals have done the analysis and concluded that they will be net losers and less safe if the UK puts itself outside the EU.

The out assertion that the US-UK special relationship would survive unscathed is therefore wishful thinking. We would be hard pressed to pursue a European leadership role having chosen to sit on the outside when Europe takes decisions. At worst, the UK could even appear to be damaging European cohesion. Americans will always be polite.  But why talk to us first rather than Berlin, Paris or Brussels? Or share your choice intelligence with agencies who no longer sit at one of the top tables?

The bottom line is that there is no either-or choice between cooperation in the EU and with Five Eyes partners. We need them both. The out camp’s arguments are profoundly insular and a retreat from the UK’s established place in the world.

This article is an adaptation of a piece that previously appeared on InFacts.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

Categories: Security