War of words ups post-Brexit security risk

by Luke Lythgoe | 25.05.2018

Back in February, Theresa May told an audience in Munich that the UK was “unconditionally committed” to maintaining the security of Europe. Fast forward three months, and we’re in the middle of a cross-Channel row over how closely the UK will be able to cooperate on security matters with the other 27 EU nations.

Why has this happened, when there appeared to be good will on both sides? The EU says the answer is that the UK government has forgotten that “Brexit means Brexit”. Which is surprising considering how much May used to repeat it.

One senior EU official’s take is that the UK is living in a “let’s just keep everything we have now… fantasy”, adding: “The precondition for fruitful discussions has to be the UK accepts the consequences of its own choices.” A UK official called this “laughable” and warned against “trying to insult us”.

This latest security spat was triggered by a series of position papers released by David Davis’ Brexit department. One paper lays out over 30 examples of EU security measures, demanding the UK keeps its influential role. These include the European Arrest Warrant, which lets us speedily extradite criminals from other EU countries, and access to EU-wide security databases.

The government’s paper recognises that “as a third country, our relationship with the EU must change”. It then insists that the UK be treated differently to other countries when it comes to security cooperation.

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Another paper deals with the UK’s continued participation in the EU’s Galileo satellite project. Many in the EU, particularly in Germany, are concerned about giving the UK access to parts of the programme holding sensitive military information. The government’s response to being excluded is to threaten to build a rival “domestic satellite system” and to demand its money back: the £1 billion the UK has paid into Galileo already.

In one rather contradictory paragraph, the government restates it’s unconditional commitment to European security, then list a series of conditions: “strong mutual trust” (which the UK argues the EU isn’t showing), the establishment of “information sharing arrangements” and, of course, continued participation in Galileo.

The documents carried an implicit threat that failure to cooperate would be “to the detriment of Europe’s prosperity and security”. This was later put more bluntly by Davis himself, who tweeted: “Our citizens depend on this, let’s not let them down.” It’s this kind of language which got the prime minister accused of blackmailing the EU over security when she triggered Article 50 almost a year ago.

The other thing Brexit-obsessed ministers can’t get their heads around is that we’re not at the top of the EU’s to-do list, what with Italy, Trump, migration, reforming the eurozone, data protection. The next European Council summit at the end of June, where we were supposed to have answers on lots of this, doesn’t even have Brexit as one of the six main items on the agenda. And why would it be, when solutions seem increasingly distant?

There is, of course, one way that we can stay one of Europe’s leading players in security and defence, with full access to everything from the European Arrest Warrant to Galileo: cancel Brexit. If the prime minister doesn’t manage to secure these benefits, the people should have a vote on her final deal – with the option to stay.

Edited by Quentin Peel