Don’t let Brexit break apart European and British security agencies
When MI5 is open and straightforward there has to be something hidden in plain sight. This is a proposition that applies to all government departments, but for the security services it is especially important, and Andrew Parker’s speech in Berlin yesterday is a fine example of the craft. On the surface, the message was perfectly clear: Britain faces a sustained and dangerous attack, in part from Islamist terrorists whose plots are being disrupted at a rate of one a month; in part from the Russian government, which not only poisoned the Skripals in Salisbury, he says, but followed this up with a campaign of barefaced lying and disinformation on social media to obscure its own responsibility.
None of this is untrue or unimportant, but it is rather less important than the message conveyed in the less sensational parts of the speech, and even in the choice of place and time to deliver it.
This was the first public speech delivered by a head of MI5 outside Britain, and it was given to the German security service, one of our most important partners in both the headline struggles. Mr Parker praised the quality and depth of the current European cooperation on counter-terrorism and security, and the way that it has grown over the last five years. There are now 28 countries sharing information in real time, and this kind of cooperation is only going to become more important as time goes on. It is true that the UK, partly because of its tight intelligence links with the US, possesses the most effective security services in Europe, but the traffic in information, and the benefits of collective effort, work both ways. It was a great mistake for Theresa May to threaten to use British intelligence cooperation as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations, as she appeared to do in a speech in 2017. After she had spoken, a delegation of British spy chiefs went to see her to explain how vital these bonds were for Britain’s own security; that is also the really important message hidden in the plain text of Mr Parker’s speech in Berlin.
Even though much intelligence cooperation is bilateral and bypasses the structures of the EU, much is not. The chaos of Brexit threatens British security very directly and of course it threatens the security of other European countries too if the security services lose their present ability to work together without borders or friction. This is perhaps most obvious in the fiasco of the Galileo system, where a mixture of greed and vanity on both sides of the Channel may leave Britain isolated from the European satellite positioning system when it finally starts working. But even the collaboration that Mr Parker went out of his way to praise is subject to the same kinds of regulatory problems as Galileo. Although his ostensible audience was fellow security professionals, the real audience was politicians, both here and in Europe, who need to understand the importance of giving the security services rules that allow them to work together.
Intelligence agencies must operate under democratic control, but one consequence of this principle is that they have to operate under fairly detailed rules. And so such matters as privacy legislation, data protection and regulatory oversight will have to be harmonised after Brexit. James Bond was not just a fantasy spy: he was also a fantastical projection of Britain’s power and influence in the world. Mr Parker’s speech is a reminder that the business of protecting Britain is much less dramatic than in the films – and that Britain is very much less of a superpower.