Don’t let Brexit break apart Eu­ro­pean and Bri­tish se­cu­rity agen­cies

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

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.

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