Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

Europe's security at risk under no-deal Brexit, former UK spy chief warns

Vital intelligence sharing systems would unravel "overnight", said Sir John Scarlett

Sir John Scarlett, ​former Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service, spelt out his concerns over a no-deal Brexit. Victor Besa 
Sir John Scarlett, ​former Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service, spelt out his concerns over a no-deal Brexit. Victor Besa 

Europe’s intelligence networks risk unravelling next month should the UK leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement, a former British spy chief has warned.

Sir John Scarlett, former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, claimed crucial anti-terrorism cooperation could breakdown following a no-deal Brexit.

Speaking at a conference in Abu Dhabi, he highlighted how security agencies across Europe relied on vital shared databases to identify potential threats.

But he said a no-deal scenario would effectively mean cooperation on these networks ended immediately, denying state actors an invaluable resource.

“That would stop overnight if we leave without a deal,” Sir John said of existing information sharing arrangements.

“That data would not come through to the United Kingdom and our own contribution to the European security, movements, counter-terrorism issues and so on, would stop automatically too.”

Sir John, 71, was chief of MI6 between 2004 and 2009. Prior to his appointment, he chaired the Cabinet Office Joint Intelligence Committee, a role he accepted just one week before the September 11 attacks.

As part of a previously proposed withdrawal agreement between the EU and Theresa May’s government earlier this year, Sir John said officials had taken steps to ensure shared intelligence platforms continued to be maintained.

But he acknowledged this deal was later rejected several times by the UK parliament, with its provisions no longer applicable under a no-deal scenario.

“There is no easy answer if we’re not part of a treaty structure because you get into fundamental issues of data-sharing and so on,” he said.

“As it stands, when people talk about a no-deal Brexit, there has been very little public attention and debate devoted to the national security aspect of our departure.”

The UK is currently due leave the EU on October 31. Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, is in last-ditch talks to formulate a new withdrawal agreement with Brussels, which would then have to be passed by the UK Parliament.

Long-standing issues, however, most notably over the Irish border, have yet to be resolved. New legislation passed by UK MPs also now requires Mr Johnson to seek an extension beyond October 31 if an agreement to avoid a no-deal exit is not secured.

“Obviously, as an intelligence and security player, the United Kingdom is very important,” said Sir John.

“As a single individual country, it is probably the most important player within the EU.

“So of course, this will impact negatively on the European Union, but also very negatively on our wellbeing, our safety.”

According to a recent government report, should the UK leave the EU on October 31 without a deal, some “mutual loss of [law enforcement] capability” would be experienced by both sides.

However, officials insist the UK would be ready to “transition our cooperation with EU member states to alternative, non-EU mechanisms where available”.

This includes maximising the use of Interpol - a worldwide policing agency - as well as other instruments such as the Council of Europe Conventions in the case of extraditions, the report states.

Also addressing the Beirut Institute Summit in the UAE capital was Alistair Burt, a former UK Middle East minister.

He resigned from the government in March, prior to Mr Johnson taking over, due to the Conservative's handling of Brexit.

He was then among 21 MPs expelled from the party in September after he defied the prime minister to vote for the law designed to avoid a no-deal.

Asked if he believed there remained the possibility that Brexit might not happen, Mr Burt replied: “No, I don’t think so.”

“I think the most likely outcome is the United Kingdom will leave the European Union,” he said. “I’m not sure when, but it would unwise to bet against that.”

Updated: October 14, 2019 09:28 PM

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