The Islamic State attacks on Brussels cruelly exposed the longstanding weaknesses and lack of cooperation between European spy agencies, opening the way for renewed arguments about whether the UK would be safer inside or out of the European Union.
Brexit supporters were quick to go public, tweeting on Tuesday in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The debate became more substantial on Wednesday, when the former head of Britain’s overseas spy agency Sir Richard Dearlove argued in Prospect magazine that: “The truth about Brexit from a national security perspective is that the cost to Britain would be low.”
It shows the potency of the EU referendum debate that an article from an intelligence chief who retired more than a decade ago – and whose reputation was damaged by the Iraq war debacle – can stir debate.
On the same day, the home secretary, Theresa May, put the counter-argument, outlining to MPs the security benefits of continued EU membership, and the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, on Channel 4 News, rejected Dearlove’s argument.
Fallon said: “The fact is, across Europe we do have these mechanisms now for sharing flight information, sharing intelligence about terrorists’ movements, swapping data about them that enable all intelligence services across Europe to pool their efforts to try to keep a tab on them.”
How efficient is European intelligence-gathering?
It is extremely poor. A common theme among EU officials and parliamentarians is lamenting the lack of collaboration on intelligence-gathering.
After the Paris attacks in November, there were promises by politicians in the UK, France, Germany, Belgium and elsewhere of increased cooperation but there has been no significant change.
Countries such as the UK, France and Germany have powerful, well-staffed, efficient intelligence agencies but others are shambolic or close to non-existent.
Belgium’s intelligence service is under-resourced and understaffed, with little cooperation between it and the myriad different police services.
Is the concern that, with 28 members, the European Union is too big to share sensitive information and there is a danger of a leak?
Yes. If the UK, France or Germany had a good source inside a terrorist organisation such as Isis, they would be reluctant to endanger that source by spreading any information too wide. They might share it among themselves but would they want to share it with countries as small as Malta, Luxembourg or Cyprus or even Belgium? No.
Would Brexit undermine the UK’s intelligence-gathering capabilities?
Intelligence-gathering in Europe is comparable to the military situation. The only military force that really matters is the US-led Nato alliance. There is as yet no sign of a EU army.
It is the same in the intelligence world. The alliance that matters is “Five Eyes”, the most powerful intelligence-gathering alliance in the world: the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It dwarves even China and Russia.
Other European countries rely on the US and the UK sharing at least some of the information and data. If the UK was to leave the EU, other European countries would continue to seek access to at least some of that intelligence.
Dearlove acknowledges that there would be disapproval of Brexit from Washington but downplays this. The Obama administration has been cooler about the so-called “special relationship” with the UK and, at least in its early days, courted Germany.
But, more importantly, while the other European countries look to the US and UK for data worldwide, the UK benefits from intelligence on potential terrorists based in Europe or travelling through. It might be shambolic but it is still a positive.
May referred to this when she spoke to MPs, pointing out there had been more meetings between the heads of intelligence agencies at European level.
Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, also made this point on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, saying the UK had come to rely on EU crime and intelligence databases.
So is Dearlove right?
Only up to a point. He put the Atlanticist point of view that prevailed when he was head of MI6. That US-UK axis remains paramount, at least in terms of intelligence.
But it is not a matter of one or the other. The advantage for the UK, as put forward to MPs by May on Wednesday, is that Britain benefits from access both to US intelligence and that of other European countries.
May said on Wednesday that cooperation between Europe’s security and intelligence agencies had strengthened since the Paris attacks, including a counter-terrorism group, which brings together the heads of all EU domestic intelligence agencies along with non-EU members Norway and Switzerland.
The CIA and the NSA are heavily engaged in tracking and disrupting Isis operations, including those involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks. But the onus of finding, monitoring and disrupting Isis operatives in Europe is more pressing for the European intelligence services, and they are going to have to find a way to work more closely and help the weaker agencies to improve.
It is not enough for British, French and German intelligence agencies to shake their heads in despair at the lack of sophistication among their counterparts elsewhere in the EU. They are going to have to start helping them improve.
The UK intelligence services are having to deal with European agencies much more than they did in Dearlove’s day and that involvement is only going to deepen.
This article was written by Ewen MacAskill Defence and intelligence correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 24th March 2016 12.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010