David Cameron: being in the EU gives Britain key counter-terrorism information

David Cameron has said that membership of the European Union gives the UK vital information about “terrorists and criminals moving around Europe”, demonstrating that he intends to place security issues at the heart of his referendum campaign.

The remarks by the prime minister on Monday came hours after Downing Street warned that thousands of refugees could cross the Channel overnight and claim asylum in southern England in the event of a UK exit.

Cameron said: “You know that we have that vital information when terrorists and criminals are travelling around Europe ... The people who want to take a different path, they have to start answering some questions about what it would look like if we are not in that organisation and not party to those rules. And I know they fear that, that the time will come pretty soon when they have to start answering some of those questions.”

The prime minister’s comments are understood to refer to Hussain Osman, one of the failed 21 July 2005 bombers, who was rapidly extradited from Italy to the UK under the European arrest warrant. The warrant was one of 35 EU justice and home affairs measures that the home secretary, Theresa May, opted into after previously opting out of all 133 measures.

Leading Eurosceptics, who have warned that pro-Europeans will seek to ape the so-called “project fear” tactics of the Scottish referendum, accused the prime minister of scaremongering after No 10 raised the prospect of the refugee camps in northern France moving across the Channel.

Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, said he was “sad and disappointed” by the prime minister’s words after No 10 suggested France could rescind the right – under the Anglo-French 2003 Le Touquet treaty – of UK border guards to be stationed in northern France if Britain left the EU.

The No 10 spokesman said: “We currently have these juxtaposed controls with France that, should the UK leave the EU, there is no guarantee that those controls would remain in place. If those controls weren’t in place then there would be nothing to stop thousands of people crossing the Channel overnight and arriving in Kent and claiming asylum.”

He added: “We have an arrangement in place with France. We are both EU partners. Should we leave the EU there is no guarantee that the relationship, in terms of the controls we have in France at the moment, would continue. If those controls didn’t continue then there are thousands of people there who are there specifically because they want to come to the UK who would then come to the UK.”

Fox and David Davis accused the prime minister of scaremongering because the Anglo-French treaty was agreed outside the EU. Fox tweeted: “Sad and disappointed to see our prime minister stoop to this level of scaremongering ... especially as he knows the Calais agreement is nothing to do with the EU and agreed between the two governments.”

The Downing Street arguments echo the points made by former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg during the last parliament when he pressed the prime minister and home secretary to opt back into a large proportion of the EU security measures. The prime minister hopes that highlighting the benefits of cooperation on fighting terrorists will force anti-EU campaigners on to the defensive.

The exchanges gave an early taste of No 10’s tactics – and the response of the anti-EU campaigners – when the referendum campaign is launched if Cameron secures agreement at the EU summit in Brussels next week. The prime minister wants to place security – in a narrow financial and wider strategic sense – at the heart of the pro-EU campaign.

Pro-EU Tories will intensify the pressure on the anti-EU camp with a warning that a UK exit from the EU would mark a “leap in the dark”. Nick Herbert, the former justice minister who chairs the campaign group Conservatives for Reform in Europe, will say: “The personality differences on the leave side are clear for all to see. But they also have serious policy disputes. Despite years of campaigning for Brexit, they can’t even agree among themselves what the alternative to EU membership should be.”

Herbert will say that the Brexit campaigners cannot agree whether Britain should follow the example of Norway, Switzerland or the so-called “clean break” option in which the UK severs its ties altogether with the EU, and negotiates a trade deal through the World Trade Organisation. Norway has access to the EU single market but has to pay and has no say in drawing up its rules. Switzerland has a free trade deal with the EU but some of its financial services are excluded.

The former minister will add: “They’re inviting the public to take a giant leap into the dark, gambling Britain’s economic success on an alternative which they can’t begin to spell out. If even Brexit campaigners can’t agree what the future holds, why should the British public take the risk of leaving?”

The pro-EU camp believe they are on strong ground because the anti-EU camp cannot guarantee what deal the UK would sign with the EU after a vote to leave. Under the terms of the Lisbon treaty a country leaving the EU loses its seat on the European Council and has to negotiate within two years with two member states appointed by the remaining 27 EU leaders.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt and Rowena Mason, for The Guardian on Monday 8th February 2016 20.58 Europe/London

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