September 26, 2018

IntelBrief: Brexit and Counterterrorism

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement on Brexit negotiations with the European Union, at 10 Downing Street, in London, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 ( Jack Taylor/Pool Photo via AP).
  • The increasing odds of a ‘no deal’ Brexit in 2019 portends serious negative consequences for both the United Kingdom and the European Union.
  • The UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council warned that ‘existing EU tools allow us to respond quickly and intelligently to crime and terrorism in the UK and the EU.’
  • The loss of time sensitive protocols and data sharing initiatives will be a massive step backwards in the modern collaborative approach against terrorism.
  • Since the UK serves a great deal of warrants on behalf of the EU, Europe will also experience a weakening of law enforcement and counterterrorism approaches that are already strained as a result of finite resources.


The ongoing disaster of Brexit talks between the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) is a full-spectrum challenge to both sides in terms of uncertainty, instability, and redundancy. There is growing concern that the worst-case scenario—a no deal departure in which the UK separates from the EU before achieving a broad-based, comprehensive agreement—is becoming the most likely scenario. Counterterrorism (CT) and law enforcement (LE), particularly information sharing and intelligence cooperation between the UK and the EU, will inevitably become more onerous than in the past.And while far from perfect, information sharing between EU members on issues including terrorism and crime is far better than the alternative of endless bi-lateral agreements. If a no-deal Brexit ultimately occurs, the UK will almost certainly find itself without seamless access to the information and capabilities necessary for crafting an optimal approach to fighting borderless terrorism and organized crime: law enforcement and intelligence cooperation that is also unconstrained by national borders and a sclerotic bureaucracy.

On September 18, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) for the UK warned that the loss of access to data would have a profoundly negative impact on the counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts of all involved. The group was not warning that there would be an increase in crime or terrorism, but rather that countering these challenges would become far more cumbersome, especially since relatively effective systems are already in place and constantly being examined and refined. Sara Thornton, chair of the NPCC, stated that ‘existing EU tools allow us to respond quickly and intelligently to crime and terrorism in the UK and the EU - they make us better at protecting the public.’ She added that ‘the alternatives we are planning to use, where they exist, are without exception slower, more bureaucratic and ultimately less effective.’ This sums up the dilemma of much about Brexit; the dismantling of existing and rather effective protocols and systems only to have to attempt to recreate them piece-by-piece and replace them with a more byzantine structure not well-suited for the contemporary threat environment.

In terms of arrests of suspects with warrants, the UK plays an outsized role in helping EU member states to apprehend their respective citizens for a range of offenses, from terrorism to organized crime. Currently, both use the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), a system in which the UK arrests approximately 8 people with non-UK EAW for every person arrested under a UK EAW. A no-deal Brexit would force the UK to devise new protocols that would seek to recreate what already exists. There is justified criticism over flawed information sharing—most notably in the travel of many of the members of the Paris and Brussels terror cells related to the so-called Islamic State. Still, for all of its inherent flaws, the system is still better than any foreseeable and feasible near-term alternative.

Even in an ideal world where the UK and EU maintained near perfect information sharing, the CT and LE challenges would remain immense. The threat matrix for monitoring and disrupting known cells and individuals is wildly overloaded at present. The recent decrease in attacks in the EU is due, in part, to the relentless detect-and-disrupt CT raids and arrests by police and intelligence services. The threat level will continue to remain elevated for years to come, and the possibility of a no deal Brexit will simply make that threat more difficult to counter by creating unnecessary stovepipes that will hamper the sharing of information and intelligence across relevant agencies.


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