Brexit Blues: UK Threatens to Cancel Security Cooperation

Cybersecurity

News Analysis of Prime Minister Theresa May's Opening Move in Negotiations Brexit Blues: UK Threatens to Cancel Security Cooperation

Brexit negotiations have started with a bang, not a whimper, as Britain's prime minster, Theresa May, has threatened to cancel the U.K.'s participation in the EU's cross-border, police-led intelligence operations unless Britain gets what it wants.

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The threat comes despite those operations, coordinated by Europol and its "EC3" European Cybercrime Center, having helped disrupt numerous criminal syndicates, including cybercrime operators. It also follows by just one week the Westminster attack, launched in the vicinity of where Parliament meets by a British national and potential extremist.

On March 29, Britain's ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, delivered a six-page letter from May to the European Council President Donald Tusk. The letter triggers Article 50 of the EU treaty, which begins up to two years of negotiations over how exactly Britain will exit the EU.

"There is no reason to pretend that this is a happy day, neither in Brussels nor in London," Tusk said in response.

Seeking: New 'Special Partnership'

The letter says Britain wants to forge "a new deep and special partnership" with the remaining 27 members of the EU. But it also demands that the terms of its EU withdrawal be negotiated at the same time as the terms of the future U.K-EU partnership.

Without such an agreement, May writes in the letter, the U.K. will be forced to trade with the EU on less favorable World Trade Organization terms. "In security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened. ... We must therefore work hard to avoid that outcome."

All told, the letter drops the word "security" 11 times, making it an obvious bargaining chip, but also a potentially risky one.

Amber Rudd, Britain's home secretary, appeared on Sky News later on March 29, claiming in an interview "no threat" was being issued by Britain, while appearing to then issue clarifying threats to withdraw security cooperation.

"We are the largest contributor to Europol, so if we left Europol then we would take our information, this is in the legislation, with us," she said. "The fact is the European partners want us to keep our information in there, because we keep other European countries safe as well. This isn't a huge, contentious issue."

'Punchy' Start

May's decision to juxtapose trade and security was "punchy," says Rupert Harrison, former chief of staff to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, who likened it, diplomatically speaking, to a "clunking fist wrapped in a velvet glove."

Of course, political negotiations - never mind nation-state divorce - are often messy, and it's no surprise that politicians are playing to their electorates.

And May's opening gambit made for great tabloid fodder. As noted by England-based security researcher Kevin Beaumont, the headline of The Sun made the U.K.'s diplomatic demand sound like an extortion shakedown.

The front page of tomorrow's The Sun sounds like ransomware gone insane. Cc @pwnallthethings pic.twitter.com/gi4PZ6orpz

— Kevin Beaumont (@GossiTheDog)

'Blackmail' Slammed

Many European politicians agreed, with Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament's Brexit coordinator, deriding any attempt by Britain to use its military or intelligence agencies as a bargaining chip.

"I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady, so I didn't even use or think about the use of the word 'blackmail,'" Verhofstadt said in a March 29 press conference in Brussels. "I think the security of our citizens is far too important to start a trade-off of one and the other. Both are absolutely necessary in the future partnership without bargaining this one against the other."

Others were less restrained.

"This has not been a good start by Theresa May. It feels like blackmail, but security is a good for all our citizens and not a bargaining chip," said Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialist bloc in the European parliament. "We still hope that Theresa May can get back on the right track."

Negotiators Dig In

An unnamed British government official told the Guardian that the March 29 divorce letter was just the opening salvo in what promises to be a difficult and lengthy negotiation process, and that staking out tough positions was to be expected. The source said those negotiations would center on EU-linked security issues, "including Europol, extradition agreements, and an EU-wide information alert system for wanted and suspected criminals," the newspaper reported. But the source implied that existing military and intelligence service relationships would continue and not be subject to any Brexit negotiations.

May's request to hold "parallel talks" - over its EU exit, at the same time as its future relationship with the EU - comes despite European leaders having previously stated that such negotiations will not be held in tandem.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel restated that opinion on March 29 in Berlin. "The negotiations must first clarify how we will disentangle our interlinked relationship ... and only when this question is dealt with, can we, hopefully soon after, begin talking about our future relationship," she said.

Future Europol Membership Remains Likely

Securing a Europol deal, however, would be in everyone's interests, including those of Britain.

To be sure, Britain and its law enforcement establishment have also been a major contributor to Europol's success. Currently, Europol is led by British civil servant Rob Wainwright, who's Welsh, while EC3 is lead by Steven Wilson, who's Scottish.

While Brexit negotiations have just begun, Wainwright said March 29 via Twitter that Britain was "unlikely to 'leave' Europol," although he added that its membership status would change, "with some practical effects still to be decided."

Reading between the lines, it appears that the U.K. and EU will negotiate a special arrangement over Europol, not least for sharing criminal intelligence. What exact form that takes, however, remains to be seen. But Britain and the EU now have until 2019 to work it out.

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