Europol headquarters

EU-UK ‘mutual interest’ means post-Brexit intelligence database access likely, minister insists

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Policing Minister Nick Hurd's comments about Britain being a 'very big player' in pan-European policing follow concerns expressed by officers that the country is being snubbed by its allies and may lose access to vital intelligence.

The UK is in a strong position to secure long term access to pan-European policing data post-Brexit, a government minister has insisted.

Nick Hurd refuted suggestions the EU could be poised to block Britain’s access to crime-fighting intelligence, including data that could help thwart terrorist plots and cyberattacks, as part of any punishment for Brexit.

The Policing Minister told Home Affairs Committee members: “There is a very good level of mutual interest protecting the capabilities that we have worked very hard to create over a number of years. They work. They’re valued by us all. We’re a very big player in them.”

He was referring to data systems controlled by Europol, the EU’s multi-billion pound law enforcement agency, which European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said the UK should be ejected from come Brexit day.

The UK was the second largest contributor to Europol data systems last year and shared over 7,600 intelligence contributions relating to serious organised crime and counter-terrorism.

Around 40 per cent of the encrypted police intelligence messages that pass through Europol annually have UK crime-fighting bodies either as their recipient, sender or a parties copied into the conversation.

Importantly, Britain also set up and oversees the Child Abuse Image Database, which is considered to be the largest and best data collection of its kind anywhere and which is used to help cleanse the web of sexual photographs of children.

Europol’s current director is a UK citizen and a self-declared “proud Brit”, the agency’s official language is English and many dozens of British police officers work in pivotal roles within its brutalist headquarters in The Hague – facts that raise questions about whether the organisation would in fact be able to continue to operate effectively without Britain’s involvement.

“We are co-driving almost half of the EU law enforcement projects in important areas like trafficking of human beings and firearms, so we are a very major stakeholder in Europol, which is why we think the incentives are in line to try and negotiate an outcome that is as close to the status quo as possible,” Hurd told MPs. 

However, he did not deny that the government was also preparing for a ‘no deal’ outcome under which the UK would be ejected from Europol as Barnier has said it should be.

Hurd’s comments came after several law enforcement professionals complained privately of being given the cold shoulder by some European colleagues who take exception to the Brexit vote.

One senior officer who works with Europol warned the UK was being edged out of its leadership role in important international projects because of “petty” disgruntlement about the referendum.

He told E&T he has taken to reminding colleagues, “Don’t blame me, I voted Remain” when making the case that Britain should remain in the driving seat on several key issues.

Another senior law enforcement professional with involvement in Europol said: “I’ve had a couple of comments to the effect that the UK lacks relevance because we’re leaving the party, which indicates that there’s a bit of an issue. I don’t know if these are just flippant remarks or if it’s something more integral, but they are grumpy. It’s in the EU’s interest to exaggerate the risks because they fear other countries will seek to leave, too. Hopefully, common sense will prevail.”

Specialist publication Police Oracle reported two months ago that the office of one UK police boss was recently warned by a Danish law enforcement counterpart that Britain would soon be “out of the game” and would not receive European intelligence because of Brexit.

Ironically, Denmark itself is no longer a member of Europol after the Danish public rejected this at a 2015 referendum. The country has instead reached an agreement that allows it to continue to share and view Europol data, though it no longer enjoys decision-making rights.

Some EU analysts believe the Danish set-up could in fact act as a future model for the UK. Europol last year appeared to take a dim view of this suggestion, saying in a statement that Denmark’s arrangement was only possible because, unlike the UK, it is a full member of the passport-free travel area known as Schengen.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has previously suggested the EU would find it hard to grant Britain database access rights if the country quits the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Escaping its jurisdiction is understood to be one of Theresa May’s ‘red lines’ in the Brexit negotiations, but the EU might decide this means insufficient safeguards are in place to protect any Europol data that is shared with the UK.

Shona Riach, Europe Director at the Home Office, told yesterday’s meeting that the idea of retaining full membership of Europol was “a bit of a red herring”.

She said there was a “mutual incentive” to negotiate a new type of settlement that functioned under a different basis than the current one but which virtually replicated the status quo for the police.

Conservative MP Rehman Chishti had earlier suggested that the UK might be forced to choose between bulk data surveillance and oversight by the ECJ.

Douglas Ross, a Scottish Tory MP, added: “It would be, absolutely, to the rest of Europe’s disadvantage to decide to... punish the UK in terms of what we put into Europol, just because we’ve decided to leave the European Union.”

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