A Brexit no-deal would aid terrorism in the UK and across Europe

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‘Soon, the UK and the EU will share passenger flight data, which helps to build up a picture of suspicious cross-border patterns of behaviour.’
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The UK has begun to contemplate the prospect of no Brexit deal by the March 2019 deadline. The economic impact would be significant, but with contingency plans under preparation, there are ways to try to mitigate the worst aspects. However, in the fight against terror, a no-deal scenario – and therefore no EU-UK close cooperation – is hardly an option. Put bluntly, without a deal the UK and Europe face the possibility of homeland data flows, and police and judicial cooperation, being turned off within hours. This would give free rein to terrorists, traffickers and organised criminals, and both sides must prepare now to prevent such an unthinkable scenario materialising.



The architect of much of the EU’s recent internal security architecture is Theresa May herself. It comprises a complex spider’s web of data flows, interconnected legislation, IT networks, and cross-border police work and cooperation.


Take just data flows alone. The UK and EU routinely exchange significant amounts of sensitive information, including on fingerprints and DNA. Soon they will share passenger flight data, which helps to build up a picture of suspicious cross-border patterns of behaviour. The value of this data exchange is so high that the EU is taking steps to strengthen the interconnection and inter-operability of different systems. These moves were championed by the UK as a means of improving efficiency – but paradoxically, after Brexit the extra complexity makes finding an agreement technically more challenging and time consuming.


This is just one area of cooperation, but there are others, such as our joint work through Europol, the European Police Agency (at present headed by a highly able Welshman), which coordinates everything from cross-border investigations to countering online radicalisation and detecting cyber-criminals.


If the UK left the EU without a deal, it is difficult to see how countries such as Germany, which put a premium on civil liberties, would allow sensitive personal data flows to the UK without a clear legal framework to oversee it. Such a move would not be an act of malice, but a hard reality to ensure people’s data was being used, stored and transferred in a legal manner. Even though the UK intends to implement the new EU data protection provisions recently adopted, after Brexit it has made clear its rejection of such data flows being overseen by EU redress systems, including the European court of justice.


The UK would not be alone in having to meet EU rules in this area. Even the EU-American agreements for security data exchange, which have often been painstaking to negotiate, require non-members to meet EU standards and reflect the rulings of the European court. And if the European parliament feels such standards are not iron clad, it has shown with the EU-US Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme that it is willing to wield a veto, even if that leaves it open to a charge of acting irresponsibly. March 2019 will be just a few months before the European elections, so it is easy to imagine some posturing among MEPs seeking re-election.


If and I hope when talks begin on the UK-EU future relationship, there is political willingness for a strong deal on security arrangements. This is not a zero-sum game, and we both rely on each other to fight terrorists, traffickers and organised criminals.


There are EU agreements around the world that can be emulated, including operational agreements with Europol, and those to facilitate the exchange of passenger data with the US and Canada. The EU has an agreement with Denmark for access to Europol following my compatriots’ referendum decision to withdraw from some EU home affairs areas. The EU can be creative when the real talks get going.


However, both sides would make a potentially fatal mistake to leave security as a tag-on issue at the end of negotiations. Despite great political will, the level of complexity and technicalities surrounding all our systems and laws means any agreement will take time to negotiate. The UK has made clear it seeks more cooperation than any other non-EU country, including a fully fledged security treaty. I admire the ambition. But even if a transition period can be agreed, experience tells me that we may run out of time to negotiate and ratify such a technical and politically contentious accord.



Therefore the UK and EU should plan for several eventualities, including how we keep the data taps on in case there is a no-deal Brexit, and measures to plug any gaps between the UK’s full departure and the implementation of a new arrangement or treaty. If the UK is unable to conclude an exit agreement, causing it to fall out of the EU, it can fall back on World Trade Organisation rules for trade. However, there is no fallback for the habitual cooperation in our fight against terror. Both sides must begin prudent planning now to avoid giving succour to our enemies.


Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the chairman of the Rasmussen Global consultancy. He was prime minister of Denmark between 2001 and 2009, and Nato secretary general between 2009 and 2014