• `Counter-terrorism is a team game:' Sawers and Evans
  • Gove says Brexit would put borders back in U.K. hands

The U.K. will be safer staying in the European Union, two former chiefs of the country’s security services said, before voters head to the polls next month in an in-out referendum.

Cooperation with the 27 other EU members means Britain is better placed to tackle threats ranging from Islamic State terrorism to cyber-attacks by hostile governments, former MI5 chief Jonathan Evans and the former head of MI6 John Sawers said in a commentary in the Sunday Times. MI5 is the U.K.’s domestic intelligence service, while MI6, now known as the Secret Intelligence Service, provides foreign intelligence.

John Sawers
John Sawers
Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

“We can deal with these threats only with a full intelligence picture and that comes from covertly monitoring the activities of those who wish us harm so that we can understand and disrupt their plans,” the two men wrote. “Counter-terrorism is a team game and the EU is the best framework available -- no country can succeed on its own.”

The intervention by the two men, the most recent former chiefs of their respective agencies, is a boost for Prime Minister David Cameron as he tries to persuade the electorate that Britain is “stronger, safer and better off” within the EU. One of the key planks of the “leave” campaign’s argument is that the U.K. would be better able to secure its borders outside the EU because it won’t have to accept the free movement of people within the bloc.

Information Available

“With the existing border controls, every person entering the U.K. has their passport checked, often before they depart for this country,” the former security chiefs said. “But the immigration officer can act only if there is information that a traveler poses a security risk. Membership of the EU makes that information more readily available.”

The intelligence field is far from unified on the issue of whether EU membership makes Britain safer. Richard Dearlove, another former MI6 chief, in March said that a withdrawal from the EU, or Brexit, would not hinder the fight against terrorism.

“Brexit would bring two potentially important security gains: the ability to dump the European Convention on Human Rights -- remember the difficulty of extraditing the extremist Abu Hamza of the Finsbury Park Mosque -- and, more importantly, greater control over immigration from the European Union,” Dearlove wrote in Prospect magazine.

Conservatives Split

In a separate interview, Sawers told the Sunday Times that “a lot has changed” since Dearlove left the intelligence service 12 years ago. On Sunday, he told BBC Television’s “Andrew Marr Show” that the commentary stemmed from a meeting he had with Evans in February, and wasn’t orchestrated by the government.

The debate over EU membership has split Cameron’s Conservatives, and among those arguing for a Brexit are Justice Secretary Michael Gove and two junior defense ministers, Penny Mordaunt and Julian Brazier. Gove on Sunday told the “Andrew Marr show” that Britain would be able to escape interventions from the European Court of Justice if it left the EU.

“The ECJ, a court, has intervened specifically to say that data-sharing arrangements that we had passed in Parliament were wrong and therefore we have to wait for the judgment of the European Court of Justice to decide how our data and our information and our intelligence can be shared with our American allies: I think that is wrong,” Gove said. “We would be safer if we were outside the European Union, had control of our borders and we did not have European judges telling us who we can and cannot deport.”

Criminal Records

Gove also said that the European Criminal Records Information System “doesn’t allow us to know whether or not criminals come into this country. ”

“We only find out whether or not people have criminal records after they’ve already committed an offense in this country,” he said. “It’s a gossamer-thin protection.”

After a vote to Brexit, Britain will have two years to negotiate the terms of its departure from the bloc. Even so, there are some measures the U.K. should take immediately, the Vote Leave campaign said Sunday in an e-mailed statement. They include exempting its intelligence agencies from EU law, allowing the deportation of EU criminals, and exempting the armed forces from EU law.

“We can take immediate steps in order to make this country safer,” Gove said. “At the moment the European Court of Justice has interfered in our capacity to share data and intelligence with our American allies. The European Court of Justice has interfered to prevent us deporting people whose presence here is not conducive to the public good.”

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