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The EU can’t dictate to us on security but staying in it can keep us safer

In the Sunday Times today, Lord Evans, former head of MI5, and Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6, write to support intelligence co-operation supported by the EU:

Terrorist plots inspired by Isis in the Middle East. Cyber-attacks by hostile governments and organised criminals. Instability abroad threatening to spill into Europe. A resurgent and unpredictable Russia. These are the security threats Britain faces today. They are the most severe set of security challenges for a generation.

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.

As recent heads of MI5 and MI6, responsible for such operations, we believe we should offer our assessment of whether European Union membership helps or hinders our nation’s security.

Countering terror is a team game and the EU is the best framework — no country can succeed on its own. The EU’s Lisbon treaty is explicit that national security is the sole responsibility of individual states. The EU cannot make decisions that override the UK government on matters of national security. Nor can the EU institutions interfere with the security and intelligence services of member states. There is no European Intelligence Service and nor is there any good argument for creating one.

But the EU still matters to the UK’s security. For example, intelligence work today relies on the lawful and accountable use of large data sets to reveal the associations and activities of terrorists and cyber-attackers.

Sharing of data across borders, rightly, is subject to privacy protection. The terms on which we exchange data with other European countries are set by agreement. As an EU member we shape the debate, push for the right balance between security and privacy and benefit from the data that flows as a result.

If Britain left the EU we would have little say over the terms for data sharing. An agreement reached without us would probably be too restrictive for our needs and we would have to accept what data we were offered. This could undermine our ability to protect ourselves.

With the existing border controls, every person entering the UK has their passport checked, often before they depart for this country. But the immigration officer can act only if there is information that a traveller poses a security risk.

Membership of the EU makes that information more readily available. For example, the home secretary recently reached agreement on exchanging airline passenger records, helping us to identify those who pose a threat before they travel. Other EU agreements, such as the European arrest warrant, which has enabled us to extradite from Britain more than 5,000 people wanted for crimes on the Continent, are also of real value.

We both recall how Britain became a haven for foreign terrorists in the 1990s when we had no effective legal basis for getting rid of Algerian terrorists so that they could face justice in France. Equally, criminals and extremists from the UK can no longer find refuge in France or Spain. The EU has helped to close that net.

Recent attacks in Paris and Brussels show there is further to go, especially in sharing threat intelligence and monitoring movement of suspects. Counterterrorism is a team game and the EU is the best framework available — no country can succeed on its own.

The EU is in no way a substitute for Nato as a military guarantor of our freedom. But meetings of European intelligence chiefs such as the Counter-Terrorism Group provide a useful forum for intelligence sharing in which the UK plays an active and influential role.

If we left the EU we would probably be able to negotiate some participation in those meetings, but while day-to-day operational collaboration would continue, the UK’s influence at leadership level would be reduced.

Nor has being part of the EU harmed our vital intelligence links with America and our other Five Eyes partners — Canada, Australia and New Zealand — all of whom want us to remain in the EU.

Behind the daily mechanics of intelligence and security collaboration lies a bigger security question and that is the geopolitical stability of Europe. After decades of peace in western Europe it is easy to become complacent and assume that the peace we have enjoyed will never be disturbed. History suggests this is a dangerous delusion. For all its faults and petty irritations the EU has helped to establish peaceful co-operation, respect for human rights and the rule of law as the normal way for Europe to conduct its affairs.

We can both recall conversations with security chiefs and political leaders in central and eastern Europe while their countries were preparing to become EU members. The greatest attraction wasn’t the economic benefits. It was that by joining the EU they were committing to a rules-based, democratic and free political system very different from the one under which they had suffered as part of the Soviet bloc. Viewed from the East, the EU stood for stability, freedom and security against forces that would have pulled them back into the past.

There are still forces within Europe and outside that would like nothing better than to reverse the progress towards democratic order that the EU has stood for since the Second World War. If the UK were to withdraw from the EU the destabilising effect on the EU itself — already beset with economic difficulties, the migration crisis and a resurgent Russia — could be profound. Those who are enemies of democracy would rejoice.

In our judgment there is a real risk that such a destabilisation could, in time, lead to the fragmentation of the EU and the return of instability on the Continent.

Should instability and conflict return there is no doubt that the UK would be threatened by it and could ultimately be drawn into helping to resolve it, potentially at great cost to ourselves.

These are risks we should not take. In matters of security, caution is a vital watchword. For our own security we need to stay in the EU, continue to build collaboration with our EU partners against common threats and play an active part in promoting the forces of stability, democracy and co-operation that underpin security in our own back yard.

Lord Evans is a former head of MI5 and Sir John Sawers is a former head of MI6