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14 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

The UK won’t secure a Brexit security deal with muscle-flexing and veiled threats

Britain is squandering one of its few remaining assets in the negotiations. 

By Patrick Maguire

Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, has developed something of a knack for making history. The past two years have seen him become the first holder of his post to give a newspaper interview and an on-camera speech. 

Today he went even further and delivered a speech abroad – the first time any serving head of MI5 has done so. These firsts are genuinely remarkable given that he is only the fifth director general whose existence has been publicly acknowledged. So what explains his emergence from the shadows?

The contents of his address in Berlin provide a one-word answer: Brexit. Parker’s intervention made the front pages of most newspapers this morning, for obvious reasons: his rhetoric on Russia. He attacked the Kremlin for “bare-faced lying”, “criminal thuggery” and accused it of leading a campaign to undermine liberal democracies.

These claims are all arguably just and reflect genuine anxieties within Whitehall and beyond. But Parker’s highly public intervention in a European capital speaks to an even bigger truth: that Britain will be a much diminished player on the international stage after Brexit.

On the specific issue of security, Parker explicitly addressed that anxiety, reminding his European partners that Brexit did not mean a complete severing of ties, and that MI5, MI6 and GCHQ were committed to continued cooperation in the face of a revanchist Russia.

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But although Parker is not a politician – as he himself admitted during his speech – his intervention reflects the necessity of securing an adequate Brexit deal. 

In this regard, Parker and his agency are a political asset for the government. As his increasingly frequent public appearances show, Britain’s relative clout and expertise on security is one of the few cards it has left. Secure ongoing and comprehensive cooperation on that front, the thinking goes, and more will follow. Whether that thinking will be vindicated by reality is another matter entirely.

The row over Britain’s continued involvement in the Galileo satellite navigation system (Europe’s equivalent of the American GPS satellite) after Brexit also indicates that brokering any deal with the EU will prove rather more complicated than reminding the EU of that strength and than waiting for them to accede. They have thus far proven unwilling to do so on Galileo – even going so far as to label Britain’s threats of  reduced intelligence sharing – if they are excluded from the project – as blackmail. 

Similarly, a Lords report on the future of security cooperation between Britain and the EU after Brexit warned this morning that the government “has yet to explain how its high-level aspirations could be put into practice” as far as as a nothing-has-changed post-Brexit arrangement after is concerned. 

As compelling as Parker’s case is, Britain won’t secure a deal on security with muscle-flexing and veiled threats. Having handled one of its few Brexit advantages so ineptly, prospects for the rest of the deal look bleaker still.

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