Theresa May wants to leave the EU’s common foreign and security policy as early as next year, but would show flexibility around the UK’s red lines to secure a new security treaty.
There is no reason why we should not agree distinct agreements for our foreign and defence policy cooperation in the time-limited implementation period”, the British prime minister told European and US officials at the Munich security conference on Saturday. “The key aspects of our future partnership in this area will already be effective from 2019.
“We shouldn’t wait where we don’t need to”, she said, a push directed as much at hardliners in her party as at impatient European officials curious for more clarity on Britain’s post-Brexit vision.
May also called on her country’s EU partners not to let “rigid institutional restrictions” get in the way of a wide-ranging post-Brexit security partnership. There would be “damaging real-world consequences” if none were agreed, she said.
May tried to strike a more reconciliatory tone in her speech than she did in her letter to the European commission last March, leading at the time to accusations of blackmail.
She emphasised that the European arrest warrant had enabled police cooperation between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and made reference to the “pragmatic and practical” approach of the then British foreign secretary Jim Callaghan in setting up an intergovernmental anti-terrorist group following the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“Extraditions outside the European arrest warrant can cost four times as much and take three times as long”, she said.
May’s speech remained ambiguous, however, on one of the real crunch points in the debate over future security arrangements between the EU and the UK. Britain would “respect the role of the European court of justice” when it participated in EU agencies while also having its “sovereign legal order,” she said.
Many leaders of EU member states recognise that the UK, which has the second biggest defence budget in Nato, has resources and expertise that the bloc would come to sorely miss, but others take the view that dropping out of the single market and refusing to adhere to judgements of the European court of justice (ECJ) means the country would no longer be able to participate in joint institutions such as Europol, EU police databases or EU military missions.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier takes the latter position. He said last November that leaving Europol and the European Defence Agency was “the logical consequence of the sovereign choice made by the British”.
That stance also has sympathisers in Berlin, though some officials fear a worst-case scenario in which German intelligence service have to delete data their British counterparts have shared with them when Brexit comes into full effect.
May’s team may be of the view that the ECJ only has a minor role to play in relation to Europol or the European arrest warrant, which requires member states to automatically arrest and transfer a criminal suspect or sentenced person to the issuing state.
Many on the EU side, however, believe the ECJ will be essential to provide ultimate judicial oversight to the standardised data-sharing rules that underpin the EU’s security rules.
“Theresa May is right to warn against letting ideology get in the way of security,” said Sophia Besch of the Centre for European Reform. “But her message should be directed not just at the EU, she needs to say the same to Brexiters at home who categorically oppose the ECJ on ideological grounds. Having a joint court to arbitrate between states is a pragmatic solution to security cooperation.”
May said there could be a legal underpinning to the future security deal that was “respectful of the sovereignty of both the UK and the EU’s legal orders”.
“When participating in EU agencies the UK will respect the remit of the European court of justice. And a principled but pragmatic solution to close legal cooperation will be needed to respect our unique status as a third country with our own sovereign legal order,” she said.
“We’ll need to agree a strong and independent form of dispute resolution across all the areas of our future partnership in which both sides can have the necessary confidence. We must also recognise the importance of comprehensive and robust data protection arrangements.”
The UK’s data protection bill would ensure Britain was “aligned with the EU framework”, she added.
The Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the home affairs select committee, said there were real concerns that Brexit could spell the end of the UK’s Europol membership and the European arrest warrant.
“Up until now it has appeared as though the prime minister’s “red line” on the ECJ would prevent crucial Europol or European arrest warrant membership and data-sharing. So, her suggestion that the UK could respect the role of the ECJ in some areas could prove particularly significant in reaching an agreement and we will look to see if it is followed through”, Cooper said.
May also ruled out a second vote on the country’s EU membership. There was no going back on the result of the June 2016 vote, she said.
In response to the conference director Wolfgang Ischinger’s comment that “things would be so much easier if you stayed,” May said: “We are leaving the EU and there is no question of a second referendum or going back and I think that’s important.
“People in the UK feel very strongly that if we take a decision, then governments should not turn around and say, ‘no, you got that wrong’.”