Fear Trumps Fact

Whitman_glassThe Brussels attacks have been used by both sides of the Brexit debate to claim that the UK is either more or less secure as a result of EU membership. Richard Whitman, Professor of Politics and Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe , argues that rhetoric has played a greater role for both sides than evidence-based claims.

The Brussels airport and Metro bombings were swiftly incorporated into the UK’s EU Referendum debate. A number of Brexit campaigners drew almost immediate conclusions from the bombings, arguing that they highlighted why the UK could better provide for its own security against terrorism outside, rather than inside, the European Union.

In the week following the bombings current and former members of the intelligence and security communities claimed that the EU did, or did not, play a contribution in the UK protecting itself from terrorism. The majority of the claims made on either side where rhetorical and with little evidence produced to substantiate the assertions that were being made.

This was a week in which ‘Project Fear’ was turned on its head. The previous accusation, levelled at the UK Government by Brexit campaigners, was that it was using fear of the consequences of EU exit as a campaigning strategy to shock the public into voting to remain in the EU. Now, the remain side have accused Brexiteers of using the Brussels terrorist attack to strike a note of fear among the British public that EU membership makes the UK more vulnerable to terrorism.

The discussion in the aftermath of the Brussels bombings ranged across three broad areas: would greater control over the UK’s borders make the UK more secure by enabling border control arrangements which are not currently available to the UK as a consequence of its EU membership? Does membership of the EU and the sharing of intelligence and cooperation in policing activities enhance, or hinder, the UK’s ability to deal with terrorism? Do other EU member states have sufficiently competent intelligence and policing agencies and do they conduct their activities in a manner that makes a contribution to the UK’s ability to address terrorist threats or do they hinder it?

Examining the arguments made by the two sides in commenting on terrorism and the Brussels attacks it is striking how little evidence was provided by either side to support their assertions on the contribution and obstacles to counter-terrorism that the UK derives from EU membership. The nature of the work of the intelligence and security services does not, of course, lend itself to a full rehearsal of the facts as much of the relevant data is not in the public domain. Finding publicly available evidence and research that might help in gaining an understanding of these issues and especially the UK’s relationship to the EU’s policies on police cooperation and intelligence sharing is a significant challenge.

The most comprehensive assessment of the UK’s relationship with the EU on policing and intelligence sharing is found in the awkwardly titled Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union Police and Criminal Justice produced in December 2014. This is one of the thirty two reports produced under the 2010-2015 coalition government’s review of the relationship between EU and national policy, which are an unrivalled compendium of the relationship between the UK and the EU in all areas of EU policy.

The report contains analysis of evidence ‘submitted by practitioners, non-governmental organisations, Members of Parliament and other interested parties, either in writing or orally, as well as a literature review of relevant material.’ Not a bad starting point for assessing the UK’s relationship with the EU in this area. The report is peppered with references to terrorism so although it was not expressly written for the purpose of assessing the contribution that the EU makes to UK counter-terrorism efforts, it was a key element of the report. The report is weighted very heavily to highlight areas in which cooperation has broadly beneficial effects but detailed cases and instances of EU arrangements delivering on effective counter-terrorism for the UK are not present.

Detailed evidence on extent of the terrorist threat in the EU can be found in the annual European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report produced by Europol (the EU’s law enforcement agency). The report reviews both the broad trends of terrorist activity across the EU but also the specifics of terror attacks, thwarted activities and the arrest and conviction figures for the twenty eight member states including the UK. The report can be read alongside the US Department of State’s annual Country Reports on terrorism which map terrorist activity by country and by region. Reading together these two sets of reports makes clear that terrorist activity is a wide-spread phenomena, one that is being countered by a large number of countries, through a variety of national, regional, international initiatives and agencies. They also make clear that the UK is something of a ‘hot-spot’ facing significant counter-terrorist challenges.

Surveying the broader literature on the EU and counter-terrorism it is clear that the EU, as opposed to its member states, is a rather minor player, relatively poorly resourced and with limited capabilities. Whether this should remain the case is an issue that has been debated since the Paris attacks last year and re-energised after the Brussels bombings. However, this has not been the case in the UK, where the notion that the EU should have a greater counter-terrorism role has not been put forward. The UK EU Referendum debate on the issue of security seems to be fixed in cycle of rhetorical claim and counter claim, with little space given over to evidence or analysis.


Richard G. Whitman is a Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


Image credit: Shattered Glass. Theen Moy/Flickr. (CC 2.0 BY)

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