Europol: the first Brexit battleground?

As Theresa May continues to give a running commentary about how she isn’t going to give a running commentary on Brexit, important real-life decisions continue to mount up.

The most pressing issue related to our current EU membership is about the renewal of the UK’s participation in Europol, the Europe-wide policing agency that coordinates some 40,000 cross-border police investigations every year.

Rob Wainright, a British security expert and the head of Europol, has echoed the warnings of our own police officers that to back out of Europol would compromise Britain’s ability to fight organised crime and apprehend terrorist suspects across borders.

Of course Theresa May, a former home secretary, realises this. She is fully aware of the vital contribution our Europe-wide networks make to the work of our own police forces. She will recall, for instance, that Europol cross-matched Belgian and Polish data earlier this year to help us crack a gang of people-traffickers in London, resulting in a series of arrests here and in Belgium.

The UK has the right to choose whether to participate in this area of European cooperation, and until now it’s generally been a no-brainer. Indeed, we have continued to opt into useful measures since the referendum.

But, as with so many issues, the prospect of Brexit threatens to wreck all that. Europol acquires a new legislative framework next spring, which means that Theresa May has to decide before Christmas whether we will remain a part of it. Given the government’s utterly chaotic approach to Brexit thus far, the question for our prime minister is whether she intends to prioritise the country’s safety or her own party’s divisions.

As with other important Brexit-related questions, we’ve heard conflicting messages from the ministerial ranks. Home secretary Amber Rudd argues for our continued involvement, given the agency’s important role in helping to make the UK safe. But Dominic Raab, a leave campaigner, thinks we should back out — even though some 3000 British investigations rely on input from the agency each year. Indeed, it’s hard to see how pandering to leavers’ demands and removing one of our police forces’ key data flows could possibly count as “taking back control”.

But this is the first of many such decisions the government faces as it attempts to unpick forty years of EU cooperation. It may well turn out to be a litmus test for future challenges. Will May stand up for British interests, or cave to the demands of the anti-European faction of her party?

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