Andrew Vine: After Brexit, we must be a united Europe on terror

A young girl looks as members of the public hold candles during the candlelight vigil in Trafalgar Square, London to remember those who lost their lives in the Westminster terrorist attack. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.

TOMORROW will be a day of remembrance when the country pauses in memory of the victims of the London terror attack exactly one week on.

Against such a sombre backdrop, the Government’s triggering of Article 50 to begin the formal two-year process of Britain leaving the EU, vastly significant though it is, may well feel like a sideshow since little is likely to happen for months other than talks about talks.

But the two events are inextricably linked because the evil perpetrated on the streets of Westminster underlines more powerfully than any amount of talks that the countries of Europe need to maintain the closest possible co-operation on security and intelligence.

However messy and acrimonious the divorce between Britain and the EU becomes – and it will – differences must be put aside for the sake of unity in combating Islamist terrorism.

A week ago, London joined Paris, Nice, Brussels and Berlin on the list of great cities targeted by a new wave of terror attacks spawned by the cruelties and agonies of the Middle East.

The need to fight and defeat this together as a united group of civilised and free nations should be uppermost in the minds of the negotiating teams from Britain and the EU as they grapple with trade deals and the movement of citizens – indeed Home Secretary Amber Rudd met her EU counterparts yesterday to give them an update on the London atrocity.

Even though the murderer responsible, Khalid Masood, appears to be a home-grown terrorist, the menace he represents knows no borders.

The scale of the threat to Britain from within our own borders is deeply troubling. The most recent figures from the security services on anti-terror operations revealed that there are currently about 550 live investigations involving 3,000 potential suspects.

Those are just the people that the police and intelligence services have on their radar. There is every possibility of others like Masood, who was not under investigation even though he had been previously known to MI5.

The security services across Europe will have similarly disturbing statistics, and it is safe to assume they have already made it clear to their political masters that the lines of communication across the English Channel must remain open regardless of Brexit’s final outcome.

A key reason for that is that Britain’s intelligence services now lead the way in tracking and disrupting planned attacks – a consequence of their failure to stop the July 7 2005 bombings of three Tube trains and a bus in London by a four-man cell, three of whom were from West Yorkshire. Then, MI5 had abandoned its surveillance of the terror cell’s ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, from Beeston, Leeds, judging him not to be a high risk.

It was a catastrophic error that resulted in the deaths of 52 people and injuries to scores more.

But the mistake prompted a comprehensive shake-up of anti-terror operations, which have since seen the security services foil dozens of attacks. They are to be strengthened further with an additional £2.5bn funding and 1,900 extra personnel over the past five years.

That is no comfort to those whose loved ones were killed or injured last week, but for the rest of us it provides reassurance that everything possible is being done to prevent terrorism.

But Britain must act in concert with the rest of Europe if our shield against murderous extremism is to be at its 
most effective.

In its turn, Europe needs to up its game in tracking terror suspects.

Ten days before last week’s attacks, a leaked EU report warned of failings in the Schengen free-movement area.

Terror suspects were getting into the EU from the Middle East and then moving across internal borders with impunity, it concluded, and even those on watch lists were not being picked up. Nor, potentially, were guns and explosives intended for use in atrocities.

There were also failings in the way individual countries were sharing information with neighbours, and problems in accessing each others’ databases to identify suspects.

Failings as basic as these are unacceptable, especially after the attacks on major continental cities.

And it is another reason why co-operation on terrorism needs to be at the top of the agenda when Brexit talks start in earnest.

The EU’s instinct for self-preservation, and its anxiety at the growth of far-right sentiment in response to both a massive influx of immigrants and a series of attacks, should mean that it recognises how vitally important it is to continue embracing Britain as a full partner.

There is no doubt that the expressions of sympathy and solidarity from EU countries after last week’s attacks were heartfelt, just as Britain’s were when European cities suffered grievous loss of life.

Tomorrow is an anniversary that nobody would wish to have marked. But if, on the same day, the triggering of Brexit can come with renewed resolve to stamp out terrorism across Europe, then some good can come out of an act of evil.

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