European leaders expressed shock, sorrow and solidarity with Britain after a suspected terrorist killed 22 people in a horrific explosion at a concert hall in Manchester on Monday night.
But there was a more subtle point made by a number of continental leaders: We may have had our differences since Brexit, but confronting terrorism isn’t one of them.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the “incomprehensible” attack would only strengthen Germany’s resolve “to continue working together with our British friends to move against those who plan and carry out such inhuman acts.” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel ended a tweet saying “united we stand.”
France’s new President Emmanuel Macron made a similar point that France would continue cooperating with Britain in the fight against terrorism. And EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a statement said “we will work side by side with you to fight back against those who seek to destroy our way of life.”
Such pledges of cooperation were not necessarily to be expected as the European Union’s 27 remaining members and Britain prepare to go separate ways in less than two years. Negotiations, which have yet to properly begin between Brussels and London, have been bitter amid sharp disagreements over money owed, the fate of Brits in the EU and of EU citizens in Britain.
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Even on security matters, continued cooperation was not a foregone conclusion. While similar calls for solidarity were made after the London Westminster attack in March, negotiations took another nasty turn just a week later. British Prime Minister Theresa May in her letter to Brussels at the end of March, formally announcing Britain’s exit from the EU, warned a failure to reach a comprehensive Brexit deal “would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.”
Some European officials suggested her comments amounted to blackmail – bargaining security ties in exchange for a better deal on trade. “It would be outrageous to play with people’s lives in these negotiations. This has not been a good start by Theresa May. It feels like blackmail, but security is a good for all our citizens and not a bargaining chip,” Gianni Pittella, leader of the Socialist Party faction in the European Parliament, said at the time.
To be sure, terrorism cooperation doesn’t begin and end with the European Union. Britain already cooperates on security and terrorism through a variety of channels that won’t be affected by an EU exit. They include through the NATO military alliance and Britain is also a member of the “Five Eyes” alliance, an intelligence-sharing agreement between the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
But intra-EU cooperation runs even deeper, especially when it comes to more traditional law enforcement, and security experts and lobby groups have warned against letting that slip once Brexit is completed. The EU countries are all members of Europol, essentially a European version of the FBI, and are signatories of an arrest-warrant system in which suspects can be automatically transferred between EU countries. Britain has said it wants to remain part of the arrest-warrant system, and there have been considerations about whether it can remain part of Europol in some form too.
Manchester’s devastating attack, coming on the heels of attacks this year in France, Stockholm, Dortmund and Berlin in December, serves as yet another reminder that terrorism and security cooperation in Europe should not fall by the wayside.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com