David Cameron issues stark warning with the polls showing 50/50 split
DAVID Cameron’s raising the issue of whether Britain, or indeed Europe, would be a safer place in the event of a Brexit is not all that surprising, even though his remarks have deepened the already entrenched positions on both sides.
Security experts are also concerned this week, as the former heads of MI5 and MI6 both issued stark warnings that leaving the European Union could undermine the UK’s ability to protect itself from terrorists.
In a direct challenge to ‘Leave’ campaigners who have argued that Britain’s membership of the EU leaves the country more vulnerable to terrorist attack, Baron Evans of Weardale, the former director-general of MI5, and John Sawers, the former head of MI6, said the opposite was true.
They argued that a vote to leave could damage intelligence sharing because the EU would restrict surveillance powers if the UK were not in the union.
“Intelligence work today relies on the lawful and accountable use of large data-sets to reveal the associations and activities of terrorists and cyber-attackers,” they wrote in an article for ‘The Sunday Times’.
“The terms on which we exchange data with other European countries are set by agreement within the EU. As an EU member, we shape the debate, we push for what we think is the right balance between security and privacy and we benefit from the data that flows as a result.”
They conclude: “An agreement reached without us would probably be too restrictive for our needs ... this could undermine our ability to protect ourselves.”
And fears are real. As the BBC has noted following the attacks in Brussels, campaigners on both sides of the Brexit debate have been making claims about whether the UK is safer in or out.
In particular, they’ve stressed the importance of border controls, intelligence sharing, and the role of European courts in Britain’s security. The BBC’s ‘Reality Check’ team has taken a closer look at the facts behind the claims.
The biggest issue for many campaigners is how much difference the EU’s rules on freedom of movement make to Britain’s ability to police its borders.
At the very start of the referendum campaign, Iain Duncan Smith claimed Britain’s “open border does not allow us to check and control people that may come”, and that made attacks like the ones in Paris in November 2015 more likely in the UK.
On the other side of the argument, David Omand, former director of Government Communications Headquaters, said: “We are part of an established information-sharing network with our partners whilst still retaining control of our border.”
So what are the facts? EU freedom of movement allows citizens of all the other 27 EU countries to travel freely to the UK, to visit, study or work.
There is a UK border, and everyone, including citizens of EU-member states, has to produce a passport to cross it. In practice, holders of EU passports are not routinely subjected to detailed checks. The UK is not a member of the Schengen area of borderless travel. Most EU countries are, as well as some non-EU countries like Switzerland and Norway.
Lack of internal border checks within Schengen has enabled terrorists – and their weapons – to move freely across continental EU, to execute attacks and to escape.
Being outside Schengen and being an island makes travel to Britain harder for potential attackers. But, as noted above, they are not likely to be subject to detailed checks when they try to cross into the UK if they hold an EU passport.
In the wake of the Paris November 2015 attacks, the EU renewed efforts to improve sharing of passenger name record data for flights and there were also calls for the establishment of an EU-wide intelligence service.
According to the most recent opinion poll in the ‘London Independent’, the British public is split 50/50 on whether to leave the EU but a higher turnout among the Outers could tip the balance in favour of Brexit.
Given a straight choice, 50pc of people said Britain should leave and 50pc that it should remain. But when the findings were weighted to take account of people’s likelihood to vote, the result changed to 51pc for Leave and 49pc for Remain.
The online survey of 2,000 people suggests US President Barack Obama’s intervention in the debate has not been the game-changer the ‘In’ camp was hoping for. Although 23pc said his support for the UK remaining in the EU had made it more likely they would vote to stay in, 66pc said it had not. And 45pc said they had felt more inclined to vote to leave in the past seven days, while 43pc were more inclined to support remaining.
Although Britain is split down the middle on the In/Out question, a majority of people (51pc) believe the country will vote to remain in the June referendum, while only 17pc think it will vote to quit the EU.
One in three people (33pc) replied “don’t know” or said the result is too close to call.
The belief that the referendum will produce an ‘In’ vote may be a mixed blessing for the ‘In’ campaign. It could breed complacency and lead to some “soft” supporters of EU membership not bothering to vote.