France is blocking Britain’s attempt to remain part of a European Union security system that helps to identify foreign criminals and is designed to keep the public safe.
The government wants a guarantee that it can continue to access and share vital DNA, fingerprint and vehicle information with other European countries after Brexit.
Ministers have said that Britain’s participation in the so-called Prüm Convention is “clearly in the national interest”. The system allowed French and Belgian authorities to identify the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks in November 2015.
Britain has been rebuffed, however, with France leading the resistance at a recent meeting to its efforts to join a “Prüm 2”. A senior government figure said: “Normally France is quite helpful when it comes to security co-operation but on this they are being awkward.”
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The dispute is the latest sign that Theresa May is struggling to strike a post-Brexit security deal. As with the row over Britain’s participation in the Galileo satellite project, the European Commission insists on upholding rules that limit the sharing of sensitive information with third countries.
Britain’s refusal to subject itself to the oversight of the European Court of Justice presents another hurdle to sharing information. Initially Britain had been confident that its capabilities in law enforcement and intelligence would help to overcome “ideological” objections as other member states prioritised security. The disagreement over Prüm is the latest confrontation to undermine that belief. Although France is backing Britain’s demand for full access to the £14 billion Galileo system after Brexit, it is taking a tougher line on the DNA database than other European states.
Countries including Germany are said to be supporting Britain’s attempt to take part but France is insisting that the decision be referred to the European Commission.
Prüm is one of a number of EU crime-fighting tools, including the European Criminal Records Information Exchange System and the Schengen Information System (SIS), that Britain wants to continue to use.
British police disclosed that they had carried out 539 million checks on SIS last year and warned this month about being frozen out of the “critical” databases. Steve Smart, director of intelligence at the National Crime Agency, told a parliamentary hearing: “The impact of losing access to those datasets is that more bad people will get into the UK and it will be harder for us to find and deal with them.”
Richard Martin, deputy commissioner at the Metropolitan Police, added: “It is so important to have access to as much data as we can: to track people, to track property, to understand where the threat is. If we lose access to that database, in summary, that means we do not have as clear a picture as we have now.”
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As tensions over information-sharing after Brexit rise, Britain has found itself coming under attack for its contribution to existing systems. An internal European Union report on SIS, which has yet to be published, is said to criticise Britain’s “lackadaisical” use of the system, suggesting that it is not contributing as much intelligence as it should. British officials say that the report also criticises France and Sweden.
On Prüm there is also resentment that Britain is seeking to continue to access agreements that it had initially insisted it wanted to avoid. As home secretary, Mrs May kept Britain out of the data-sharing convention — first agreed in 2005 — saying that it was too costly. Britain formally joined months before the Brexit referendum.
Justifying the change of heart, James Brokenshire, the immigration minister at the time, said: “Giving our police access to the tools they need to rapidly and efficiently identify foreign criminals who have committed serious offences in the UK — and detecting crimes which may otherwise go unsolved — will help to keep the public safe and is clearly in the national interest.
“It currently takes an average of 143 days for a DNA match to be returned through the Interpol process, compared with just 15 minutes under Prüm. Matches for fingerprints and vehicle registration information will be returned within 24 hours and 10 seconds respectively.”
In a small-scale test of the system in 2015, British police checked 2,500 DNA samples from unsolved crimes and found 118 matches. The offences included rape, burglary and arson.
The Department for Exiting the EU refused to comment last night on Britain’s attempt to join Prüm. France also declined to comment officially.
However, a European diplomatic source close to the matter said: “This is difficult to believe. France was one of the member states which had asked the UK to opt in to the Prüm system in the past.
“The technicalities regarding the UK’s possible participation in the Prüm system are being discussed by the relevant technical groups, and there are no difficulties in principle.”
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Post-Brexit the French want to block UK from access to a criminal database: