Paddy Ashdown: 'Brexit Would Help Those Who Seek to Undermine U.K. Security'

UK is stronger staying in Europe
Belgian flags seen at a street memorial service near the old stock exchange in Brussels following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2016. Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Nobody viewing the tragic scenes in Brussels on Tuesday can fail to be moved to tears by what has unfolded. No matter how many times bombings and shootings take place on our TV screens, the uncompromising images of violence, terror and confusion shock us all to the core. When confronted with such horrors in person, human beings have two default responses: fight or flight.

The same is true for Britain as a nation. Do we work together with our allies to confront terror, or cut ourselves off and vainly try to ignore the world around us?

My answer is clear. This, more than ever, is the time to stand with our friends in Belgium and across Europe. We must not allow the butchers of ISIS to divide us, and we must give short shrift, too, to those who want to use these attacks to divide our societies. This is no time for division. It is a time to understand why as Europeans we should stand together with our friends in Belgium in their suffering and resist both the racists and extremists of jihad, and the racists and extremists in our midst in their attempts to divide us. Our unity in Europe makes us safer, not weaker. Our solidarity is our best defense. Our pan-European institutions provide us with the means to diminish these threats; they do not, as some foolishly claim, make them worse.

The chorus of voices making it clear that the EU makes our country's ability to fight the threat of terrorism stronger—and that leaving would make us less secure—has been loud indeed. It includes the current home secretary and the vast bulk of her predecessors, the former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, senior diplomats and army officers, and the serving director of Europol. They are unambiguous, as I am, that quitting Europe would weaken and divide the West. This could only serve the ambitions of those who seek to undermine our security, from terror networks in Brussels to President Putin in Moscow. The need for Europeans to stand together and work together will be even greater if, as seems possible now, Donald Trump ends up in the White House.

Being part of Europe, as I have seen myself, gives Britain a greater voice at the international table. With the greatest foreign policy reach in Europe, backed by expert intelligence services, we enjoy huge clout in the making of European foreign and security policy. When the world's leaders come together to decide how to tackle these threats, our position in the EU gives the U.K. a seat at the top table.

Brussels is not so far away that terror attacks there will not unnerve ordinary citizens on the streets of London and our other great cities. While there is no such thing as absolute security, they should be heartened by two things. Firstly, the immense effectiveness in counter-terrorism of our police and security services, honed over decades of bomb attacks by the IRA. And secondly, by the immensely beneficial anti-terrorist cooperation that takes place under the auspices of the EU.

Europol coordinates and encourages joint operations by European police forces, with Eurojust performing the same function for prosecutors. EU systems like PNR and the Prüm Convention, to which Britain recently opted in, allow our security services to access data quickly and simply on airline passengers, vehicle registration, DNA and fingerprints. And the European Arrest Warrant provides the means for terrorist suspects to be brought to Britain from other EU countries to face trial for crimes committed here, and vice versa.

Of course, none of this will defeat terrorism. Having served in Northern Ireland during my military career and worked with the EU to create a sustainable peace in Bosnia, Europe's largest and oldest Muslim community, I know that terrorism cannot simply be managed out of existence—its root causes, often political in nature, need dealing with. We need to demonstrate every day that the values of liberal democracy and pluralism are better than their alternatives. As Rabindranath Tagore so beautifully put it, "We are all the more one, because we are many."

But the terrorist threat still requires fighting. Britain's ability to do so would be severely compromised if we cut ourselves off from Europe. Besides, what sort of country would we be to abandon our allies in their time of need and suffering? Doing so would be against everything Britain has stood for in our long history—everything that has made us great in the past. Now more than ever, the nations of Europe need to stand together, both in practical security measures and in our values. That is why we must vote to remain in Europe on June 23rd.

Paddy Ashdown is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, former U.N. High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a political champion of Britain Stronger In Europe.