The challenges of EU counter-terrorism cooperation


Picture of Sajjan Gohel
Sajjan Gohel

Sajjan Gohel is International Security Director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, Senior Advisor to the multilateral Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Combating Terrorism Working Group and a Visiting Teacher in the International History Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

The mass-casualty attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016, as well as the plethora of self-starter plots uncovered in countries like Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom over the last few years, have highlighted the extent of the terrorist threat across Europe.

Terrorism has illustrated that it is borderless, and the cooperation between the European Union’s 28 member nations has to seamlessly confront that reality. But the EU’s counter-terrorism strategy has not reached its full potential and significant challenges still remain despite the great steps taken since 2002.

The EU first established a mutually-agreed definition of terrorism in 2002. This was a significant moment in cooperation as up to that moment only five member states – the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy – had detailed legislation on terrorism. As the threats evolved, the EU updated its list of terrorism-related offences to include public provocation, recruitment and training for terrorism.

Another step forward was the EU’s current counter-terrorism policy, agreed in November 2005. It has four principal aims, to be achieved by cooperation on both domestic and international levels. These include preventing the radicalisation of individuals, protecting the public from attacks, pursuing terrorists within the EU and, finally, responding to terrorist attacks whenever they occur.

Another important element has been the European Arrest Warrant, which was introduced in 2002 but has been operational only since January 2007. Under the previous extradition procedure, the process could last more than a year. Now the average length is between 16 and 48 days

But the words of the EU and its member states are often not matched with action

The procedure is better at extraditing suspected terrorists such as Salah Abdeslam, accused of plotting the November 2015 attacks in Paris. During the attack, Abdeslam fled to Belgium. He was eventually captured by police on 18 March 2016 and extradited to France within six weeks.

But the words of the EU and its member states are often not matched with action. This is largely illustrated by the unwillingness of member states to share intelligence and exchange information on security issues within the EU framework, including through institutions such as Europol. Instead, some nations opt for bilateral agreements to share intelligence outside EU structures.

The G6 group – an unofficial group of interior ministers from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Poland – works closely together and shares information due to its dissatisfaction with the workings of the Justice and Home Affairs Council.

Although Europol, which doesn’t have powers of arrest, has attained significant support from member states to facilitate the exchange of information, its operational role is limited. This, in turn, results in a restricted role and less influence for the EU institutions.

In 2014, Europol launched the Focal Point Travellers scheme, which is designed to hold information about individuals suspected of traveling across borders to participate in terrorist activities. The intention was to help European countries by collecting, analysing and sharing information on the recruitment and movements of outgoing and returning terrorists. But Europol never received across-the-board support, with only half of the EU’s 28 members registering their respective nationals on the Europol Information System database by the day of the Paris attacks.

Another problem has been that Europol principally interacts with national and federal police forces rather than intelligence agencies. This restricts access to potentially significant information. To try to mitigate this, in 2016 Europol announced the formation of the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) to combat terrorism in Europe, act as a central information hub and boost cooperation. Its success will take time to judge and assess.

The Schengen Agreement preserves the principle of no checks on internal borders across 26 countries, 22 of which are within the EU. However, if ever there is a serious threat to internal security, such as the one resulting from the November 2015 Paris attacks, internal border controls can be temporarily re-introduced for a limited period of time. Two of the suicide bombers behind the Stade de France attack used the migrant route from Turkey, Greece and the Balkans and continued across western Europe to orchestrate the attack. Both had falsified Syrian passports. Several of the individuals involved in the Brussels attacks on 22 March 2016 had also travelled across Europe using the migrant trail.

To achieve practical cooperation, the EU should assist and coordinate national efforts

The threat of foreign terrorist fighters, either as returnees or from countries outside the EU, makes in-depth real-time exchange of information on individuals entering and leaving the Schengen zone essential. Frontex, the European border agency, is responsible for the supervision of operational cooperation on EU member states’ external borders. Although Frontex is not a counter-terrorism organisation, it needs to become an information provider and exchange intelligence with other EU agencies and national authorities.

In April 2016 the European Parliament and the Council adopted the European Air Passenger Name Record proposal, which had been under discussion since 2011. It will allow EU agencies and national law enforcement authorities to identify individuals whose methods of travel are unusual and unconventional, and to monitor their itineraries and contacts should they be suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.

Achievement of the EU’s counter-terrorism goals is beset by slow bureaucratic progress and tends to only take a degree of momentum in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Because of the reluctance of member states to transfer sovereignty to the EU’s supranational institutions, and factoring in Brexit, a more effective and practical response could be achieved by continuing national policies, with bilateral agreements on information-sharing.

To achieve practical cooperation, the EU should assist and coordinate national efforts − not to replace them.

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