What has the European Union done to keep us safe from terror?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Gilles De Kerchove
Gilles De Kerchove

Counter-Terrorism Coordinator at the Council of the European Union

There has been a sea change in the European Union’s counter-terrorism (CT) policy over the past few years. Security and counter-terrorism have become a political priority and now figure much more prominently on the EU’s agenda. CT has become a driver for European security integration.

In February 2015, EU heads of state or government adopted an ambitious statement on CT and identified three areas for priority EU Action: “Ensuring the security of citizens”, “Preventing radicalisation and safeguarding values” and “Cooperating with our international partners”. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker launched the ‘Security Union’ and appointed a Commissioner for the Security Union, Sir Julian King. Additionally, the European Parliament has strengthened its involvement in CT affairs by authoring the TERRO Committee report. Polls suggest that a large majority of EU citizens want the EU to do more on security.

While the threat of terrorism remains high, the EU and its individual member states have reduced vulnerabilities by strengthening the CT response. Although significant progress has been achieved, there still remain challenges to be addressed.

In recent years, the information sharing environment (information collection, sharing and analysis) has been a major focus. To start, feeding and use of EU databases has significantly increased. Member states are now sharing a lot of terrorism-related information via Europol and the Schengen Information System (SIS). They are also mobilising Europol and Eurojust more frequently to support CT investigations.

At Europol, the European Counter-Terrorism Centre was created to focus CT work and is supported by the organisation’s Internet Referral Unit that carries out internet-based investigations and flags online terrorist materials to the internet companies. Legislation was adopted on interoperability of EU databases, a major step forward to better connect the dots and avoid identity fraud.

The Commission has started to employ ‘soft’ policies … in hopes of preventing radicalisation

Another priority in the EU’s fight against terrorism was strengthening external border controls. The Schengen Borders Code was adapted to also ensure that EU citizens are systematically checked when crossing EU external borders. New tools such as the Passenger Name Record (PNR), which allows the identification of unknown suspects, the Entry-Exit-System, for third party nationals crossing EU external borders, and the travel authorisation system (ETIAS), which improve the information picture, were created to improve monitoring of persons into the EU. The use of biometric information has also seen more extensive use to supplement these new instruments. Existing systems, such as the SIS, are being strengthened in this effort.

The EU CT directive was updated to include information pertaining to crimes related to foreign terrorist fighters as a means of facilitating prosecutions. Similarly, Eurojust is putting in place a CT register to further improve information exchange. Legislation on firearms, explosives precursors and combating terrorist financing was strengthened. The Frontex mandate has been expanded to include CT related to border security while EU hotspots support Italy and Greece second line security checks of irregular migrants with Europol support.

Progress has also been made to prevent radicalisation. Given the massive online presence of Daesh and their use of this medium for radicalisation purposes, cooperation with the internet companies has been a priority. Notably, the EU Internet Forum was created to promote the removal of terrorist content and support counter-narratives by civil society. However, further progress needs to be made on automated detection. EU legislation on mandatory removal of flagged terrorist content within an hour, including the creation of an obligation for companies to take proactive measures, was proposed by the Commission.

The EU has also supported member states in developing rehabilitation programmes and risk assessment methodologies, both inside and outside of prison.

The Commission has started to employ ‘soft’ policies, such as education, youth sports and social affairs, in hopes of preventing radicalisation. These ‘soft’ approaches have manifested in initiatives like the launch of a ‘virtual Erasmus’ which allows students from the EU, North Africa, the Middle East and the Western Balkans to follow classes together remotely. The EU also provides support to local actors to invite role models to inspire youth.

We have only recently started to address ideology

The EU has now started to develop CT partnerships with priority third countries in the Neighbourhood, the Western Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. The MENA region and the Western Balkans have seen the implementation of the most developed collaborations to date. The EU’s partnerships – such as with Tunisia, Lebanon and Iraq – in this domain have established CT capacity building, cooperation and exchange of good practices aided by the involvement of the EU Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) agencies.

For the new Commission, it will be important to maintain a strong focus on security and defence. Interoperability of databases needs to be implemented and further systems, such as decentralised EU systems and customs, need to be connected. Furthermore, the use of biometric data needs to be further strengthened. EU agencies, in particular Europol, need to be further bolstered to support member states in CT investigations. These improvements require sufficient budget.

A major challenge will be to develop and implement an ambitious vision on mobilising disruptive technologies to a greater extent for security and justice while fully assessing the threats they might pose. Securing an adequate budget, as well as governance adapted to the fast-moving environment of new technologies, will be key to its success. This is necessary to achieve increased European autonomy in this field.

Such a vision would also contribute to improving information analysis. This step would make the best use of big data and identify the tipping point of those who might be close to committing terror attacks. The EU JHA agencies, in particular Europol, should become major hubs for new technologies that can support  Member States’ CT efforts. 

We have only recently started to address ideology. This is crucial as Islamist extremist and right-wing extremist ideologies feed off each other. The spread of Salafist extremist ideology is not only an issue with regard to radicalisation, but also a problem for society as a whole. Such a framework favours parallel societies, rejects democracy and the rule of law while often promoting hatred of the ‘other’ and illegal hate speech. Adding onto this the host of geopolitical implications, it becomes crucial for the EU to increase its understanding of the issues and be more proactive to address the spread of these ideologies.

The EU needs to address these aforementioned concerns while simultaneously increasing its CT partnerships with neighbouring countries. So, what comes next? Africa seems to be the new frontier of jihad. It is now up to the EU to increase its efforts on CT engagement there.


The opinions expressed in this preface are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Council of the European Union.

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