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What future for the EU in counterterrorism?

17 September 2009

Tomas Rosander, Ambassador and Counterterrorism Coordinator, Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that as counterterrorism policy has moved beyond being a “war on terror”; the way is open for enhanced international cooperation.

The EU has an array of counterterrorism initiatives, but these need to be implemented properly and better coordinated, and the EU should focus on areas where it can make a concrete difference.

“Transparency is a Swedish passion,” said the Ambassador, and the Swedes want EU operations to be more open as this will calm citizens’ suspicions and reduce their feelings of alienation. The EU’s approach to counterterrorism must respect human rights, international standards and the rule of law. 

Gilles de Kerchove, EU Counterterrorism Coordinator, Council of the European Union, said the EU’s role is to support the Member States’ national security programmes. The current strategy seems to be working, partly reflected in the fact that there have not been any terrorist attacks on EU soil since 2005.

The nature of terrorist threats has evolved since 9/11 from being coordinated by a single organisation (Al-Qaeda) to a more diversified, subtle structure, and this poses the risk that fragile or failed states (e.g. Sudan or Mali) could become safe havens for terrorists or foster “home-grown terrorism”.

“Recent Eurobarometer polls show that EU citizens want ‘Europe’ to do more in the fight against terrorism”, said Mr de Kerchove. The current EU strategy does not need revising but should be implemented better: in terms of the four pillars of Counterterrorism Strategy, more has been achieved in relation to ‘pursuing’ terrorists and ‘protecting’ the civilian population than to ‘preventing’ and ‘responding’ to threats.

Mr de Kerchove said there must be a proper legal framework plus a vision and strategy on data sharing, which takes into account how much surveillance each country is prepared to accept. The EU should increase its assistance to third countries (like Pakistan or Yemen) from its current contribution of €1.5 million to help strengthen their capacity; one possibility is to mobilise development assistance, and pilot exercises are underway in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa.

Member States must do more to combat “home-grown terrorism” without stigmatising one culture or religion and they must build better relations between the intelligence community and the private sector - too often, countries fail to develop national counterterrorism strategies, allowing industry and technology to steer them forward.

If the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, it will speed the pace of the EU’s decision-making process and involve the European Parliament more actively. The new post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the planned European External Action Service would improve states’ ability to face territorial threats and integrate civil protection and defence policies better.

Turning to EU and US cooperation on counterterrorism, Mr de Kerchove said that in the past, the Bush administration had preferred to make bilateral agreements with Member States, and its paradigm of the ‘global war on terrorism’ had muddied EU-US relations. There is now a new approach, and this autumn there will be a ‘Washington Declaration’ on a shared set of legal principles on counterterrorism and data protection.

Gregory F. Treverton, Senior Policy Analyst and Professor, RAND Corporation, said that to improve US-EU cooperation on counterterrorism, the US first needs to integrate its law enforcement and intelligence cultures, and use this as the basis for EU-US cooperation. The recent trial and conviction of three UK citizens who planned to blow up aircraft demonstrated the benefits of Anglo-American cooperation in sharing security intelligence.

Professor Treverton said that most security activities take place “at the edges of the EU”, as Member States have the primary responsibility for national security. He believed the EU is likely to take a larger role in counterterrorism in the future, arguing that the current paradigm of geographical jurisdiction to guide policing must be expanded beyond national borders.

He noted the differences between how the US and the EU view and react to threats, and felt this would continue: EU countries treat threats as domestic, while the US authorities perceive them as coming from abroad; US prosecutors want terrorists tried in military courts, whereas EU prosecutors want to use criminal courts. Despite these differences, conviction rates for terrorism are about equal: since 9/11, 90 people have been convicted in the US and 50 people in the EU.

Jiri S Sedivy, Assistant Secretary General for defence and planning at NATO, said responding to terrorist threats, using an approach based on United Nations principles and international law, has been a NATO priority since 9/11.

NATO works on six fronts:

  • consulting with its 28 allies and 24 partners on the nature of threats;
  • sharing information and intelligence to reach a common understanding of regional threats;
  • planning counterterrorism operations, including high-level events such as the Olympic games;
  • ‘consequence management’ with the allies and partners, including on nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) threats;
  • adopting advanced technology to improve military and non-military, hybrid capacities;
  • developing frameworks for partnership in different regions – for example, in the Mediterranean area.

NATO wants to strengthen its cooperation with the United Nations and the EU, and while NATO-EU cooperation has been enhanced, it falls short of its potential and expectations, and relations have become more difficult since the EU’s 2004 enlargement as two of the new EU Member States do not have relations with NATO. Current relations consist of informal information-sharing between staff, but more could be done to exchange information about strategies and NBC issues, as the lack of any plans to coordinate activities in the face of threats in Europe is alarming and “unacceptable”.

One measure would be to set up more regular high-level talks, said Mr Sedivy. For example, Mr de Kerchove could brief NATO regularly along with relevant committees. However, plans are currently on hold because of a “political blockage”.

Christopher Dickey, Newsweek’s Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor, said using military means to fight terrorism was “probably the worst way”.

Some of NATO’s efforts might be counterproductive, as someterrorists say they are driven by anger at “occupations” such as of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, and NATO has become involved in “an occupation of Afghanistan”. Mr Dickey insisted that it is the occupation of Muslim countries by the West - not the fact that they are under-developed - that engenders terrorism, so supplying aid and helping to foster development cannot be the sole means to eradicate it.

He believed that countries are prepared to “trade” – rather than “share” - intelligence in their fight against terrorism, as police forces in one country are loath to hand over their files to police in another country unless they get something back in return. The EU should focus its efforts on building a framework in which to share intelligence.

All 27 EU Member States are unlikely to be equally concerned to fight terrorism, he said, as terrorist threats are higher in some Member States that in others. He believed that sometimes countries send under-cover agents to investigate terrorist cells in neighbouring countries, and this is not something the EU can legislate against. Instead, it should focus on areas where it can have influence, such as boosting communications in cross-border finance or in facilitating forums for trading intelligence.

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