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How the European Union is making major strides fighting terrorism

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The Barcelona terrorist attacks have resulted in a range of commentary on the larger security role that Europe can and should play.

Yet many of the proposed solutions don’t take into account the reality of improving counter-terrorism efforts, while others are simply obsolete given recent advances in those efforts.

The fight against terrorism in Europe has traditionally been the responsibility of individual EU member states, with security understood as a strictly national prerogative. But the European Union as a whole is now a genuine actor in the field of transnational threats management.

Terrorism is a longstanding problem in Europe and thus a source of concern in all member states. Since 2001, more than 2,400 people have died in terrorist attacks in Europe, and a 2016 Europol report indicates that the number of people arrested for terrorism more than quintupled between 2011 and 2015.

Although the 2017 report shows a decrease in the number of attacks (226 in 2014, 211 in 2015, 142 in 2016), terrorism remains deadly, with 142 deaths last year.

This year has already has been another deadly one with the August attacks perpetrated in Spain — 16 people died and more than were 100 injured.

European efforts hardly visible but real

The role of the European Union in the fight against terrorism has increased over 15 years as attack after attack has taken place (New York in 2001, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005). Since the 2015 attacks in Paris, France’s role has also increased significantly.

The series of recent attacks — including Nice and Berlin in 2016, and Stockholm, London and now Spain in 2017 — have raised concerns among EU leaders on the importance of keeping security at the top of the EU’s agenda. But the efforts and advances that have been made, while often invisible to ordinary citizens, are notable.

In early 2016, the European agency specialized in police co-operation, Europol Europol inaugurated the European Counter Terrorism Center, which facilitates the exchange of intelligence and helps manage the European Bomb Data System (EBDS). That platform, which transmits information on incidents involving the use of explosives, has proven its relevancy with recent events.

In a sense, Europol is akin to a Swiss Army knife, providing a range of services.

In the event of an attack, its emergency response team (EMRT) becomes available to member states. Europol experts were deployed following the November 2015 Paris attacks and contributed to the investigation. Some were deployed directly on the ground, with the aim of providing rapid assistance.

From dearth of data to wealth of information

After Europol was created in 1995, it often suffered from a chronic lack of data. EU member states were reluctant to share sensitive information and would do so only bilaterally, bypassing Europol.

The situation began to improve in the late 2000s, and the 2015 Paris attacks led to a qualitative and quantitative leap. Europol’s 2016 progress report revealed that the agency now has the opposite problem — a wealth of data.

The report indicates a 20 per cent increase in the number of operational messages exchanged by 2014 and an increase of more than 60 per cent in the Europol Information System (EIS) database. The number of persons known to have been foreign combatants and registered in Europol’s database increased sixfold between 2015 and 2016.

The challenge is therefore to manage a massive amount of European information, widely fed and extensively consulted.

For example, a December 2016 European Commission report indicates that in 2015 the Schengen Information System was consulted 2.9 billion times by field services — a billion times more than in 2014.

The compartmentalization of this information is now the main issue, due to the existence of EU databases operating in silos.

Boosting coordination while protecting privacy

The renewed internal security strategy for the period of 2015-2020, endorsed in June 2015 by the 28 EU interior ministers, highlighted the importance of strengthening information sharing and accessibility through inter-operability of databases. A spring 2016 European Commission report identified current gaps and shortcomings. Since then, the EU has made great strides, and the 28 ministers of the interior recently agreed on two key projects:

  • The development of a European portal for simultaneous research in all national security systems;

  • The establishment of a common repository for identity data.

The goal is to create bridges between existing databases rather than interconnecting them directly. The latter would be not only a burdensome and expensive task, but also a delicate one from the point of view of data protection.

It’s not insignificant that in July, the European Court of Justice delivered its opinion on the EU-Canada PNR (Passenger Name Record) agreement, criticizing its lack of respect for individual privacy.

There is little doubt that the database inter-operability project move forward under the scrutiny of a judge to address privacy concerns and prevent the emergence of a European Big Brother in the field of anti-terrorism.

The inter-operability of EU member-state databases is the flagship effort in increasing EU security. The EU’s Schengen zone is an area where travellers can freely circulate and is often associated with insecurity. Yet it is the fragmentation and inaccessibility of security data that can actually paralyze the fight against terrorism.

The reform of the Schengen Information System was undertaken in this context. Among the measures envisaged is the introduction of a specific category of alerts, requiring systematic checks at the external borders for registered individuals. This draws on lessons from the mistakes made during police checks during the escape of terrorist Salah Abdeslam from France to Belgium after the November 2015 Paris attacks.

Working with national sensitivities

So what should we think of European counter-terrorism efforts? The EU’s July 2017 monthly report on the progress made towards a “security union” is interesting in several respects.

It positively assesses the recent efforts in the strengthening of internal security tools —such as the joint-investigation team (JITs) and European arrest warrant (EAW) — aimed at providing real added value to criminal investigators in transnational cases. It also highlights the importance of flexibility when responding to rapidly changing threats.

The EU prefers to adopt a “networked” approach, linking existing national bodies rather than multiplying rigid bureaucracies. While there’s debate about the possible creation of a European intelligence super-agency, the EU’s approach remains pragmatic: to conserve sovereignties and make the existing system work optimally.

European governance in the field of the fight against radicalization is an example. It brings together national officials responsible for the prevention of terrorism. The updated version of the anti-radicalization guidelines approved in June provides for a more frequent meeting of the network of national policy-makers.

This network complements the EU Internet Forum, designed to facilitate dialogue between the public and private sectors on the issue of online radicalization, or the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN). This “network of national experts networks” published a detailed study in July on the return of foreign fighters from the Middle East.

The network of member-state experts specializing in protecting vulnerable targets —transport, sport events, shopping centers, schools, etc. — is a further illustration of the EU’s pragmatic approach to counterterrorism. Those efforts resulted from a February workshop organized in the wake of the 2015 Thalys attack and the 2016 Brussels bombing. The EU’s work in an area that’s sensitive for the member states — the maintenance of public order in the fight against terrorism — have proven to be relevant, particularly after the attacks in Nice last year and in Spain this year.

State responsibility?

It should be pointed out that the difficulties encountered in the fight against terrorism in Europe are primarily the result of the attitudes of the EU member states themselves.

The report on progress towards a “Security Union” highlights the obstacles encountered by the EU for many years. Certain EU measures haven’t been completely put in place by member states, reducing their effectiveness — for example, EU legislation intended to better control explosives. Even though the European Commission has made funds available to cover delays attributed to the costs of implementing EU legislation, the money available is not always fully used by them.

Another example is the “Prüm project”, intended to facilitate the exchange of vehicle registration, fingerprint and DNA data.

But as long as EU member states remain deeply involved, the fight against terrorism is gaining effectiveness. Even now, Europe’s security situation is worlds beyond what it was just two years ago.

The ConversationPierre Berthelet does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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