Is Paris a Brussels problem? The EU's role in preventing attacks by radicals

By: Björn Fägersten, Roderick Parkes and Mark Rhinard

2015-01-23 |

In the aftermath of the deadly attacks in Paris, finger pointing is now well underway and increasingly in the direction of the European Union. Was there something the EU could have done? And does the EU hold part of the solution for avoiding future tragedies?

For an organisation that prides itself on having common internal security rules, multiple intelligence-sharing fora, and improved border security, the EU certainly has much to answer for.

Here's what we know: security services across Europe expected the kind of attack mounted by Islamist extremists on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and in a Kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this month (January 2015). Separately, but with interconnections, a growing concern for most security services is the threat from 'returning fighters' - radicalised European citizens who have fought in regional conflicts abroad, now moving back to Europe. The EU is implicated here because of its role in governing the internal market, coordinating some internal security issues, enhancing external border protection and forging intelligence cooperation.

The Paris attacks highlight two specific - but highly varying - roles for the EU:

Border security

The first is the EU's role in external border control, which is a fairly strong competence when compared to other aspects of Europe's internal security. Here the EU could do much to prevent the kinds of radicalised fighters returning to Europe from ideologically-motivated conflicts (most recently, but not only, from Syria). It already links databases and requires standardized information-sharing about travellers crossing the EU's frontier. And it encourages, with some success but with more work to be done, information-sharing between intelligence services about which of those travellers might present a security threat. 

But it is precisely this interface between intelligence cooperation and border control that causes problems. National security services are reluctant to share their information with police forces in general and EU databases in particular, pointing to concerns about possible leaks and operational interference. Meanwhile, privacy advocates are loath to see EU databases used for indiscriminate surveillance. Rather than resorting to the formal EU channels, therefore, intelligence services use direct ties with national border services to get things done. While expedient, this opens up cracks through which new security threats may slip. The fact that national intelligence officials have not agreed on when potentially dangerous individuals should be intercepted - when leaving Europe or when returning - does not make agreement any easier.

Social integration

The EU's second role involves dealing with radicalised fighters who are EU citizens and touches upon social integration rather than immigration. The EU's role here is expressly limited by governments. There are a few advisory groups, expert networks, and official discussion fora, but the EU's role in managing radicalisation within its borders is more talk than action. Whether the EU should do more is up for debate. Some argue that the EU should do more than encourage 'lesson learning' and instead sponsor training, pay for programs, and set common standards. But the solution for radicalisation is complex and poorly understood. Rushing to judgement and employing one-size-fits-all solutions is likely to do more harm than good. 

Next steps

In short, the EU can do more to assist with border security, but member states must first decide on general strategies - such as when to retain suspects and when and how to share intelligence (the 'sharing triggers,' in the intelligence-community lingo). There are key preconditions before this can take place. One precondition is operational: to ensure that EU intelligence-sharing schemes are both dependable and trusted. That takes time, as the successes and failures of crisis driven intelligence sharing after September 11 and the 2004 Madrid bombings show.

Another precondition is political: further steps cannot be taken by executives and intelligence services alone. National parliaments need to be convinced that the proper privacy and personal integrity protection safeguards are in place. Regarding radicalisation, concrete steps must await a deeper understanding of the problem before cooperative solutions will make sense. For that reason, the limits placed on the EU may actually be helpful in preventing a rush to act.

Mark Rhinard is Senior Research Fellow and head of the Europe Research Program at UI. Björn Fägersten and Roderick Parkes are Research Fellows in the Europe Research Programme. 


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