The Urgent Need to Prove the European Union Relevant on Counterterrorism

As they did after the Paris attacks in November 2015, EU interior ministers met last week for an emergency discussion in Brussels in the aftermath of two attacks committed last Tuesday in the Belgian capital. These attacks demonstrate that the threat of terrorism is likely to remain consistent for the near future in Europe. Their modus operandi, and the background of the terrorists involved, are all indications of a transnational threat, requiring common responses at the European level to complement EU member states’ national counterterrorism policies. At a time when Europeans increasingly doubt the ability of the European Union to address shared challenges, ensuring such stronger EU contribution is urgent for both security and political purposes.

The frontier between the internal and external dimensions of the threat has essentially disappeared. About 5,000 EU citizens have travelled to Iraq and Syria as foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). Many of them have already returned or will do so. Their EU citizenship makes it extremely difficult to track their movements within and outside of the Union. As illustrated by a March 1 report of the EU counterterrorism coordinator, this situation requires better coordination of member states’ policies, first within the Union, second at its external borders, and third outside of the Union either for cooperation with third states or for intensifying the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Although security responses are only part of the larger counter-violent extremism equation, this commentary focuses on the European Union’s counterterrorism (CT) approach.

First, coordination within the European Union represents a large part of the agenda discussed once again in Brussels. Although insufficient, some steps have been taken. A good example is the creation after the November attacks in Paris of Europol’s Joint Task Force Fraternité, which is providing assistance and enabling information sharing across European agencies on the ongoing investigation carried on by the French government. About 20 Europol officers are currently working to support the task force, the work of which may be partially reoriented by the establishment of possible connections between the Brussels and Paris attacks.

But this has more to do with cooperating after an attack than with preventing them in the first place. Beyond issues like firearms control and countering the financing of terrorism, which are critical pieces of the EU strategy, information sharing, connectivity, and interoperability could make a strong contribution to EU CT efforts but require attention. The proliferation of databases needs to be rationalized so that all the relevant information is available to border authorities and law enforcement officials.

Currently there are at least three different databases with important information, not all of which are accessible to the officials who need it. Among other examples, the Council of the European Union called in November 2015 to “enable Europol to systematically cross-check the Europol databases against Schengen Information System II” (SIS II is a database of information collected under the Schengen framework for passport-free travel among 26 European countries). Such cross-checks should also be made possible with other EU databases containing visas or fingerprint data. But legal and technical restrictions complicate coordination significantly. And for member states to benefit from such coordination requires that all of them be technically connected to those different databases, which still isn’t the case for a minority of them.

Another interesting example relates to information sharing on FTFs. Joint databases on FTFs can make a strong contribution to national and European agencies involved in counterterrorism activities. The Europol Information System (EIS), accessible to all member states, contains information on persons linked to organized crime, terrorism, and other criminal offenses. While in 2014, only 14 FTFs were reported by member states to the EIS, 1,473 FTFs had been so at the end of January 2016. Another Europol database, “Focal Points Travelers,” has a larger number of FTFs registered—about 2,800—but only five member states account for 90 percent of the names provided. The EU CT coordinator explains, “this is a strong increase, but it still does not reflect the full extent of the threat.” More concerning is the fact that not all FTFs are systematically entered into the Schengen Information System II database, which in itself hasn’t been constructed to search for specific terrorism-related information entered by member states into the system.

Meanwhile, frustration about the slow movement to adoption of a directive establishing an EU passenger name record (PNR) framework is mounting in several European capitals. The directive would oblige air carries to provide member states with PNR data for all flights crossing EU external borders and give member states the authority to collect and share PNR data for internal EU flights also, if they choose to do so. EU interior ministers adopted a draft PNR directive in December 2015, and it is now expected that the European Parliament could vote on the proposal in April, after successive delays related to civil liberties concerns that have been addressed. Although it seems for now that the individuals involved in the Brussels attacks may not have flown very recently, the PNR directive would nonetheless provide member states with valuable information, which could be checked with national CT databases.

Second, external border controls constitute another significant challenge, one that is intertwined with the migration crisis and the information sharing and connectivity issues discussed above. The issue is obviously highly political and sensitive, as populist forces are keen to underline the links between the migration and the terrorism crises to delegitimize the hosting of refugees in the Union. In fact, those links are limited to cases in which EU FTFs could get back into the Schengen area with fake passports, as some participants to the Paris attacks seem to have done in 2015. While the agreement reached recently between the European Union and Turkey may help to mitigate the concern, one should not assume that the deal will solve it entirely. By theoretically moving the checks of migrants to Turkey rather than in the European Union itself, it makes EU-Turkish cooperation a critical piece of the Union’s ability to better control its borders, including from a CT standpoint.

EU ministers have already agreed at the end of February to introduce systemic checks against relevant databases at external land, sea, and air borders for EU citizens. To that purpose, member states have agreed to establish electronic connections to Interpol databases on all their external border crossings, as well as to grant Europol and Frontex support teams access to those databases. Frontex, the EU agency in charge of supporting member states in their mission to control the Union’s external borders, is neither part of the Europol Information System nor of the Schengen Information System II. It has therefore no direct access to these databases, which it can only access through member states’ Europol national units.

This challenge is made even more complex in cases where such control is taking place at EU so-called hotspots, created to handle the migration crisis in countries like Italy and Greece. Significant progress has already been made in Italy, where 87 percent of migrants disembarking in Italian hotspots had their fingerprints registered, transmitted, and checked against the Eurodac database (Eurodac is an EU Commission database created in 2003 to collect fingerprints of asylum seekers and illegal migrants). However, the situation remains more problematic in Greece, where security and fingerprint checks remain incomplete—and most migrants arriving in Europe in the past six months have come through Greece and not through Italy as at earlier stages of the crisis. Ad hoc cooperation has been put in place with the deployment of task forces containing Europol, Frontex, and member states’ personnel in both Italy and Greece to support national processing of arrivals at hotspots. But such initiatives need to tread carefully to take into account national sensitivities, and ad hoc frameworks are less than institutional ones.

Another example where enhanced European cooperation appears necessary concerns forged identity documents. According to the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, interviewed by French radio after the Brussels attacks, the Islamic State has thousands of fake passports that it can allocate to returning FTFs. According to Mr. Cazeneuve, this situation requires the creation of a European task force capable of deploying forged-document experts at hotspots in order to better identify forged documents and to process more intrusive checks on individuals that travel with them.

Last but not least, the ongoing terrorist campaign in Europe will not stop until the international community is able to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, both to deprive it of its “command and control” capacity and of the FTFs it attracts and uses against Europe. France invoked the Article 42.7 collective defense clause of the European treaties to request enhanced participation by its European partners in the military campaign against the Islamic State. It has resulted in additional contributions by significant players like Germany. France’s request remains today more relevant than ever after the Brussels attacks.

Action at the EU level is only one side of the story. National efforts, as well as bilateral coordination such as between France and Belgium, remain the basis of EU member states’ counterterrorism policies. Intelligence sharing will always be easier on a bilateral basis, and it is fair to say that intelligence capabilities and contributions are highly variable across the Union. The idea of a European intelligence agency is therefore attractive but ill-advised in the current circumstances. Europeans’ energy, resources, and political capital should be focused on realistic and pragmatic improvements—including legal ones as necessary—to the European Union’s current framework.

The more Europeans can demonstrate that the Union is making an efficient contribution to confront what is arguably the most direct and severe threat to the security of EU citizens, the more this will help to mitigate the political risks created by the latest series of terrorist attacks in terms of populism, antimigrant attacks, and euroskepticism.

Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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