November 28, 2016

European Union Responds to Wave of Terrorism

People look at the Flamme de lespoir (Flamme of Hope) artwork after officials unveiled the sculpture in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels in the Brussels district of Molenbeek on November 8, 2016.
People look at the Flamme de lespoir (Flamme of Hope) artwork after officials unveiled the sculpture in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels in the Brussels district of Molenbeek on November 8, 2016.

Cooperation opportunities between European Union countries have been increased and are waiting to be used.

The years 2015 and 2016 are likely to go down in recent European history as one of the most turbulent and tragic periods of the decade. Suffice to remember the following series of terrorist acts—Paris November 2015, Brussels March 2016, Nice 14 July 2016, Munich 22 July 2016. The threat that this grim list may be added to remains high and necessitates the development of domestic security cooperation to a new level. The erosion of European public security is reflected in the Eurostat data1 on recent years, giving reason to assume that ensuring security and law enforcement is regarded as one of the most important tasks of the European Union, currently in the throes of a migration crisis and economic stagnation.
In April 2015, the European Commission adopted an additional European Agenda on Security until 2020, which specifies challenges that focus on the prevention and early detection of radicalisation and more productive efforts to fight terrorism and transnational organised crime.2 In addition, it offers measures for a more extensive improvement of border management, which has so far been breaching under pressure from the migration crisis, so that the gateways of illegal movements would be as tight as possible. On 1 January 2016, the European Police Office (Europol) took a significant organisational step by launching the European Counter Terrorism Centre, which employs 25, has an annual budget of approximately two million euros and is designed to provide additional support for Member States to combat spreading radicalism, ensuring better coordination and a smoother cooperation between responsible institutions. The current situation and the steps taken demonstrate that the desired trans boundary efficiency has been thwarted by the clashing priorities and incompatible legal environments of Member States, as well as the maze of interdepartmental communication, which should also be the focus of efforts to find new solutions. The coming years will show whether the EU manages to make a substantial contribution to guarantee internal security and raise the sense of general safety.

Convergence of criminal legislations

Regardless of Brexit, most European Union Member States seem to believe that the current internal security slump should be taken as a vital lesson on the real need to improve cooperation.3 The legal basis for this trend was laid down with the amendments made to the Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force in December 2009 and, among other things, involved an agreement on the mutual recognition of judicial decisions made in criminal matters and the convergence (harmonisation) of legislations pertaining to criminal law, as necessary. Additionally, it stipulated that the European Union can adopt directives to establish minimum rules for defining criminal offences and sanctions in cases of particularly serious cross-border crime, depending on their nature, impact or a specific need to combat them on mutual grounds.
The EU can establish mutual definitions (elements of criminal offense) and minimum standards on sanctions for a number of types of transnational organised crime such as terrorism, human trafficking, sexual exploitation of women and children, illicit drug trafficking, illicit arms trafficking, money laundering, corruption, counterfeiting of means of payment, computer crime and organised crime.4 This list is not complete because on the basis of developments in crime, the same agreement allows the EU Council—with the European Parliament’s permission—to make a unanimous decision identifying other areas of crime that meet the criteria for serious organised crime with a cross-border dimension. Therefore, the primary legal basis has been created, establishing the procedure for synchronising the criminal legislation of Member States at the EU level, which should be developed further and with haste.
The advancement of the explained basis of the treaty involves processing a directive that lays down the EU’s common definitions for terrorist acts. This task is made more difficult by the need to find common definitions for terrorist activities, such as becoming what is known as a foreign fighter, training and travelling abroad for terrorism and encouraging or supporting radicalisation, while harmonising the criminal legislation of Member States. One can argue that there are also no common definitions for terms like “fundamentalism”, “anti-colonialism” among others, yet that does not stop us from using these markers in a way that is more or less understood by all. However, the latter must be strictly distinguished from the legal definition of terrorism, which would allow a transnational (criminal) investigation in joint work groups and the efficient administration of justice. Under normal conditions, such legal convergence would probably take decades, but the terrorist violence on the streets of Paris, Brussels and other European cities will hopefully act as a catalyst to a number of political debates and expedite the process of solving legal disputes in a shared framework of internal security and law enforcement.

Tightening external border checks

The migration crisis has made it clearer than ever that a territory without internal borders is only as safe as its external border. By the end of June 2016, an agreement was reached regarding the establishment of the European Border and Coast Guard. The objective of the reinforced agency and Frontex is to react quickly to large-scale emergencies on the border and direct standby reserves and technical equipment to critical sections of the border. The Entry/Exit System that is currently being implemented is also designed to tighten border control and should improve the mobility control of third-country nationals on the external borders of the EU as well as detect possible connections to terrorist networks or membership in other criminal organisations.5 This measure will hopefully alleviate the infiltration problem that, among other things, involves the use of asylum applications for illicit purposes.
In April, the European Parliament and the Justice and Home Affairs Council approved the passenger name record (EU PNR) directive that had been on the table for a while. The purpose of the hard-fought idea of exchanging booking information is to avoid logistic “data gaps” and overcome obstructions to communication when dealing with the early detection of the routes taken by terrorists, suspects in terrorism or persons supporting terrorism. It is known that the organisers of both the Paris and Brussels attacks had used air transport repeatedly before the incidents and should have caught the attention of security authorities had the communication been swift and watertight. A similar rapid information exchange should also be introduced in cooperation with logistics companies with regard to ship and train passengers, especially since these means of transport are often used for trafficking illegal explosives.
At the same time, the efficiency of the Schengen Border Code will also be reviewed along with developing the Schengen Information System (SIS), adding biometric functions such as automatic fingerprint identification among others. Besides identifying a person and their status, the improvements should also facilitate the detection of falsified documents. In 2015, the Schengen Information System received approximately three billion queries (50% increase compared to the same period in the previous year), which highlights the importance of its rapid development. In collaboration with Interpol, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and other EU agencies, the European Commission has also established common risk indicators for the detection and logistic evaluation of the routes of terrorist foreign fighters. Behind the new measures for tightening border control lies the urgent operational need for police and border guard officials to receive additional training and practice new cooperation skills, yet the latter is still hampered by language barriers.

Terrorist financing and arms control

Terrorist activities require funds, weapons and explosives. This February saw the adoption of an action plan6 that included urgent measures to further obstruct terrorist financing, which also extends sanctions related to illicit proceeds and possibilities for freezing assets in both the European Union as well as third countries. In addition to this, the European Commission devised a plan in early July of this year to establish stricter rules to combat money laundering with what is now the fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (AMLD). The latter stipulates that commercial banks are obliged to perform additional financial flow checks, especially in the 11 countries that are now on the list of countries of origin that require special attention. A common platform (FIU.NET) is being developed for the Member States’ financial intelligence and analysis units as a much-needed additional measure to speed up information exchange related to suspicious transactions, possible money laundering and terrorist financing.
One of the main objectives of the current review of the handling of firearms and explosives is to limit the availability of more powerful semi-automatic weapons on the civilian market and improve communication related to weapons registers between Member States. It is possible that we will witness stricter explosives checks in travel terminals, public events and other crowded places in the coming years. There is also a general need to improve the efficiency of customs inspections and extend the powers of customs services in anti-terrorist activities.

Early detection of radicalisation

The prevention and early detection of radicalisation is one of the trickier facets of counter-terrorism. Different government institutions are keeping tabs on around 15,000 individuals estimated to be under the influence of radical Islam in France alone. Discussions have led to some courses of action where cooperation at the EU level could provide Member States with supportive options in this question.7 Besides long-term approaches via educational administrations and other culturally inclusive measures, the necessity to flag and counter online hate speech and terrorist propaganda is also stressed. This essentially means daily cross-sectoral cooperation to discover and remove websites that incite violence. Today, Europol is supported by the EU Internet Referral Unit that was launched as a special measure in July 2015 and has since then assessed over 11,000 pieces of material online and made over 9,000 special referrals, including over 90 per cent of cases in which the flagged material was removed from the internet voluntarily.
The EU level also finds it necessary to implement de-radicalisation programmes in prisons, which received approximately eight million euros for this purpose in both 2015 and 2016. The Centre of Excellence within the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) serves as an even more specialised measure and will utilise about 25 million euros in the next four years, focusing mainly on the Middle East, North Africa, the western Balkans and Turkey. Approximately 400 million euros of the funds for the education programme Erasmus+ should also serve the purpose of increasing inclusion and tolerance, and the additional 13 million euros allocated in March 2016, of spreading the word about this year’s most successful experiences. In relation to this, one must acknowledge the importance of including grass-roots level local governments and civil society organisations in the timely detection of radicalisation and proactive intervention. These have received little to no attention so far.

The external dimension and inter-agency cooperation

The migration crisis brought the close relationship between internal and external security back into focus, which is why experts in counter-terrorism are now being deployed in EU external delegations in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey as well as Chad and the western Balkans. Ensuring constant communication and cooperation between EU internal security agencies and the foreign service is essential for detecting radicalisation in the countries of origin and any possible extremist influx to Europe. This is a significant development in securing the external dimension of the internal security of the European Union. Including counter-terrorism cooperation in EU external cooperation measures and the improved monitoring of the use of foreign aid funds should also become an accepted logic of action.
The expansion of the existing Prüm framework (Schengen III agreement) provides a significant opportunity to compare data on DNA profiles, fingerprints and registration information of means of transport, serving as an additional measure for boosting cross-border information exchange. In addition to improving cooperation capacity between EU Member States, more effective use of global Interpol resources is also of vital importance. With this in mind, the European Commission has announced the establishment of the High Level Expert Group on Information Systems and Interoperability with EU Agencies that will assess legal, technological and operational factors for overcoming the current fragmentation of the cooperation and the better harmonisation of information systems currently in use.

Back to information exchange

The importance of trustworthy communication runs through all cooperation measures designed to improve internal security like a sensitive nervous system. Reinforcement of the aforementioned European Counter Terrorism Centre would require an increase in vital analytic capacities as well as the development of operative planning capacity, especially the planning of joint operations and the coordination of respective intelligence through the Intelligence and Situation Centre (IntCen). All this also adds the need for EU level analysis centres to access digital evidence collected by Member States for areas of cooperation. In addition to a number of new legal and technological challenges, the latter also triggers another wave of discussions on data protection. As a result, European success in ensuring internal security and good legal protection depends on the confidence that can either be increased or, sadly, decreased by implementing specific cooperation projects.
And on a final note, the private sector, security practitioners and academic community can hopefully rejoice in the opportunities offered by the Horizon 2020 Secure Societies study and innovation programme that distributed approximately 200 million euros between different projects last year, and which should help to fill the gaps in European internal security with fresh ideas and study-based knowledge. The potential here is evident.
1 See Eurostat data by typing the keyword “security” in an analytic search. The data presented in this article mainly comes from materials published by EU institutions in public sources, including the overview Implementation of the European Agenda on Security (2016) Brussels: European Commission.
2 Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – The European Agenda on Security. COM/2015/185 final.
3 Also on this topic: R. Loik, Kuidas peatada terrorismi? [How to Stop Terrorism?] – Postimees, 31.03.2016.
4 Consolidated versions of the Treaty on the European Union and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2010/C 83/01) Article 83 (1).
5 The respective proposals are scheduled to be adopted by the end of this year, so the system is estimated to become operational by the beginning of 2020.
6 Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on an Action Plan for Strengthening the Fight Against Terrorist Financing. COM/2016/050 final.
7 See Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – Supporting the Prevention of Radicalisation Leading to Violent Extremism. COM/2016/379 final.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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