Foreign Policy Essay

When a Disunited Europe Meets Transnational Terrorism

By Marc Hecker
Sunday, February 7, 2016, 10:39 AM

Editor's Note: The 2015 Islamic State attacks in Paris highlighted not only the terrorist threat to Europe, but also the many European failings in intelligence and border security. Marc Hecker of the French Institute for International Relations identifies the wide range of problems Europe faces and the need for more resources, more harmonization, and less free riding.

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I recently traveled to Amsterdam from Paris. The easiest way to get there is to take the train: in three hours, the “Thalys” train passes through France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In August 2015, a terrorist attack targeting that train was thwarted by passengers overpowering the perpetrator.

Following this incident, and the November attacks in Paris, the French government announced its decision to establish security gates at the Gare du Nord, the station from which the Thalys train leaves, adding metal detectors and baggage screening. On the trip back to Paris from Amsterdam, however, there was almost no security at the train station. Only after two hours into the journey did three French policemen patrol through the train to check travelers’ IDs. After arriving in Paris, French police conducted a second security check.

This anecdote illustrates the discrepancies between European security mechanisms, even though Europe is now facing a common terrorist threat of unprecedented magnitude, including the threat of returning foreign fighters. In April 2015, the European Commissioner for Justice announced that more than 5,000 EU citizens had joined jihadist organizations in Syria and in Iraq. While French nationals constitute the highest contingent among them – more than 1,000 have undertaken the journey and approximately 600 are currently in Syria and in Iraq (of whom one third are women) – other European countries are also highly affected. 760 Germans, more than 700 Britons, 550 Belgians, more than 300 Austrians, more than 200 Dutch have traveled to the “land of Sham.” Not all of them represent a menace for the security of European citizens; however, the shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014 and the Paris attacks in November 2015 have proven that the danger is real.

Europe is facing a unique threat, and it seems logical that the response should be European. After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the Italian Prime minister Matteo Renzi called for the establishment of a “European CIA.” It is unlikely that this prospect will become a reality anytime soon, as an intelligence agency is a sovereign attribute carried out by a sovereign state, and the European Union is not a sovereign state. However, this does not mean that Europe is irrelevant with regards to counter-terrorism. During the past fifteen years, a series of concrete measures have been undertaken, such as the establishment of Eurojust (an EU body dedicated to judicial cooperation), the implementation of a European arrest warrant, the possibility of deploying joint investigation teams, and the reinforcement of the Schengen Information System. Other projects, such as the EU Passenger Name Record, should soon materialize.

Not all of [European fighters in Syria and Iraq] represent a menace for the security of European citizens; however, the shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014 and the Paris attacks in November 2015 have proven that the danger is real.

The European treaties are very clear on the division of competences on security issues. The second paragraph of Article 4 of the Treaty on European Union states that, “national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State.” In other words, the different Member States must first and foremost rely on themselves, and not on the EU, to prevent and fight terrorism. They must realize the scale of the threat and increase their own investments in security. Still, for the past twenty years, defense and security budgets of most European countries have been significantly reduced. For instance, Italy – a country that is close to Libya and that is often targeted by ISIS propagandaspends less than 1 percent of its GDP on defense and spending continued to decline in 2015. The budget of the Belgian Ministry of Defense has also been drastically cut and is disproportionately devoted to personnel spending. Belgian military has been dubbed “an unusually well-armed pension fund.” Though Germany has approximately the same defense budget as France (around 32 billion euros), Germany is bigger and richer than France. In 2012, the Dutch government decided to cut the budget of the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) by a third. This decision was later reversed but, as the Netherlands’ Court of Audit writes, “these developments have left deep scars within the organization.”

The differences among European countries with regards to security can be explained by three factors. First, there is no common strategic culture in Europe. Some countries – like post-Second World War Germany – are culturally reluctant to use military power, and some have even decided to give up key military capabilities altogether. Second, the perception of the threat is not unified. Eastern European countries feel much more threatened by Russia than by ISIS. Third, some countries – especially small ones – believe that they do not need to invest heavily in defense and security, as the EU or NATO will protect them.

In France, the Paris attacks were a loud wake-up call, prompting officials to take actions to increase security. The scheduled budget cuts affecting the French Ministry of Defense were halted. The number of judges has increased, and the intelligence service staff will be reinforced by about 15 percent from 2015 to 2018. Furthermore, new legislation was passed, including an anti-terrorist law in November 2014 and a new surveillance law in July 2015, as well as another draft bill to reinforce police powers. Some of the adopted measures – such as the multiplication of house arrests authorized by the state of emergency and the decision to extend the deprivation of citizenship to convicted terrorists who are dual nationals – have provoked serious criticism from civil liberties advocates.

Europe is facing a unique threat, and it seems logical that the response should be European.

Belgium had its own wake-up call: in January 2015, police foiled a major terrorist attack, and in November, the government imposed a lockdown on Brussels to avoid an “imminent” attack. On November 19, Prime Minister Charles Michel announced 18 new measures to fight terrorism, including the possibility to search houses 24/7, an extension of 24 to 72 hours of police custody in terrorism related cases, a ban on anonymous prepaid GSM cards, the closure of jihadi websites, and closer monitoring of radical imams. He also declared that an extra 400 million euros would be devoted to security. However, a more substantial financial effort would be necessary to reinforce the Belgian security and defense forces. Countries like Spain and the UK have a long history in dealing with terrorism and were targeted by Al Qaeda in the 2000s. They didn’t wait for a new attack on their soil to adapt their strategies and legislation. In January 2015, the Spanish government adopted a National Strategic Plan to Combat Violent Radicalization and the British government published a Counter-Extremism Strategy in October 2015.

Substantial progress can still be made. Practices have to be harmonized in the different European countries. It is striking to note that jihadists returning from Syria are condemned to heavy prison sentences in certain countries, while they receive suspended jail sentences in others. What’s more, several governments need to invest heavily in their own security and do more to reinforce European security, especially since terrorists from a country in the Schengen Area can easily strike in another country, as the terrorist attacks in Brussels in May 2014 and in Paris in November 2015 dramatically demonstrated. Free riding cannot work in matters of counter-terrorism and could even risk bringing about the reestablishment of borders inside of Europe. To be sure, it is not easy to increase the law enforcement and defense budgets in times of economic crisis. However, the security of Europe – even the future of the European project – is at stake.

This article was translated from French by Paola Hartpence and Aleksandra Szylkiewicz