In 2015 several terrorist attacks have shaken Europe, first in Paris, later in Copenhagen. However, one cannot claim these severe attacks to have been completely unexpected. Moreover, these are the types of worst-case scenarios European security and police forces have been trained to prevent and respond to.
Although security responses to terrorism are traditionally considered a quintessential national sovereignty prerogative, in the past ten to fifteen years the perception that highly asymmetric security threats respect no borders has hightened the EU’s role as a coordinator in this policy domain. Some claim that counter-terrorism has changed the role and functioning of the EU itself towards a more operational character in matters of security.
Both old and new security responses to terrorism have (re-)emerged on the European agenda in the ´post-Paris attacks´ phase.
The ‘terrorist threat’ and European responses
The severity of the threat posed by transnational jihadist networks as battle-hardened European foreign fighters return home from Syria has been reiterated for more than a year in every European capital and in Bruxelles. A key aspect to understand the evolving nature of the threat is the scale of the phenomenon: an unprecedented number of radicalized individuals ready to mobilize into using war weapons in European cities, often along the lines of emulation and copycat behavior.
The immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks saw un-coordinated anti-terrorist operations in various countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Greece and Italy – sometimes meeting armed resistance. Despite the evidence of a cross-border dimension, European governments were quite firm in reiterating denial: these ‘cases’ were all unrelated to one another. The public emphasis on the existence of a threat to European society tend to see threats through the prism and strictly within the perimeter of national security.
In France, after an initial debate on whether the Paris attacks would push European countries to adopting ‘patriot acts’ following the ‘war on terror’ path set by the US after 9/11, PM Manuel Valls made it clear that basic liberal rule of law and civil liberties would stand: the response to an exceptional threat would not consist in building a state of exception, but in adopting exceptional measures.
Yet, only a few months later, on 5 May, a new French ‘Patriot Act’ was passed in the National Assembly with 438 votes in favor and only 86 against. The controversial bill gives French intelligence agencies comprehensive powers of surveillance, allowing them to tap the phones and emails of people linked to a ‘terrorist inquiry’ without seeking permission from a judge.
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, the controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was arrested for posting “Je suis Coulibaly” on his Facebook page, invoking the right of free speech; 54 more people were arrested in France over ‘hate-speech comments’. Various organizations have been denouncing the growing discriminatory attitude of the French police when conducting random checks on Arab-looking citizens. There have also been a growing number of attacks on Mosques.
The EU’s changing role in countering terrorism
Although security responses to terrorism are traditionally considered a quintessential national sovereignty prerogative, in the past ten to fifteen years the perception that highly asymmetric security threats respect no borders has hightened the EU’s role as a coordinator in this policy domain.
EU anti-terrorism policies have to a large extent been incident-driven. The terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 all became watersheds: these crises coincide with framework decisions, action plans, strategies, declarations, the establishment of new supra-national security institutions and the strengthening of existing ones. From almost total irrelevance, the EU has thus emerged as a surprisingly active counter-terrorism actor: Since 9/11 the EU adopted 239 measures against terrorism, of which 26 are action plans and strategy documents and 15 are laws or directives.
On the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Council on the 19th of January EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, insisted on framing the current situation as a ‘civilizational alliance’, representing terrorism as a common threat for European, Arab and Asian countries. The EU Commission declared that it would start to officially communicate in Arabic language, and that EU Delegations would be assigned permanent security attachés that would liaise and share information.
The EU has just launched a European Agenda on Security, in which the fight against terrorism is a top priority. Cooperation between Europol and other European agencies is being strengthened, and more emphasis is laid on the fight against terrorism financing as well as on arms trafficking. Governments are also pushing for a swift decision on the establishment of a European Passenger Name Record (PNR) – implying that flight passenger personal data can be collected, stored and analyzed for law enforcement purposes. The PNR debate has to date been blocked by the S & D (Socialist and Democrats) as well as the Greens in the European Parliament. But would PNR actually have stopped the Paris or the Copenhagen attacks?
Following the debates in the EU after the Paris attacks, a number of questions arise. Before establishing new systems, should we rather ask why the old ones are not working in the way they should? Are the EU measures strategically developed, or are they responses to the demands stating that something needs to be done, quickly? For how long will exceptional measures be implemented, or when do they stop being exceptional? Are blanket or mass data collection and retention actually helping us catching terrorists, or does it end up just violating basic freedoms and civil liberties without delivering much? How shall we evaluate the effect and success of counter-terrorism measures? These are questions we should ask when observing the new wave of counter-terrorism policies currently washing over Europe.