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EU counter-terrorism strategy: why it doesn't work

Main pillars, gaps and fields to improve to fight terrorism in the EU. The EU strategy under the radar.

How does the EU fight against terrorism?

The EU has a specific strategy against terrorism published in 2005, following the London attacks in June 7th 2005, killing 52 people and injuring over 700 people. The EU counter-terrorism strategy lays on 4 main pillars: prevent, protect, pursue and respond.

What is the mission and activities implemented of each pillar? What are the main problems of each of them?

Pillar 1: Prevent

Addressing the causes of radicalisation and terrorist recruitment is a key priority for the EU. To this end, the Council adopted an EU strategy for combating radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism in 2008. The strategy was revised in June 2014 in light of evolving trends, such as lone-actor terrorism, foreign fighters, and the use of social media by terrorists. In December 2014, the Council adopted guidelines for the implementation of the revised strategy by member states. The gaps of these document are the non-binding measures taken. The recommendations made to the Member states are not always adopted and implemented, and if so, the level of commitments is not ideal.

The EU proposes measures in line with the cooperation and control at minimum levels in the field of detection technologies for law enforcement, customs and public security services. These measures are based on the performance of the Member States themselves, a situation that forces the EU to adapt its detection technologies to those previously developed, confining the organization to a mere supporting actor and a link between the other Member States. Given this scenario, there is a disparity detection criteria, repression in the field of safety, with consequent imbalance that shows severe gaps in security, resulting in a decrease of effectiveness. The measures aimed at preventing violent radicalization have exponentially increased since the publication in 2005 of the Strategy to combat terrorism, result of the action of domestic terrorism and the emergence of the "lone wolf" phenomenon.

The EU has directed its efforts through a local perspective that has failed due to the lack of transparency between the Member States and their national policies against violent radicalization supported by direct actions, more focused in the short / medium term. This approach is detrimental to the security of the EU and relies on the success of national governments, even if the measures are related to a transnational threat. This scheme places the EU as an advisory body without sufficient capacity to impact at national level and relegated to establish a broad and poorly defined framework of action for voluntary choice facing Member States. Prevention also covers safety in the cyberspace, which is directly linked to the stability and integrity of computing systems and all the counterterrorism measures related to the cyberspace. The EU has not reacted early to the new scenario of confrontation involving cyberspace and shows clear vulnerabilities.

Pillar 2: Protect

Protecting citizens and infrastructure and reducing vulnerability to attacks is the second priority of the EU counter-terrorism strategy. This includes securing external borders, improving transport security, protecting strategic targets and reducing the vulnerability of critical infrastructure. The recommendations have a different implementation within the Member states: from concrete and committed actions such as reinforcing critical structures to securing external borders, often following national procedures with different and less efficient protocols than other countries, diminishing the reliability of the own measures. In this area, the EU adopted a directive regulating the use of passenger name record (PNR) data in April 2016. Member states will have to comply with the new rules within two years. PNR is one of the most important achievement of the EU, sharing information with Member states and third countries is one of the best tool to combat and prevent terrorism in any country in the world.

The pillar ‘Protect’ develops a series of tools to manage information within the territory. This information is used to optimize, streamline, collect and serve as a safety analysis for the EU and its Member States. The real application of this information contains a large amount of data, compiled in a total of up to twenty tools. There are severe errors that directly affect European security and integrity, as well as the security of the data and their use themselves. European tools show duplication of information, resulting in a slowdown of the process and a decrease in its employability. Consequently, Member States tend to use, either their management systems or other support agencies. Besides that, we observe a growing trend of Member States using information management tools as a complementary tool or, at best, substituting national data management systems, e.g. in the area of aviation security. Member states do not share the total data to the EU, but use their own systems as a complementary one. Therefore, the EU data management system does not have a precise, dynamic and executive system. The United States is the strongest ally of the EU in the field of protection. At the same time, we determine a relation of subordination of the EU to that international actor. Despite this partial subordinate position, the EU acquires benefits for the implementation of the measures. Actions of cooperation between the two role players have resulted in a reciprocal increase in aviation security and higher control in the transport of goods and passengers.

The pillar ‘Protection’ of the strategy involves safeguarding infrastructure vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In this context, we observed active and involved EU Member States. On the contrary, Member States less open to cooperation show more protectionism and defend their structures through national security measures. Likewise, Member States need the EU and its mechanisms, but they use them as a secondary option.

Pillar 3: Pursue

The EU is working to hinder terrorists' capacity to plan and organise. To achieve these goals, the EU has focused on: strengthening national capabilities, improving cooperation and information exchange between police and judicial authorities, tackling terrorist financing, depriving terrorists of their means of support and communication. In May 2015, the Council and the European Parliament adopted new rules to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing.

The measures in the pillar ‘Pursue’ do not effectively reduce terrorist activities. The actions are limited by factors such as opacity between national governments, the restricted relationship between public and private sector and various financial legislation within the EU. The prosecution of terrorism by the EU aims at identifying, limiting and eliminating the sources of financing terrorist activities, and constitutes one of the most important tools of counterterrorism, including measures inside and outside the EU. On the ground, the EU faces a complex scenario in terrorist financing, due to the diversity and fragmentation of national policies. The result is the lack of homogeneity hindering cooperation and transnational research. In the same way, there is a severe diversity between the EU measures in the fight against terrorism financing and the ones implemented by other organizations. Therefore, the measures to prevent and dismantle terrorist financing and money laundering are limited, have a low level of specificity and do not favour transnational justice. These problems are compounded by the lack of continuity and accurate control from a superior level.

The pillar ‘Pursue’ also includes the security and control of explosives, in addition to the precursors used in terrorist attacks. The pursuit and control of explosives are essential to create a verified and protected market. Its failure is due to the complexity of the market itself, the variety of national regulations within the EU and the low cooperation between private and public sectors. The EU has underlined the need to balance and homogenise the market on explosives at the European level, but Member States have only adapted minimum standards. Such rules have favoured an increase above all in land, naval and air security. In particular, aviation security has been strengthened through more comprehensive inspections and more secure aircrafts. On the contrary, serious anomalies the EU has failed to correct, such as the standardized regulation of explosive precursors. The presence of precursors in the legal market provides the ability of terrorist groups to acquire them in a Member State where they are legal, to be used later in an attack on another Member State where such substances are classified as prohibited.

The EU is heading towards the forced standardization in the field of explosives, not by Community will, but due to the national security of Member States. Similarly, the link between public sector and private industry in order to design manufacture processes respecting safety standards from creation of the substances and products until their release to the market. A safer European market requires an increase in safety in manufacturing and more fluent relations between the public and private sectors.

From the judicial point of view, that the pillar ‘Pursue’ has a solid tool: European Arrest Warrant, which has speeded up the judicial processes relating to terrorism cases. But some errors in the representation of the process and the accuracy of the sides involved are being identified. Part of the success is due to the interest of Member States to boost judicial proceedings in their national jurisdiction as a measure of strengthening the law. Overall, the European Arrest Warrant is a community success that positively promotes the criminalization of terrorist activity in Europe.

Pillar 4: Respond

Preparing, managing and minimizing the consequences of a terrorist attack is the fourth objective of the EU counter-terrorism strategy. This is done by improving capabilities to deal with the aftermath, the coordination of the response, and victims' needs.

Priorities in this area include: developing EU crisis coordination arrangements, revising the civil protection mechanism, developing risk assessment tools, sharing best practices on assistance to victims of terrorism. The last changes in the past five year include: defining the arrangements for the implementation by the EU of the solidarity clause, through a Council decision adopted in June 2014, reviewing the EU emergency and crisis coordination arrangements, replaced by the EU integrated political crisis response arrangements (IPCR) in June 2013 and revising EU civil protection legislation at the end of 2013.

The actions of this fourth pillar of the Strategy to fight terrorism do not reach a wide cover of safe and quick actions in case of a terrorist attack, being subjected to the response of Member states and the low leadership and coordinating capacity of the EU, making Europe more vulnerable. The pillar ‘Respond’ shows the scope of the EU action in case of a terrorist attack at a national or transnational level and observing the organization’s cooperative functions, support and partnership relations with Member States. Thus, measures designed under this pillar present the organization as a catalyst for counterterrorism measures, but lacking independency and superior evaluations in the field of response to the detriment of national and international security. The architecture offered by the EU to act in the mitigation and the alleviation of the consequences of a terrorist attack covers a limited spectrum, and is supported by Member States. However, such support has led to policies that are more theoretical than operational, falling to a battery of precepts that undermine the EU’s importance as an international actor and guarantor of security, both for community critical infrastructure and for national infrastructures of its members.

The ways in which Member States may request response mechanisms, such as the mechanism of civil protection, rapid response systems and measures for preparedness for emergencies, are subject to a prior national action in certain cases. The pillar ‘Respond’ also involves the management of a CBRN terrorist attack. The EU conceives the threat as high risk to be tackled, and able to disrupt the stability of the EU. The conclusion offered after the study of the measures shows an EU with a lack of security standards to reach a homogenous level of protection and reaction to the Member States. In case of a terrorist attack of that nature, the EU will show its incapability to act and perform as an international organization. Brussels tends to harmonize national tools and avoids duplication in order to create a more efficient response mechanism in case of a terrorist attack.

How is the EU collaboration with other partners?

The EU counter-terrorism strategy needs to operate on a global scale. Indeed, the EU's security is closely linked with the situation in other countries, particularly in neighbouring states. In June 2014, the European Council called for an effective counter-terrorism policy integrating the internal and external aspects. In February 2015, EU leaders stressed the need for the EU to engage more with third countries on security issues and counter-terrorism.

The counter-terrorism agenda is present in the relations between the EU and third countries in many forms, including: high-level political dialogues, the adoption of cooperation clauses and agreements, or specific assistance and capacity-building projects with strategic countries.

EU closely cooperates with countries in: the Western Balkans, Africa (the Sahel, North Africa, the Horn of Africa), the Middle East, North America and Asia. The fight against the terrorist phenomenon is supported by community organizations covering issues that the EU is not able to cover. This assistance is limited by its scope, which is increasing by the incipient necessary cooperation detected by some Member States and transnational organizations. The EU is an active cooperative actor on terrorism at various levels, there is a growing trend of active cooperation with non-EU institutions, from the operative level and the short-term and long-term levels, including concrete and broader activities.

Major cooperation with other agencies would enhance the credibility and role of the EU. Therefore, Europol is the agency with the best organization and measures taken to combat terrorism. Its functions have evolved, but still lacks the necessary importance due to non-binding nature of its measures. Judicial cooperation is a EU success due to the European Arrest Warrant, as well as the creation of Eurojust and the European Judicial Network, which generates a link and analysis for the EU Member states and favours joint operations. Member States still do not transfer to the EU institutions important transnational issues such as terrorism, organized crime, fraud, money laundering, etc. The analysed European institutions have shown more theoretical than operational functions, but there is growing -but slow- tendency towards homogenization. This low trend is due to the weak Community mechanisms without clear and definite consensus.

The EU strengthens measures to achieve standardization of the security forces, mechanisms and practical procedures for prevention and response, such as the European Police College, Europol and Frontex. A stronger homogenization in the defense industry has been achieved, which is directed towards a more independent, technological and safer Europe (still a lot of work to do). We also noted the same gaps identified on the institutions of cooperation in the four pillars of the Strategy to combat terrorism: low cooperation between public and private sectors in defense. Good relations on counterterrorism cooperation with agencies outside the EU are remarkable, effective and productive but still partial. The results are more efficient on data sharing, support, awareness of terrorism and radicalization.

The study of Interpol as an agency of cooperation has shown the differences between the high operability of Interpol and the failure of the EU. We also identified the opening of the EU to new players such as Asia and Africa, but slower than to other closer allies. Relations between transnational organizations remain more fluid than distant bilateral relations with the EU.

And the cooperation with the US?

Cooperation with the US is a fundamental component of the EU's strategy. Cooperation agreements have been reached in areas such as terrorism financing, transport and borders, mutual legal assistance and extradition. President Trump has affirmed that the EU needs to be more independent and find its own ways of protecting its own Member states, more independency and increase in defence budget has been required.

Information of the EU counter-terrorism strategy based on public official documents, available here.


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