Bursting the Bubble

Does Europe need a European intelligence agency?

10 February 2016 | by

With the attacks in Paris last year some leaders in the European Parliament have called for a pan-European intelligence agency. The leader of ALDE, Verhofstadt, is a proponent of such an organization. He has called for more cooperation between intelligence agencies or the start of an independent European Intelligence Agency. With this call he has recognized the failure of national agencies, which only defend national interests and not the European interest. Furthermore, national agencies will fail again in the near future, Verhofstadt has said, if they do not cooperate.

A European Agency already exists but it has to be strengthened: the EU INTCEN was created in 1999 as part of the Common Defense and Security Policy. Since then more centralization efforts have been put to the center in order to combat terrorism. The attacks of 9/11 were an eye-opener for the agency and from that time European nations used INTCEN to exchange views or information about terrorism. In 2004, High Representative Javier Solana had placed the center under the external action service and developed a combat terrorism cell. Its main tasks were to contribute early warnings, conduct monitoring and assessments, provide facilities for crisis task force as well as reporting to the High Representative.

That agency is now under scrutiny and attack because of the failure of the Belgian as well as French anti-terrorism agencies to heed warnings, letting the aggressors get away. Turkey had warned France twice about Ismael Omar Mostefai, the 29-year old French national who opened fire on concert-goers at the Bataclan on November 13 in Paris. And French law-enforcement authorities only learned Hasna Ait Boulahcen was the cousin of the so-called ring-leader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, days after the Paris attacks despite having bugged her phone on a separate drug related investigation.

Gilles de Kerckhove, head of the European center has said: “To keep secrets today is a very naive approach. It is better to exchange information in order to better protect our citizen’s saftey” but agencies cannot always reveal their methods or information. De Kerckhove hinted to use a ‘third party rule’ to avoid overlap. If France shares intelligence with Belgium, then Belgium has to ask permission to share with another country like the Netherlands.

The system is an additional constraint that needs to be streamlined. A common method is needed but is difficult to establish because of the underfinancing and – staffing of the Brussels security forces. Belgian Prime Minister Michel, a pro-European, wanted to create a European CIA but got countered by the chief of the center that it is not possible under current treaty rules of the EU.

The European Commission for its part has come up with a directive on terrorism. This to strengthen the agencies but also to harmonize cooperation. It is a package developing proposal for a Directive on Terrorism, which will strengthen the EU’s arsenal in preventing terrorist attacks by criminalising preparatory acts such as training and travel abroad for terrorist purposes, as well as aiding or abetting, inciting and attempting terrorist acts. Also included is an Action Plan to step up the fight against criminals or terrorists accessing or using weapons and explosives through a reinforced control of illicit possession being imported to the EU. ‘The atrocious terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 showed once more that Europe needs to scale up its common response to terrorism and take concrete actions in the fight against terrorism and the illegal trafficking of firearms and explosives’, the communication said.

It is a good start but has some serious flaws which Verhofstadt wants to combat. The responsibility for ensuring internal security is first and foremost with the Member States, but cross-border challenges defy the capacity of individual countries to act alone requiring EU support to build trust and facilitate cooperation, exchange of information and joint action. This is the first flaw because national interests are standing in between overall European interests. To close this loophole Juncker has come up with a European Agenda on Security. The agenda focuses on border management and information exchange as well as on promoting operational cooperation between member states. Among the many tools highlighted in the programme there is a clear focus on innovative cross-border information sharing and intelligence tools, namely the Schengen Information System – to facilitate searches for missing people and objects as well as general cross-border information on individuals – the Prüm Decision – allowing for common searches in the DNA analysis files, fingerprint identification systems and vehicle registration data bases – as well as, the Eurodac database on immigration.

Whilst the broad effort to harmonise EU action in this field should be welcomed, the approach to terrorism, in particular the drivers of extremism, are still very fragmented, without being based on any particularly solid evidence, structural strategy or clear understanding of the problem. Today, as in 2002, the European response is triggered in reaction to threats rather than through a stronger preventive framework than the one put in place by the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

All these niceties from the Parliament and the Commission have to be hailed. However, it is the states who are in charge in the Council and the most powerful state, Germany, had spoken out against the plan by the Commission because it infringes national sovereignty, and they are ready to yield. Let us hope that before another attack on European soil, the treaty base for a European Intelligence agency has been put into place.

What do you think?