The EU counter terrorism policy: fight terrorism (if you want to)

Less than two and a half months ago, affiliates of the ‘Islamic State’ murdered over 130 innocent civilians in the Bataclan and on the streets of Paris. In one evening, the world was reminded that there was no safehaven from terrorism – not even in the heart of Europe. The attack on the city of love left news and social media in a state of omnipresent solidarity and outrage that had not been seen since 9-11.

Apparently awoken by the brutal manifestation of terror on European soil, EU legislators began to make unprecedented progress in reforming the European counter-terrorism legislation.

Post-Paris progress

The SIS (Schengen Information Sharing) database was subsidised, optimised for cooperation with Europol and implemented by nigh on all Schengen member states. Several states (Spain, France, Germany) implemented the EU PNR plan (Passenger Name Record) which is looking to register all individuals entering supporting states via air travel and wants to thereby identify dangerous individuals travelling to Europe on planes. The sophisticated software innovation has been under luke-warm fire from a few Human Rights organisations, who criticise the complex data exchange and access to national records an invasion of the right to privacy. The international community (if in favour of the plan) meanwhile subsidises other nations implementing the technology – the United States pay nearly half of the Spanish expenses for the PNR system. To contribute to the international fight against ISIL, otherwise known as Daesh, and Al-Qaeda affiliates such as the al-Nusra front, an array of European nations joined the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Unsurprisingly, this is an effort to choke terrorist organisations off financial resources by freezing assets of foreign fighters and backtracking as well as inhibiting donations and other monetary inflow to the ‘Islamic State’. Meanwhile, criticism targets the lack of action against donations from within Sunni-ruled Gulf States. Foreign policy officials have alledgedly been handling the controversial topic like a raw egg – not eager on accusing any state officials of supporting and financing terrorism. The diverse and distinctive measures of both legislative and technological nature however, allow for a historically innovative multilateral counter-terror measures.

Keen, but unforceful

In short, the EU has not taken a step forward – it has leapt ahead in enabling all member states (as well as European non-EU nations) to collaborate in the continental fight against terrorism. In all that enthusiasm, said legislators seem to have forgotten that opportunity doesn’t mean enforcement. The SIS, Europol and Interpol allow the individual police forces to exchange information in an unprecedented, immediate manner and pool information on suspected terrorists. Hungary, Greece, Tukey and several of the further usual suspects simply in turn seem to ignore the existence of these international tools. Individual investigations are carried out against suspected radicals (potentially by several states simultaneously) but the possibly crucial information is not shared. A lack of legislative cross-country cooperation may not be an issue between Canada, the US and Mexico but in Europe, where hopping borders (whether inside or out of Schengen) consists of barely any more than a roadside sign, supplementary intelligence cooperation is integral. This of course, especially goes for the Schengen zone – border control and registration are virtually non-existent. Hence – to inhibit any influx and travel of dangerous individuals – the outer borders of Schengen should be especially secured. And with the harmonising EU PNR & SIS as well as Interpol and Europol, the EU and Schengen members have an excellent set of tools to engage in this registration and cooperation. And yet, EU PNR is not obligatory and several of the outer Schengen members do not utilise the new security technology (and don’t cooperate with Interpol in sharing their investigative data).

‘Keen, but unforceful’ seems to be the mantra of many a European legislator at the moment. The UK is home to the 10th highest number of ISIL propagators online and the average number of twitter followers of such radical promoters is in excess of 1000 (4 times the mean number of twitter followers in general). European countries however have been hesitant to introduce any obliging legislation. International bodies ‘call for the greater cooperation with social media platform providers’, but meanwhile the online activity of the radical promoters has been reduced by only 1.3% of the course of 2015.  While this reduction is certainly not good enough, it needs to be mentioned that the immediate freedom of speech and opinion can under no circumstances be tampered with in the eyes of the EU. Large scale government surveillance is an even bigger no-no (hence the huge European outrage and backlash against the NSA scandal). However, the trend of radicalisation in Europe should not be downplayed. Hate crime is on an explosive rise – over the last 3 years, one half! of the Jewish population in France were victims of anti-Semitic violence. Over 800 attacks were committed against refugee centres in the last year – in Germany alone. And up to 1000 French, German and British nationals (1000 each, that is), are estimated to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, alongside ISIL, al-Nusra and their affiliates. A constructive crackdown on the promotion of violent ideologies is evidently required.

An outlook – striking a balance

In my own, semi-educated, moderately informed opinion one potentially effective measure may be to require the providers of social media networks to establish anti-hate speech working groups, tasked with identifying and eliminating radical and most importantly radicalising content. Tech companies have all right to limit their customer service according to community guidelines – and hence no legislation is actively interfered with. As an additional incentive to participate in the political efforts, countries could consider subsidising the anti-radical content departments of cooperating companies specifically. That being said, a detailed framework defining such ‘radical’ and ‘radicalising’ content would have to be decided upon on a multilateral level. Stretching the definition of terrorism (as certain frequently criticised European governments like to do) to limit the freedom of opinion should not be justified by such a framework.

While writing this text, I violated one of my self-imposed rules of debate: clearly define the subject matter. I went ahead and wrote about the crackdown on terrorism without clarifying what terrorism refers to in this text. But I am (by far) not the only foreign policy enthusiast to have done so – all across Europe, the definitions of terrorism lie worlds apart. Turkey only considers an act of aggression against civilians ‘terrorism’ if it is committed on Turkish soil. The UK does not list Hamas on a list of terrorist organisations, while the Czech Republic even designates the Palestinian Authority as such. A racially motivated stabbing may be considered an act of terrorist violence in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while it would not be in the Kingdom of Spain. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s government very generously uses the term to include any military or militant activity conducted against the elected government. While it is unrealistic and unreasonable to attempt to define the term ‘terrorism’ in the strict definition of the word ‘define’ (considering the rapidly changing face of terror with the equally rapid growth of technology) a continental agreement to consider several key acts of aggression as ‘acts of terrorism’ may simplify the chaotic counter-terror legislation process in the European political bodies.

An eternal dilemma?

The very principles of the European Union are: ‘respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights’. These rules are both the reason for having to combat radically racist ideologies and an origin position that severely complicates the response to the same radicalisation. The threat of terror’s promoters endangers the very values the EU was built on and disrespects them in their entirety. But it is hence justified to waive these ideals to some extent, in order to defend them in the long run? This somewhat philosophical dilemma gives rise to the predominant dilemma of EU policing.


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