Tuesday, May 10, 2005

EU split on Islamic terror threat

The Australian
Cameron Stewart

MORE than a year after the Madrid train bombings that left 191 people dead, and hundreds more injured, Europe is struggling to come to grips with the spectre of Islamic terrorism.

The strong words and lofty promises made by European leaders in the emotion-charged days after the Madrid tragedy now seem increasingly hollow as the continent struggles to adopt a unified approach to dealing with the terrorist threat.
The problem is being fuelled by sharp differences among the 25 member nations of the European Union about the gravity of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism – a division that creates further division about the steps needed to tackle it.

"This has become a real issue for us," a senior EU counter-terrorism expert says. "Ask the people of Finland how many of them are concerned about terrorism and about 6 per cent say they are. But ask the same question in Spain, and 93 per cent are worried about it. This makes it hard to get all member countries to agree on a solution."

The irony is that the Madrid bombings were supposed to be the glue that finally motivated European leaders to adopt a joint pan-continental approach to fighting terrorism, a battle that until then had been the domain of the national police and intelligence services, which paid only lip-service to sharing sensitive information on terrorists with their European neighbours.

In late March last year, barely two weeks after the Madrid bombings and with the haunting images of the slaughter fresh in everyone's minds, an angry group of EU justice ministers gathered to draw up an ambitious declaration on combating terrorism.

This promised an aggressive Europe-wide assault on terrorists, including the appointment of a counter-terrorism tsar, the setting up of joint databases, more resources for Europol, the European police agency, and a raft of other measures designed to prove the continental nations would fight terrorism as one.

In theory there was reason for optimism. After all, the EU was on the cusp of adding 10 new members to boost its membership to 25, stretching its tentacles from Ireland in the west to Poland in the east, and signalling more than ever that Europe was merging as a political and economic union to be reckoned with.

If the EU could bind so many nations with their vastly different cultures, languages and history into a massive single market with a mostly common currency and a shared commitment to democracy, then surely the fight against terrorism could also be conducted with one voice across the continent.

Well, not quite.

As former French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy stated, the union between European nations is not yet strong enough to extend to the full sharing of secrets that are considered central to national security, such as classified intelligence on terrorists.

"Intelligence is the most difficult and complex thing to share," says Sarkozy. "You have to protect your sources, which is already hard enough to do within the same country."

There is some sharing of counter-intelligence information between European countries on a bilateral and often informal basis, but the EU is struggling to convince its members that all counter-intelligence should be freely shared and made available between all 25 member states.

As one EU official joked: "The idea of British secret agent James Bond reporting his secret findings to Latvia is hard to imagine."

The problem is fuelled by the fact that when it comes to intelligence, including intelligence on counter-terrorism, some EU states are more equal than others.

For example, Britain has access to a higher level and quality of intelligence than other EU members because it is a member of the world's most powerful and secretive intelligence-sharing arrangement – the five-nation alliance with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

While London could theoretically share lower-level counter-terrorist intelligence with all the EU member states, the US would strongly oppose the sharing of highly sensitive intelligence with small countries such as the Czech Republic and Latvia, where the protection of the information and its source could not be guaranteed.

When fighting terrorism in Europe, the EU is hampered by the fact that one of its central achievements – the free movement of people across borders – makes it harder to track terrorists, who can move freely between countries with vastly different languages and police forces.

"It's very hard to prevent an incident like the Madrid bombings in somewhere like the EU, because the free movement of peoples is one of the objectives of the EU," says Jan Winkler, deputy minister of foreign affairs in the Czech Republic. Terrorism is hardly new to Europe, but struggles such as those involving the IRA in Northern Ireland and the Basque separatists in Spain have been targeted at a specific country for a specific cause, rather than posing a global threat like al-Qa'ida.

"What Madrid showed us was this sort of terrorism was not only directed at the Americans but is directed against our Western way of life in Europe also," says Jozsef Bali, Hungary's deputy state secretary for defence.

The problem is that not all EU countries – especially the smaller new members in eastern Europe – are convinced that Islamic terrorism poses any real threat to them.

While Britain, France and Spain put substantial national resources into fighting terrorism within their borders, many EU members are complacent about the threat.

After the Madrid bombings, EU members rejected the idea of a European intelligence agency on the grounds that the level of trust and co-operation between intelligence agencies needed to create such a body was not achievable.

Within the EU, there is no single body that deals with all matters relating to terrorism, and even the new European counter-terrorism tsar, Dutchman Gijs de Vries , has no power over member states beyond advising them and harassing them to take action.

More than a year after the Madrid attack, EU members have still not even agreed on ways to simplify the exchange of counter-terrorism information between law agencies.

The way forward is littered with obstacles from history. For example, the EU's push for closer co-operation between intelligence agencies and police on fighting terrorism is a problem in Germany, where the constitution says they must be separated because of the legacy of Nazism, when the police and intelligence services were combined in one agency.

The counter-terrorism resources given to the European police agency, Europol, remain absurdly inadequate. Europol operates on an annual budget off E58 million ($96million) compared with E450 million for Britain's domestic spy agency M15. And Europol has a staff of barely 350, compared with 28,576 agents in the America's FBI.

Some small steps have been taken, such as the European arrest warrant, which allows EU members to extradite suspected terrorists wanted by other EU countries.

But overall the security services of EU governments have proved reluctant to hand over their powers and secrets to an organisation which is still feeling its way on terrorism.

Despite the different views within Europe, there are common themes that are at odds with the views of the US. Europeans are generally more reluctant than the Americans to support the suspension of legal rights for terrorist suspects such as those held for years without charge at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

They are also more reluctant to accept the loss of civil liberties in the quest to prevent the next terrorist attack.

But none of this offsets the reality that terrorism has exposed the limits of a united Europe. Beyond the feel-good rhetoric, there have been few concrete results. The dream that Madrid would galvanise the continent into a single anti-terrorist juggernaut has vanished. The EU has helped unite Europe in many ways, but its feeble response so far to dealing with terrorism shows just how elusive a truly united Europe remains.
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