A New Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU? Evolution Rather than Revolution.

  • Oldřich Bureš
  • 24.12.2020 10:53

Terrorism been high on the agenda at both the member states and the EU level since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The new EU counter-terrorism agenda for 2021-2025 represents another attempt to overcome a multitude of political, legal, and cultural challenges that have hampered counter-terrorism cooperation at the EU level for almost two decades.

The European Commission has recently published its new counter-terrorism agenda for the EU, which aims to step up the fight against terrorism and boost the EU's resilience to terrorist threats. Like the 2001 EU Counter-Terrorism Action Plan and the 2005 EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy, the agenda contains a catalog of measures to improve the EU's counter-terrorism capabilities and competencies, which are still relatively limited. Both the key competencies and the practical implementation of specific measures in the fight against terrorism are still at the level of the EU Member States and their security forces. The EU's role, therefore, remains primarily supportive and coordinating and the new counter-terrorism agenda is unlikely to change this. In fact, its four-pillar structure (Anticipate, Prevent, Protect, Respond) points to evolution rather than revolution. It closely resembles the four pillars (Prevent, Protect, Pursue, Respond) of the current EU counter-terrorism strategy, which the British government pushed during its EU presidency in the aftermath of the London terrorist attacks in July 2005.

The new EU counter-terrorism agenda does contain some novelties and innovations. For example, the emphasis on new technologies not only in terms of preventing their (mis-)use by terrorists to prepare, finance, and carry out their attacks, but also in terms of their better use by security forces to prevent terrorist attacks and for early detection of new potential threats. As with many other proposed measures, this reflects the evolution of the terrorist threat in Europe and lessons learned from the execution of recent terrorist attacks. As an example, the agenda refers to the terrorist attack on a synagogue in the German city of Halle in 2019, for which an extreme right-wing attacker made a number of weapons using the 3D printing technology.

On the other hand, many of the Commission's proposals to increase the powers of key supranational agencies (the new agenda focuses on Europol in particular) and improve their cooperation with the private sector (from financial institutions to the new social media) and global actors (such as Interpol) are not new at all. They merely reflect the fact that the fight against terrorism takes place at many different levels and the EU is only one of them. In other sections, the agenda merely calls for updates of measures in areas that have been already discussed for years, such as radicalization and deradicalization, especially in the context of so-called foreign fighters and their families. 

Continuity is also apparent in the agenda's emphasis on eliminating the long-term implementation deficit of previously agreed EU level counter-terrorism measures. This is a consequence of the very different historical experiences of individual EU Member States with terrorism and their long-term reluctance to transfer any powers to the supranational EU level in the traditionally sensitive area of ​internal security. The Commission can, therefore, propose new counter-terrorism measures and tools, but it can only appeal for more solidarity and cooperation whenever Member States and national security agencies fail to utilize them.

Finally, it is important to note that some of the measures set out in the new agenda have encountered more than just political controversy at the level of EU Member States due to their negative impact on human rights and liberties. This has, for example, been the case with the 2016 EU Passenger Name Record, which currently allows for tracking of all people traveling by air to and from the EU and which the European Commission wants to extend to cover all intra-EU flights. Similarly, concerns have been mounting years before the publication of the new agenda that the EU could be moving toward legislating against end-to-end encryption, which is the trademark feature of popular communication platforms like WhatsUp. But even in this respect, the EU's new counter-terrorism agenda is not unique – debates about the (im-)possibility of balancing the values ​​of security, liberty, and justice are common to all counter-terrorism agendas, regardless of who proposes or implements them.

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Professor Oldrich Bures is the founding director of the Center for Security Studies and Professor of International Political Relations at Metropolitan University Prague. He has researched the EU counter-terrorism policy for over 15 years. He is the (co-)author of many articles and books on this topic, including EU Counterterrorism Policy: A Paper Tiger? (Ashgate, 2011) and A Decade of EU Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence: A Critical Assessment (Routledge 2017). For a full bio and list of publications, see http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Oldrich_Bures Contact: oldrich.bures@mup.cz

About author: Oldřich Bureš

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