Fighting Terrorism: a Delicate Balancing Act

Article published on May 31, 2004
community published
Article published on May 31, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Since September 11th, the European Commission has been walking a tightrope between protecting Europe from terrorism and treading on the toes of civil liberties.

The EU is no stranger to terrorism. Several terrorist groups have been active across its geographic sphere, among them the IRA in Ireland, November 17th in Greece and Brigade Rosse in Italy. The EU has passed a number of acts and legislation throughout the last decade to combat terrorism. But, the majority of these measures have proven to be only rhetoric.

The contested legitimacy of the EU restricts it from passing controversial pieces of legislation which may stir up public opposition. Before the attacks of 11/9, the EU had prepared behind closed doors ten proposals that would enhance the creation of a common EU legal and policing system. The attacks in New York coupled with growing public concern gave Brussels the opportunity to put forward legal proposals that would not just apply to suspected terrorists.

First steps after the outrage

After September 11th, the EU immediately expressed its solidarity with the US and a number of measures, such as the establishment of Eurojust (the EU’s public prosecution agency) and a common list of terror suspects, were implemented under the Action Plan at the European Council in Brussels on 21st September 2001. However, a number of these measures have been proven ineffective. In particular, the European Arrest Warrant, supposed to replace extradition procedures for serious crime, came into force on 1st January 2004 but has still not been implemented by all member states.

The Madrid bombings and the subsequent Commission Report really highlighted the fact that the EU’s response to terrorism has been limited. The EU’s ineffectiveness was attributed to the lack of implementation and a lack of willingness on the part of the member states to participate in joint investigation teams, which implies handing over sensitive information and perhaps some of their sovereignty to Brussels since centralisation is sometimes needed to achieve greater co-operation. As a result, member states tend to prefer bilateral agreements (so that they can choose their partners themselves) or even unilateral action. The UK, for example, adopted its own Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. In the wake of the Madrid bombings, Antonio Vitorino, European Commissioner responsible for Justice and Home Affairs, emphasised the need for a stronger co-operation at EU level and proposed the exchange of information among member states as a key to combat terrorism.

Following the 22nd March Anti-terrorist summit in Madrid and the Brussels European Council meeting discussing terrorism on 25th-26th March, the European Commission proposed new measures to improve the exchange of information in the EU in order to facilitate the work of anti-terrorist services. The Commission's proposal widens the scope of exchange of information regarding all terrorist offences. From now on, the exchange of information will apply to all stages of proceedings, including criminal convictions, which can be very useful in investigations.

The future in question

But for these measures to be effective the EU has to deal first with the reluctance of some of its member states to give up their sovereignty in sensitive areas. It has to realise its potential of becoming an important political power and work towards that objective instead of developing an ever more complex framework of institutions which only worsens its democratic deficit and, as a result, questions its legitimacy as an international actor.

Most of the EU proposals concerning justice and home affairs were put forward after the attacks of 9/11 which shook the world and even more steps were taken after Europe itself was attacked on 11th March this year. But the EU’s commitment to preserve human rights and democracy acts as a restriction to the introduction of Big Brother surveillance measures and criticism has arisen as to whether the EU and its member states exploited the attack to introduce legislation that otherwise would have been impossible to impose upon a democratic European public. The proposed introduction of biometric IDs in the UK is just one possible example. However, the EU was involved in the introduction of additional security measures (proposals in Maastricht for example) even before the New York attacks. These too are criticised for not taking human rights and liberty into consideration.

The steps taken to enhance judicial co-operation in criminal matters to combat terrorism should not be underestimated since they signify an attempt on the EU’s part to transform itself from a political dwarf into an area of effective political co-operation in critical matters. It remains to be seen whether it will be effective in doing so without stepping on the liberties of European citizens.