Explainer: does the EU need its own intelligence agency?

Are you listening to me, Angela? EPA/Olivier Hoslet

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has called for a European Union counter-intelligence agency that would protect EU institutions – the commission, council and parliament, among others – against espionage.

Juncker’s call came after revelations in the German media that Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), had spied not only on EU officials, but also the French foreign ministry and the Élysée Palace, before turning the information over to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

What is surprising here is that Juncker’s proposed spy agency would be aimed at preventing counter-intelligence (CI) from member states within the EU itself in the first instance, though it would almost certainly have a role to play in broader CI activities. The notion of an EU intelligence countering, if not a gathering, organisation is interesting, as no other international organisation has a spy agency, per se.

Take for instance the United Nations, where the member states look after their own security and counter-espionage arrangements; the UN does not require a CI agency, simply because secrecy is not in the mandate of the UN itself. The EU – as a membership organisation – is arguably different and there are already areas in which some of the work of CI is likely to be happening.

For example, in the common policy area called security and defence. From the Treaty of Nice in 2001, the EU has had a common security and defence policy (updated after the Treaty of Lisbon 2007). From these initiatives, we have seen European operations all over the world – from East Timor to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Common Security and Defence Policy is aimed at activities outside the EU. In addition, the EU has the European Defence Agency which allows defence forces of member states to co-operate in developing shared doctrine and security strategies.

In non-military terms, perhaps more closely aligned with a proposed spy agency are the policy areas around justice and home affairs which involve member states’ civil agencies including police forces. In managing a common market with the free movement of labour and trade, there is a need to maintain a level of co-operation among member-states – but also a standard of compliance to make sure that no area of the EU leads to problems for the other. This mandates for traditional intelligence sharing – rather than gathering – especially in areas around counter-terrorism and combating international organised crime.

While security and defence policy largely remains the prerogative of individual member states, justice and home affairs has become an important part of the European Commission’s role in managing 28 member states in a common market. And while security and defence policy has been focused outwards, justice and home affairs has been primarily focused inwards, though the commission has provided training for non-member countries.

Germany’s secret service, BND, spied on the EU and the French government on behalf of the US National Security Agency. EPA/Diether Endlicher

All of this is to say that the EU already does have the mandate to regulate its security profile in several ways.

Yet, some may see a CI agency as being far more active than either security and defence or justice and home affairs. Traditional CI means collecting intelligence in order to prevent espionage aimed at the home state. We could easily be in a place where an EU spy agency becomes less about countering intelligence and instead becomes a player in the espionage game for commission purposes.

Who can trust the EU?

Here lies the crux of the problem: whose intelligence is being protected in an EU spy agency? If it is to protect the member states as they go about doing business with each other through the EU’s institutions, then there is at least political room for manoeuvre – they are, in effect, pulling in the same direction against any external intelligence interference or threat.

However, if CI is to protect the European Commission against the intelligence agencies of the member states themselves, it is difficult to see where a mandate would come from. There is no interest among member states for deepening the commission’s agency in intelligence-gathering, especially not from member state intelligence communities.

The problem, though, is bigger than simply political will. On March 9, Juncker voiced support for the development of an EU army, possible under the Lisbon Treaty. Juncker was responding in his statement to the resurgence of Russia and its potential threat to EU member states, not all of which are NATO-allied states.

Has the president of the European Commission started on a path towards a more bellicose EU, with both a proposed spy agency and an army? The answer is more than likely no – at least, in the first instance. Juncker’s statements point towards an increasing gap between what our institutions are set up to do and how the world is changing.

While increased security and defence policies were seen as taboo for a very long time, especially among the UK and other more transatlantic EU member-states, this changed with the Saint Malo agreement in 1998 between the British and French governments that allowed for greater military co-operation. The challenge for Juncker and member state governments is whether the current arrangements to safeguard the EU and its constituent parts is already covered – or whether we need something more, something different to tackle new challenges.

Let us not forget the state of the EU as it currently stands. Trust in the EU’s institutions has never been high – and in many states, not just the UK, trust appears to be getting lower. On this basis, I cannot imagine that an EU spy agency, much less an EU army, will aid the EU in building trust in the union itself.