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Belgium terror raids and Paris attacks reveal urgent need for pan-European security

Keeping Belgium safe? EPA/Julien Warnand

In the immediate aftermath of major attacks in Paris, counter-terrorism raids in Belgium saw two suspected terrorists killed and another arrested.

These incidents have dramatically raised the sense of insecurity across Europe – and they’ve done so at a time when Europe’s security infrastructure is struggling to cope with the threats it faces. European security agencies, both internal and external, must urgently improve their co-operation and co-ordination. After all, Europe’s security challenges know no borders, and they must be dealt with as such.

To complicate matters further, the news from Belgium and France has also reignited the long-running debate on balancing the three dimensions of the European Union’s Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ).

One of these freedoms, the freedom of movement of people across the so called Schengen Area, is one of the EU’s fundamental principles. When border controls were eliminated within Schengen, there were fears that illegal activities such as organised crime and terrorism would benefit at least as much as the legal economy it was meant to help.

It was therefore accepted there would need to be much tighter security measures at the EU’s external borders and greater co-operation between security agencies across the EU.

Numerous agencies and databases have been created to reach the required level of security co-operation, including Europol, Eurojust, Frontex and the Schengen Information System (SIS) – and yet co-operation and information-sharing across the EU are still fraught with serious problems.

Come together

The different security traditions, cultures, and policies across the EU mean that the shift to real operational co-operation has been slow. Policing culture across Europe varies significantly, and priorities differ almost as much.

Simply setting up transnational agencies has done little to remedy this. Yes, Europol’s Hague headquarters may boast liaison officers from across the EU and a number of various partner states, but it can only be as effective as the information they have to work with, and that is still up to the states themselves.

In the end, most European countries still approach the sharing of information and intelligence on a traditional “need-to-know” basis, rather than “need-to-share”.

Overcoming this obstacle will exacerbate the struggles European security agencies already have in processing and making sense of the mass of information to determine who and what the threats are. As the saying goes, Europe is drowning in information, but starved of knowledge.

Doing their best. EPA/Martijn Beekman

The attacks in Paris and the raid in Belgium are sure signs that the once–separate realms of internal and external security are more closely connected than ever. With suspected jihadist groups radicalising and operating within Europe as well as travelling overseas, the interconnections between domestic and foreign security issues are getting deeper as a matter of necessity.

The problem remains that the agencies concerned are getting no better at co-operating. And if the resistance to sharing intelligence between domestic police forces is a problem, it is a small one compared to the cultural, political and legal difficulties of sharing between internal and external security agencies.

The slow pace of information flow between very different agencies raises serious questions about the viability of Europe’s security architecture. Meanwhile, bringing the internal and external security apparatus of European states and the EU closer together brings us back to the dilemma of ensuring security while preserving fundamental freedoms and democracy.

That much was starkly illustrated by the proposals coming out of the emergency meeting of EU interior ministers on January 11, after the Paris attacks.


Among other things, the assembled ministers called for the urgent adaptation of a European passenger name record framework for flights within the EU, not just those crossing its external borders. That has so far been blocked in the European Parliament by MEPs who fear what damage it could do to individual freedoms and privacy.

The recent counter-terrorism operations and arrests across Europe show that security agencies are moving towards quicker and sharper preventative action. What they do not demonstrate is that there is yet any seriously co-ordinated approach to European security.

Achieving that is central to reducing the sense of insecurity across Europe at a frightening and dangerous time. But there is little sign Europe is confident about how to do it without undermining the very freedoms it is trying to protect.

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