There is still a long way to go to improve European intelligence sharing through the intelligence agency Europol.

By Zsófia Baumann

The growing number of mass casualty attacks and the movement of foreign fighters between Europe and the Middle East pose a huge challenge to the continent’s security. This calls for closer cooperation and better coordination of counterterrorism efforts, but most importantly better intelligence sharing between Member States, through Europol, the European Union’s recently reinforced police agency.

The European Union has a complex counterterrorism strategy. The exchange of information between police and intelligence agencies, the protection of critical infrastructure, the development of external action, the production of counterterrorism legislation, the control of the external borders and the fight against terrorist recruitment and financing are all part of this strategy. However they all fall under different levels of EU competency.

The most critical and most difficult aspect of the strategy to achieve, is enhanced intelligence sharing and cooperation between national law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The EU already has the tool that can enable closer cooperation, and in the past years has allocated more resources and power to its police agency: Europol. However reluctance from Member States to give up their sovereignty in intelligence gathering and ensuring national security has hampered the effectiveness of Europol in fighting terrorism.

The evolution of the European Counterterrorism Strategy

The European Union has become increasingly active in the field of counterterrorism, after the attacks in the early 2000s in New York, Madrid and London, according to the 2015 article of Javier Argomaniz et al. entitled ‘A Decade of EU Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence: A Critical Assessment.’ A serie of new strategies were implemented and a number of initiatives passed through European legislation in the next decade. The prevention of the planned London attacks in 2006 was a success and showed that concerted EU actions and counterterrorism policies can be effective.

The years following 2006 were especially important in the formation of the EU’s counterterrorism policies. As Argomaniz points out, the shock caused by the attacks led to a very strong public pressure for a coordinated European action. The huge media attention that surrounded the attacks raised public awareness about terrorism as a transnational threat, forcing national governments to look for a transnational answer to tackle the issue. However, actions remained slow and the formulation of counterterrorism policies remained incident driven. Policies were established as an answer to specific attacks and not created preventively. According to John. D. Occhipinti’s 2015 article, ‘Still Moving Toward a European FBI? Re-Examining the Politics of EU Police Cooperation’, Europol’s role was also limited to being a tool in policy-makers’ hands, a body that responds to what Brussels wants, not an independent EU agency that has the power to act on its own.

Some of these issues still remain valid. Although the Lisbon Treaty that entered into force in 2009 represented a major leap in providing Europol with the tools to become capable of fighting terrorism, by officially recognizing it as an EU agency, it still remained, as Occhipinti calls it, a corrective force to the events unfolding in Europe. This characteristic of reacting to, rather than preventing attacks comes from a problem that is two-fold: on the one hand Member States lack sufficient trust to share their best intelligence with Europol and question the added value that the agency can contribute to this area. On the other hand, Europol’s inability to provide this added value comes from its lack of authority and Member States’ distrust.

Despite EU countries’ lack of faith, Europol is provided with the appropriate means and tools to step up its efforts in fighting terrorism. The agency has a permanent unit of experts that provide analysis and support to national authorities. It has a First Response Network that can be quickly mobilized to support Member States. It manages a Bomb Data System that facilitates information sharing on explosives and CBRN (chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear) materials. Its analysts provide a ‘Modus Operandi Monitor’ that helps determine patterns in terrorist’ tactics and behavior. Finally, the agency annually publishes a Terrorist Situation and Trend report (TE-SAT) which analyzes broader tendencies.

Most recently, Europol also established the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC). The Centre provides a major strategic opportunity for the EU to become more effective in its fight against terrorism, by acting as a central information hub. By providing analysis for ongoing investigations, the ECTC would finally make the agency capable of not just reacting to attacks. However, as long as Member States’ maintain their reluctance to share more intelligence, these capabilities will only remain tools that provide retrospective analysis, not preventive threat assessments.

Intelligence Unions – a possible compromise?

One argument that Member States use to justify their aversion to intelligence sharing is highlighted in Monica Den Boer’s 2015 article, ‘Counter-Terrorism, Security and Intelligence in the EU: Governance Challenges for Collection, Exchange and Analysis.’ According to Den Boer, Member States claim that a European centralized approach for intelligence exchange (via Europol in this instance) may not have any advantages over a decentralized or bilateral approach. This is because national security and intelligence agencies will only share information where there is an added value to sharing, due to intelligence’s very sensitive and highly cherished nature. To put it simply, information will be shared if it is beneficial, but if it is not shared, it is probably not worth sharing anyway.

Den Boer adds that the only Member States who could benefit from an EU-wide intelligence sharing cooperation, are smaller states, due to their limited budgets or mandates in the field of international intelligence gathering. Such states include Belgium, the Netherlands or Denmark, all of which are also deeply affected by terrorism. An alternative to an EU-wide collective intelligence sharing could thus be the establishment of regional alliances, where two or three Member States could form “Unions within the Union”, or smaller intelligence sharing communities, an option outlined by Timothy Naftali, Professor of History at New York University.

This would again play into the decades-old debate within the EU whether there should be room for a dual-speed integration, where some Member States would be allowed to share more if they want to, while others would have the opportunity to opt out. The idea of regional alliances in intelligence sharing is not new. As Den Boer describes, there have been instances in the past, when some Member States, such as France and Germany, together with the US, engaged in joint intelligence gathering missions to track down warlords in Afghanistan for intelligence officers to interrogate.

However, partial intelligence sharing could be a good option for Member States more affected by terrorism, such as France and Belgium, where cooperation could also prove to be less cumbersome due to geographical proximity and lack of language barriers. This arrangement would enable more reluctant Member States to opt out, especially if they are less affected by terrorist attacks.

Intelligence, a national competency

Alternatively, Member States could decide to keep information gathering in their own hands. Given the deeply sensitive nature of intelligence, it is understandable that national authorities would want to retain information they acquired. Den Boer points out, that the majority of counterterrorism activities are still performed on a bilateral level between individual Member States, therefore intelligence sharing is limited to this level as well. Member States are still the prime collectors, producers and users of intelligence and sharing the information on an international level could raise problems.

The “keeping it as it is” option has its merits too. First and foremost, intelligence sharing would raise the issue of accountability and transparency. Den Boer highlights a major problem: to manage sensitive intelligence (such as for instance biometric data) on an EU level, the managing agency, in this case Europol, would have to be vested with a mandate it currently does not have. This would create the need for intelligence oversight, which would have to also function in an independent and neutral capacity. Dealing with intelligence from multiple sources would result in a huge amount of data and complex databases, which would have to be organized and maintained in a clear and useful manner, a task that might also fall outside of Europol’s capacity.

However, transnational threats require transnational responses. Despite the added workload and responsibility Europol would face with the additional tasks of intelligence gathering and distributing, it would still be worth considering merging efforts and making a good use of the already expanded competencies of the agency to tackle the terrorist threat effecting all of Europe.

Cover Picture: Europol headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands, © OSeveno / Wikimedia Commons

Categories: Europe Terrorism WMDs