“The European Union needs connected intelligence-sharing, but how?”
In October 2019, after President Donald Trump pulled a thousand military personnel out of Syria, many feared a security crisis loomed over the United States. Hundreds of Islamic State (IS) prisoners escaped detention facilities, but President Trump was confident that his move would not impact American security; when asked how the withdrawal would hurt the United States, he responded, “they’re going to be escaping to Europe.” Indeed, the European Union (EU) faces a new threat that its neighbor across the pond will not. ISIS fighters, fleeing Kurdish custody, will become threats elsewhere, with Europe as a primary target. With the continent experiencing continued effects of the refugee crisis which has also exacerbated terrorist activities, the need for unified European defense policies is more vital than ever.
European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s announcement of a European defense branch, guided by the now-enacted Permanent Structure Cooperation (PESCO) scheme, is an attempt for Europe to unify its defense strategy. However, her plan focuses on defense from threats external to the EU and does not focus on the more-prevalent danger: internal attack. Von der Leyen failed to highlight the necessity for defense against intra-EU threats which have plagued the continent for the past five years. One way to prevent future attacks is the creation of codified, centralized European intelligence sharing. Ultimately, to further European defense policies and thwart future attacks, von der Leyen’s PESCO-backed defense branch must formulate an EU intelligence arm which houses current organizations and streamlines collection and regulation.
In 2015, wide holes in the EU’s counterterrorism net were revealed by the Paris and Brussels attacks. No comprehensive, shared list of suspected extremists existed, enabling the attackers to travel through irregular migration means into the EU via Greece. The attackers travelled in and out of the EU on multiple occasions, some being detained but then released, others never being questioned. While Belgian authorities knew one attacker was radicalized, French police released him after he was questioned. The problem even extends beyond religious, jihadist attacks. Europol’s 2019 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report noted the existence of a cyclical terror threat: as jihadist attacks occur, far-right terrorist cells and attacks grow, which promulgates further jihadist attacks, and so on. The 2015 attacks reveal the importance of intelligence-sharing in the bloc; European citizens can freely cross border, but bloc-wide databases of information and suspects do not exist.
European states have since beefed up resources for their intelligence agencies and tightened legal codes on citizenship and jailing sentences, but the same structural problems plague the Union. There is no unified intelligence collector, and no way for intelligence to be properly disseminated. Part of that problem comes from the EU’s patchwork solution to its intelligence community; more than seven separate organizations exist under the EU umbrella for intelligence-sharing purposes, including Europol, the Club of Berne, and the European Union Military Staff. Under these organizations, the EU itself has no method of data collection, processing, and dissemination, and must rely on member nations to voluntarily give intelligence to the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre. Its contributions to bloc-wide security are thus limited, as the data and information it analyzes comes only from member nations who can choose what to give to the organization and what not. The database “TECS” helps member states log a perpetrator’s basic characteristics, and the Schengen Information Systems II database tracks legal requests and suspects, but these databases are under the authority of two separate agencies and have two separate data criteria. Furthermore, Europol is unable to share intelligence outside EU borders, posing problems when terrorists enter and exit the EU. According to the Czech interior minister Milan Chovanec, until recently only five or six countries fully shared information to Europol. While some framework for intelligence sharing exists, the EU lacks authority to demand intelligence, and current mechanisms limit its ability to operate.
What Europe needs to properly mitigate future terror threats is a unified intelligence network underneath one agency. A supranational authority which exercises tasking, controlling, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence would produce better EU intelligence than the current system, where information must be cobbled together from various sources and with varying codes and regulations. Housing databases under one roof, for example, streamlines dissemination and regulates how and what kind of information is coded, providing more-comparable data for member states and the EU overall. If the EU agency could mandate the collection of intelligence, asymmetric information would no longer impede EU-wide intelligence dissemination and would garner stronger, more accurate results.
Issues of trust impede the creation of this supranational EU agency — German ministers in 2017 claimed bilateral intelligence sharing was faster and enabled nations to trust who they share their intelligence with — but solutions to this problem already exist in the EU framework. In Europol, each member state is represented by a European liaison officer, who is required to share relevant intelligence on behalf of his or her state. While information-sharing usually occurs through TECS, an EU agency could utilize liaison officers as the primary movers of intelligence into databases. These officers, familiar with the sources of their national intelligence and aware of their national concerns and interests in sovereignty, may redact information in extreme cases and ensure that the intelligence they provide is being used fairly and effectively.
As the EU faces the threat of IS fighters re-entering the continent, a danger reminiscent of the rising religious jihadist and far-right attacks from 2014, and a new Commission President announces interest in solidifying EU defense policy, the bloc must look to streamlining EU intelligence gathering and sharing. While the current system appeases individual member states’ interests, it does little to truly protect the EU’s collective security.