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Can the EU cope with terrorism threats?

The EU faces one of the most pressing crises in its history, as it attempts to tackle terrorist attacks inspired by the radical Islamist organisation ISIS. As the events in Brussels yesterday have shown there is a great deal to be done, but it is far from clear that the EU is either capable or has the political will to act given the nature of the threats posed.

Following the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Europe has been on high alert as it sought to find the suspect Salah Abdeslam. This included an extensive man hunt, followed by an acknowledgement that whilst in hiding he was planning further terrorist attacks within a European ISIS network. Within this context, that the attacks occurred in Brussels demonstrates an enormous intelligence failure; the broad location and timing was suspected and whilst the network was unsettled it was not stopped. This should give serious pause for thought about how the EU approaches its counter-terrorism strategy more widely, and how it responds to these events more specifically.

Our politicians increasingly tell us that we are more safe and secure because of the increasing security measures they put in place.

These are physical and tangible in terms of security checks at airports, whether that be taking off your shoes, unpacking you laptop, or using clear plastic bags for liquids, but also less tangible collections of data on social media and telecommunications. But, as these same politicians place further burdens of security on their citizens and ask them to reduce their rights to privacy, terrorists have responded by targeting airport check-ins, trains, cafes and shows. They circumvent the security measures that our politicians insist are making us safer. The reality is, however, that we cannot be protected from every terrorist threat all the time and in all places without changing our way of life, accepting enormous disruption and giving up certain freedoms. There could be smarter approaches taken within Europe’s public transport networks, such as more randomised searching and moves away from racial to behavioural and intelligence led profiling. But these are again tactical chanciness in approach rather than strategic.

What the EU needs, is to stop overwhelmingly focusing on regulation and tactics that can be circumvented all too easily and develop a strategy that it can actually follow through on. The EU needs to agree the ends, ways and means of defeating terrorism inspired by Islamic fundamentalist groups such as ISIS. The EU needs to be an actor that is capable of not only identifying objectives, but also putting the resources and methods in place to meet those objectives.

Yet, the reason that the EU is so inefficient and slow moving on this is that getting an enforceable agreement amongst member states drives EU policy making to the lowest common denominator and policy becomes about wording and not action.

Within this context it is reasonable to ask if the EU is in fact actually capable of genuinely helping to prevent future attacks at all, as it is indeed very difficult to imagine a consensus based approach to these problems emerging. Whilst some Member States have chosen to erroneously conflate terrorism in Europe with the migration crisis and challenge the Schengen system, others instinctively turn to military and retaliatory instincts.

European solidarity lasts only a little longer than a news cycle, which is all the more problematic when the EU’s approach to security operates at the pace of a telegraph in a digital world.

Dr Oz Hassan, Associate Professor in the Politics and International Studies Department at the University of Warwick.




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