Following the terrorist attacks in the EU capital on March 22, European leaders are calling for deeper collaboration between the EU member states’ police and intelligence forces to prevent future attacks. However, similar calls have been made before and real cooperation has been proven difficult to achieve.

The two terrorist attacks in Brussels on Tuesday (March 22), have left more than 30 dead and over 250 injured. Both attacks took place in public areas. The first one at Zaventem airport just outside of Brussels, the second at Maelbeek metro station, right in the heart of the EU district, only a few hundred metres away from the European Council and Berlaymont, the main building of the European Commission.

Thomas Renard, security expert at Egmont Institute in Brussels, explains that these kind of attacks are very difficult to stop. But still he calls it a failure for the national security and intelligence forces.

“When this kind of attack happens it is a failure. So something went wrong, so either these individuals were not identified in time or they were identified and monitored, but not arrested in time,”  Renard said meeting with Euranet Plus just outside the Maelbeek metro station the day after the attack. He elaborated:

“Because this is always a challenge of intelligence and of police services. To monitor individuals, to collect information, but not arresting them too early, otherwise we will miss the broader picture, we will miss the broader network. But obviously, if you arrest them too late then you are faced with the risk that something happens and this is what has happened in this case.”

Time for cooperation and trust

Following the attacks several European leaders have demanded enhanced security cooperation among the European countries.

EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said at the Commission’s daily press conference on Wednesday, March 23, that there are tools in place to fight and monitor terrorists, but that the EU member states need to share more information and to have more trust in each other.

The German member of the European Parliament (MEP, Elmar Brok for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), who is chairing the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), also demanded better cooperation. (audio in German)

“I really don’t understand that. Secrecy should finally stop. It should be a real data exchange there. Even 9/11 would not have been in the US if the intelligence services could work properly within the United States. It is simply a scandal and I mean that all 28 interior ministers should be forced now in the European Union to make this data available so that you can avoid something like that in future. Complete safety there will never be”, Brok told the German Euranet Plus member ams.

However, similar calls have been made before, specially after the terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November last year.

But finding common European solutions have been proven difficult.

After the Paris attacks, EU leaders have indeed decided to improve information sharing and to cooperate more. Yet in practice data is not being properly gathered and shared, neither in the Schengen Information System, SIS, nor in the European fingerprint database, Eurodac.

Border control at Zaventem Airport in 2011 / European Union 2011 PE-EP

Border control at Zaventem Airport in 2011

Spent five years talking about air passenger control

The Passenger Name Record (PNR), a system where personal data on air passengers would be collected and where movements of European jihadists returning to the EU could potentially be tracked, is another example that shows how hard it is for EU countries to cooperate on security matters.

A European PNR was put forward by the Commission in February 2011.

But after more than five years of talks, the file is still blocked in the European Parliament, where there has been concerns over citizens privacy.

“Well, I find it quite amazing. The member states are all pretty well on line, the one problem is this parliament. I mean it is a very important ingredient in bringing forward further cooperation and work between the intelligence agencies and the police authorities right across Europe. And it will undoubtedly have an effect,” said Timothy Kirkhope, British MEP for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group and who has been leading the work on PNR in the European Parliament.

Security expert Renard argues that it’s normally difficult for the 28 EU member states to agree and this is particularly problematic when it comes to security and intelligence work, where there is a culture of secrecy. But he agrees that more cooperation is needed.

“In Europe it is estimated that about 5,000 individuals are considered to be foreign fighters, but Europol has the name of only 2,700 of them, so only half of them. Which basically tells you that there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of information sharing,” Renard said.

  • Further image credits: (middle 1) Border control at Zaventem Airport in 2011 / European Union 2011 PE-EP

Euranet Plus News Agency listening tip

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After the Paris attacks in November, we live in a changed era. It is no longer the sound of artillery fire in the distance, but a sense that the enemy is within our schools, or workplaces, our shopping centres, our theatres. But is our sense of suspicion leading to an overreaction which risks the primary values of our Western society? Is our response to the Paris attacks, and lockdown in Brussels, balanced, careful and proportionate?

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