EU-FBI: how European and national politics clash

EU-FBI: how European and national politics clash

After the terrible terror attack stricken in Nice during the celebration for the Bastille Day, politicians are facing again the dilemma on how to properly address the rising threat of terrorism in the main European cities. The previous reactions to the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels showed that a European response to terrorism is still far away. Borders were closed and countries were quick to criticize each other’s intelligence services, especially on the sharing of information.[1] While some politicians turned to more national approaches, others proposed a more radical solution: an FBI-style security and intelligence agency for the whole European Union. A very federalist idea in Eurosceptic times – yet one with surprising traction.

The current intelligence set-up of the EU leaves much to be desired. EU member states still largely dislike the idea of sharing information, and sometimes there is even competition between agencies.[2] Barely 3000 Syria-fighters have been reported to Europol’s database, despite the probably around 5000 EU citizens that have left in total – with just five EU members responsible for the brunt of those mentions.[4]  Data sharing across the EU remains poor and in its infancy.

This hasn’t escaped the attention of politicians in the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the parliament, called for a European FBI-style agency to aid the fight against terrorism. A proposal that wasn’t well received by Syedd Kamall, the Tory-leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group – he was caught on camera making a rude gesture towards Verhofstadt at the plenary while the latter was making his case.[5] The Belgian wants to turn Europol, which is limited to sharing information and coordinating, into a fully-fledged intelligence agency and information sharing hub.[6] Manfred Weber, chairman of the Christian Democrat European People’s Party (EPP), agrees to an FBI, but sees a more limited role, for example, aimed at digital counterterrorism.[7] The European Parliament’s recent approval of the PNR-scheme, which exchanges name records of passenger flights and has been in the making for two years, perhaps signals an increased action on counterterrorism issues – although a European FBI is far from a done deal given there is not even a European Commission proposal on the table.

However, interesting language can be found in a European Parliament resolution, which states “that European intelligence exchanges should be improved and a true European intelligence and forecasting capacity developed.” The language passed with a broad majority of 488 in favour, with 191 against and 14 abstentions, including the liberals of ALDE, the Christian democrats of EPP, the Social Democrats (S&D) and the Greens. This is in contrast to the PNR legislation, which had the support of the conservative ECR whereas the Greens voted against it. As mentioned before, the eurocritical ECR sees an EU intelligence agency as EU integration gone too far, where the Greens don’t like the privacy implications of the PNR legislation.

Votes by national groups of MEPs also paint an interesting picture. The four MEPs of the Flemish-nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which sit in the ECR and call themselves “eurorealists”, went against their group and backed the language on an EU intelligence agency. N-VA is part of the ruling coalition in Belgium, which broadly supported the measure, indicating strong consensus. On the contrary, the ruling liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of the Netherlands voted against. VVD, the party of prime minister Mark Rutte and a member of ALDE, is facing strong competition in upcoming parliamentary elections from the eurosceptic Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders, which also voted against it as part of the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group. Given the eurosceptic climate in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his party did not want to be seen to vote for more European integration – even if it is only on paper for now. In general, both ALDE and ECR had 80% of their members follow their group position, with VVD and N-VA as the main defectors. Notably, the EPP and the ENF had the highest group cohesions, with 100% of Christian Democrats voting in favour, and 100% of the ENF voting against.

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The “no” vote of ECR also means that both the ruling parties of Poland and the UK are against. Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) of chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski is mostly looking for a Europe of nation states and is involved in a spat with the European Commission over the rule of law in the country. As such it doesn’t like the more integrationist tendencies of the EU and prospect of more EU agencies, certainly not at this point. The PNR legislation seemed like a more straightforward yes for the parties, as a measure combatting terrorism. The ruling coalitions in the other big member states, France, Italy and Germany, did overwhelmingly back the language on the intelligence agency. The parties of François Hollande, Angela Merkel and Matteo Renzi all voted in favour except for one Italian deputy of the ruling Democratic Party (PD). It remains to be seen if this indicates enough momentum to move forward.

Information sharing in the EU will remain a challenge in the fight against terrorism, but it certainly is not the only one. For now, it still seems rather unlikely that a European FBI will see the light of day. Some Member States do not want to share information to protect their methods of information gathering – and some in the West still don’t trust their counterparts in the East.[8] At least, it seems that the discussion in the EU has been opened.