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Europe

Opinion: While Brussels Slept

Until March 11 Europe's fight against terror was mainly theoretical. But since the Madrid attacks, anti-terrorism measures have risen to the top of the political agenda as more and more security lapses are revealed.

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Europe needs more than moments of silence for the victims of terror.

After Sept. 11, 2001, leaders across Europe held up their hands in solidarity and vowed to join forces and fight terrorism. But two and a half years later, there is little to show from that battle.

"There are European instruments, but they have been poorly utilized; the ratification of the agreement is slow; the measures have been inadequately applied or have been misunderstood by security forces and justice offices in the member states." The wording is taken from a confidential report on the European Union's anti-terror policy presented just two days before the deadly bombings in Madrid, and the conclusion drawn is a frighteningly realistic depiction of the sorry state of the EU's fight against terror.

Especially unsatisfactory is the exchange of information and data between the various European intelligence agencies and among the national police organizations. Although EUROPOL serves as a European go-between for cross-border investigations, its responsibilities in the fight against terror have been limited: It is primarily an observer in the fight against terror.

Although there are plans for strengthening EUROPOL, they will not go into effect until a few years down the road; and the EU Commission will not start researching anti-terror measures and begin examining ways to develop new techniques until 2007. In the meantime the calls are getting louder for establishing a definitive European anti-terror authority along the lines of the American Homeland Security ministry. During a recent meeting of EU justice ministers, Austria proposed creating a European intelligence office similar to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The initiative fell on deaf ears. Despite the rhetoric, it seems no country is really prepared to give up its sovereignty in the area of security for the sake of a Europe-wide anti-terror initiative.

Creating central anti-terror organization

No one can really say for certain whether or not a central intelligence organization could have prevented the bombings in Madrid. But Europe's own experience with regional terror groups in the 1970s and 1980s lends support to the creation of a cross-border, anti-terror commando. In order to successfully combat the IRA, ETA, RAF and the Red Brigade, Great Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy each developed special units to focus exclusively on the terror threat when the national police force was incapable of doing so. Such a model could be applied to the EU level, especially since the national justice departments with their police offices all too often end their pursuit of criminals at the border.

That should at least change soon. By June Europe will have introduced the EU arrest warrant, allowing police to pursue suspects across national borders. Much more crucial, however, is the development of forge-resistant passports and the ascertaining of biometric data for all visa applicants. These measures are still in the testing phase. In terms of infrastructure, the EU must do more to protect its road and rail networks. The continent's highways and railroads present an ideal target for terrorists and allow for easy transport of weapons and suspects across borders.

More than a silent tribute

Recent surveys show that EU citizens expect their political leaders to achieve an 80 percent success rate in the fight against terror. Terrorism and security issues are high on their list of priorities. The EU, however, is far from such concrete goals. Only after lengthy debate was the bloc able to agree on a common definition of what terrorism actually is.

Nonetheless, Europe's leaders have made anti-terror measures and the fight against terror their priority for the next summit. If one were a cynic, one could say, it's unfortunate that it took a catastrophe such as the one in Madrid to shake the EU out of its stupor and open its eyes to reality.

Djerba, Casablanca, Bali, Mombasa, Istanbul: the list of warnings was long. Now terror has arrived in Europe and this is the last chance to join forces and react, not just with moments of silence, but with real concrete actions.

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