Europe must urgently do the basics to better protect itself against terrorism, says security scholar François Heisbourg. Currently there isn’t even a joint terrorist database or an airline passenger recognition system.
DW: Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US has been working hard at protecting itself against Jihadist terrorism. Since the Paris attacks, Europe has now also begun to grapple seriously with this issue. What can Europe learn from the US experience to protect itself better against terrorism?
François Heisbourg: There is a basic rule and that is that you must have excellent communication of information between the various agencies that collect, process and exploit the data for repressive or preventative purposes. That cooperation was lacking in the US before 9/11 and then the Americans built up a substantially better system. Europe, of course, has an additional difficulty in that it is composed of 28 member states of the EU, which does not facilitate the sharing of information that the Americans have put into place.
The Paris attacks showed how important international cooperation is to try to thwart terrorism. Is the EU, as the main European entity, currently organized and resourced in a manner to protect Europeans effectively against terrorist threats?
The EU, as in other matters of defense and diplomacy, is not the prime agent. The prime agents are the member states. Intelligence, defense and diplomacy are produced foremost by the member states and only in a secondary manner at the EU level. This is, of course, not going to change until we have a completely federal Europe, which politically today is not an option that is on offer. So you have to find better ways for the member states to work with each other and to have the EU level be a facilitator in that respect. The organizational model of the US cannot be replicated directly in the European framework.
It looks like the EU member states still have a lot room for improvement on cooperation as there apparently isn't even a comprehensive European terrorist database and Europol's data pool contains only a fraction of the names listed on the various national terrorist databases in European countries?
That is correct. There are two basic problems in my view. The first one is that only a few of the member states have serious security and intelligence services. This is a question of resources and manpower. The fact is that larger countries will have more resources to deal with these issues than the smaller countries. In my view some sort of support will have to be provided by the larger, better resourced countries to help the smaller ones develop their own organizations.
The second issue, of course, is that of transmission of data and information. Not all EU members share the Schengen information system. And not all of the members of the Schengen area share the more developed version of the Schengen information system. And yes, there is indeed no broad-spectrum terrorism database and there is no passenger name recognition system for air travel at the European Union level. All of these things can be corrected, must be corrected, but they have not been corrected.
So how hopeful are you that these basic steps will now be implemented soon?
A lot will depend on whether or not Schengen survives in the next few months. That is a very open question to the extent that Schengen is seen as not working. This was demonstrated by the national, unilateral measures taken by individual member states during the refugee crisis last summer with Sweden putting border controls between Sweden and Denmark in place and with Germany indicating that it considered the so-called Dublin rules no longer applicable and that it had to take its own decisions. There is now a very serious question whether Schengen will survive politically as each new election tends to indicate that conservative, sovereigntist forces are in the ascendant. So that question will be answered politically in the coming months. There is no technical reason why you cannot make the Schengen area and the EU more efficient than it is today in dealing with the problem of terrorism.
To protect itself against terrorism, the US also passed some controversial new laws like the Patriot Act, which were widely criticized for unduly violating civil liberties. Can Europeans also learn from the mistakes made by the US in order to avoid repeating them?
Not Europe as a whole because legislation tends to be passed at the national level and it is national reactions to national events which tend to generate calls for new legislation. In France, we certainly have people who would like to see stronger anti-terrorism laws. Personally, I don't think that this is necessary. We lacked the resources to fully implement the laws that we already have and I would prefer to see the full potential of existing legislative and legal armory be used rather than trying to please an impatient electorate with measures, which are not, strictly speaking, necessary.
François Heisbourg is chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Previously he worked in various capacities for the French foreign and defense ministries.
The interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.