1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Europe's Terror Efforts Under Scrutiny

DW staff / AFP (nda)March 8, 2005

A year after the Madrid bombings, international leaders arrive in the city to discuss the on-going war on terror. The discussions may force the Europeans to take a long, hard look at their efforts since March 11, 2004.

Europe grieved under one flag but it has been less united in actionImage: AP

As world leaders and officials arrive in Madrid for the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security on Tuesday, the European Union is bracing itself for an in-depth examination of its efforts in the fight against terrorism a year after the continent's most devastating attacks.

One year after bombs ripped through packed commuter trains during Madrid's rush hour on March 11, 2004, the diplomats arriving in the Spanish capital will spend four days assessing the consequences of the bombings and the initiatives that were born from the aftermath. The EU could find itself among those accused of not learning from the tragic events.

The attacks, which claimed the lives of over 200 people and injured more than 1000, shocked the EU into life regarding its terror prevention tactics but with the first anniversary of Europe's largest terror atrocity on the horizon, Europe has largely failed to consolidate its powers and institutions and the responsibility and security of each country lies as before in the hands of the separate state governments.

The extent of Europe's efforts is clearly illustrated by the limited powers enjoyed by Gijs de Vries, the Dutchman appointed the EU's anti-terrorism coordinator in the wake of the deadly Spanish attacks.

March 11 prompted new measures

Jahresrückblick 2004 März Terror Madrid
Image: AP

In a similar way that the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States triggered emergency measures, the Madrid attacks also sparked a raft of initiatives including an accord on a European arrest warrant. Many of the new measures focused as much on fighting crime as much as terrorism.

"There was a temptation to do a lot to prove that we had value to add as a Union," said one EU expert. "But it allowed (us) to force through things which had been stalled by dressing them up as (being against) terrorism."

Among the most immediate measures concerned clamping down on funding, even if the Madrid bombings only cost a reported €8,000 ($10,569). The limit above which cash being taken across borders has to be declared was lowered to €10,000.

EU countries have also been working to harmonize rules on keeping records of phone calls or electronic data transfer, obliging them to be held for at least a year as opposed to the couple of months currently usual.

Intelligence sharing issue a major constraint

EU Flaggen
Image: AP

But the toughest challenge has been the highly sensitive area of intelligence sharing. The EU decided that from Jan. 1, 2008 any information available in one country should be available in all other EU states. But this principle is complicated by the diversity of national rules, with for example certain information requiring judicial authorization in one country but not in others.

In general, intelligence services are reluctant to divulge information except within the framework of a bilateral agreement, for example like that between France and Spain in fighting the Basque separatist group ETA.

Lack of clarity in defining root problems

More broadly, the EU has vowed to fight the "roots" of terrorism such as poverty or lack of education. But here again progress has been limited: For example, while identifying key recruiting groups such as prisons or mosques, they have been unable to define a profiled type allowing them to forecast who might turn out to be a terrorist.

To coordinate all the initiatives, the EU created a new job: that of anti-terrorism coordinator given to de Vries, who works under EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. His key tasks include pressing EU member states to transpose EU directives into national legislation, while also talking, for example, to Gulf states about funding sources and to US authorities about maritime safety.

Gijs de Vries
Gijs de Vries, EU anti-terrorism coordinator.Image: AP

De Vries has received a cool reception from some EU justice and home affairs ministers, notably Germany's Otto Schily. He is quite conscious of the limitations set around his office.

"My responsibility is to ensure that the different councils (of EU ministers) work together," he said recently. "Security remains a national competence -- that is a political decision made by our leaders."

Europe shackled by its own structure

One insider added that there are structural reasons why the EU fight against terrorism is constrained: namely Europe itself.

"It is too small because we don't have (terrorism) source countries like Pakistan or Somalia," he said. "It is too big compared with the flexibility of bilateral cooperation. And it is too diverse: For the Scandinavians, terrorism remains something exotic, down there in the South."