Terror attacks make EU cooperation all the more important

by Nick Kent | 05.06.2017

The appalling atrocities in London and Manchester are the latest in a wave of shocking terrorist attacks in Europe. All too often we have seen that, although the perpetrators may be citizens of one country, they have been influenced, and perhaps trained or directed, by others overseas.  Terrorism crosses borders – and so must those who are charged with fighting it.

Over the last 30 years the EU has developed a series of tools to fight cross-border crime, including terrorism. A succession of home secretaries has attended regular meetings with interior ministers from across Europe to devise common policies and react to common threats.

The easy availability of end-to-end encrypted communications is just one new challenge.  The government wants urgently to address the role of the global tech companies in that, and other areas of concern.  But it is not something that the UK can tackle alone because many of the hosting companies are outside its jurisdiction.

Often we have led the way in pushing for new counter-terrorism weapons. These have been essential when the ease of travel, the internet and global spread of extremist ideologies have worked in the terrorists’ favour.

The EU’s six key tools are:

  • Europol – the EU’s police agency, run by a Brit, through which forces across the 28 members share intelligence, jointly investigate crimes and pool information.
  • The European Arrest Warrant – which lets EU countries extradite suspects three times faster than the old bilateral system. The UK makes extensive use of it; it enabled the 21/7 bomber to be brought back swiftly from Italy.
  • The Schengen Information System – a database which provides real-time information to UK police officers and border staff that enables swift arrests and prevents crime.
  • Eurojust – which helps prosecutors bring to justice those who have committed crimes in two or more member states.
  • Passenger Name Recognition – which enables potential terrorists to be stopped from boarding planes and suspects’ movement to be traced.
  • The European investigation order – which lets evidence be quickly moved from one member state to another for both investigation and prosecution.

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    Past bilateral arrangements were slower, less effective and subject to political interference.  Extradition was often stopped on political grounds (as between Ireland and the UK); sharing of information between police forces was rare; and intermittent co-operation meant that the long-term relationships which enable trust to develop never materialised. Much intelligence is still shared on a bilateral basis but the relationships established through EU co-operation have facilitated this.

    After Brexit, our home secretary won’t be able to attend EU counter-terrorism councils. So we’ll struggle to influence how policy should adapt when the security threat does not stand still.

    With goodwill, we should be able to find ways to keep using at least some of the EU’s vital tools. But non-EU countries do not have the kind of access and participation the UK has now. If we want continued security cooperation, we will probably have to pay into the budgets of EU agencies, maintain EU data protection standards and accept the EU courts’ jurisdiction. Extreme Brexiters won’t like that.

    But the UK government has rightly made security co-operation one of its four priorities for the Brexit talks, while the EU’s negotiating mandate recognises the issue’s importance. Recent attacks have reminded us that this is one area where failure would be literally life-threatening.

    This article is an update of a piece that originally appeared on May 25. A reference to the London attack and end-to-end encryption were added.

    Edited by Hugo Dixon

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