international analysis and commentary

A Union for stormy weather

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Jihadist terrorism crosses Europe’s borders with seeming ease; old walls and new walls. From Madrid to London, from Paris to Brussels, and from 2004 to 2016, the threat has been continent-wide and long-term. If our response remains a purely national one, we will be fighting a purely defensive and rearguard battle for European security in the 21st century. That is not going to be enough. We need a different kind of effort, we need to fight an offensive and preventive battle.

For a start, we need to acknowledge the fact that it is a battle on two fronts. The foreign front, with the clash between the self-styled DA’ISH/ISIL caliphate in Syria and in Iraq which is now spreading also to Libya, galvanizes, funds, and trains the European Islamic terrorists who comprise our home front. The existence of two fronts begs questions that we need to address with courage. Is it true that the loss of territory in “Syraq” – where the caliphate is finally losing ground – is prompting the disparate cells of jihadist terrorism to raise the level of their attacks in Europe? Or is the opposite true? In other words, is it true that only by combating DA’ISH/ISIL can we weaken the European terrorist humus as well, in the medium to longer term at least?  That’s certainly what I believe. We as Europeans need to take all necessary action (including far more incisive action to counter funding sources) to defeat the self-styled caliphate where it is attempting to put down roots, and we need to do so in an alliance with international and local players determined to do the same thing without any residual ambiguity. One of the consequences is that Europe will no longer be able to speak vainly of European defense. Military capability and the political will to use it are a crucial prop for a “bad weather” European Union, and it also needs another prop, namely a strengthening of the EU’s external borders. Thinking of resolving the problem by forging an agreement with Turkey – which, while necessary in the short term, is unlikely to function well or in full – has all the makings of an illusion.

On the home front, a security union (for today’s security, not for yesterday’s) should be based on genuine cooperation among our police forces, on the development of law enforcement functions, and on shared intelligence allowing us, among other things, to prevent potential terrorists from crossing national borders.  Putting it in a very tight nutshell, the third prop for a security union reflecting today’s needs would bear a considerable resemblance to a European FBI. The objection to such a proposal is that there is currently no political player (i.e. a federal government) capable of replicating the models adopted by the United States against the mafia and against organized crime in the past. 

It is extremely difficult, precisly in such sensitive spheres and particularly at a moment when Europe is suffering from a net drop in its legitimacy, to overcome (political, bureaucratic, cultural, and psychological) reluctance to make any further concessions in the field of national sovereignty. And that is not all. It is the differences in the various countries’ legislation and legal systems, for instance regarding the magistracy’s role, that makes the figure of a “European prosecutor” a nonsense.  Also, the rifts in the European Parliament over the personal freedom-to-security ratio explain why the famous PNR (European Passenger Name Record) is still being debated after all these years. 

But while all of this is true, it is also true that unless the EU can succeed in ensuring European citizens’ protection, it is finished. Can a pragmatic approach work? Let’s take a look at a few of the aspects involved in such an approach. First, talking about European intelligence means talking about sharing information, which may be rapidly increasing but which continues to rely chiefly on bilateral ties (a question of trust) and on a mentality that is at least partly “mercantile” (I will give you valuable intelligence in return for you supplying me with equally valuable information). Only an “existential” approach (the long-term struggle against terrorism) will boost Europe’s capabilities, steered by the best experience, which includes Italy’s. Second, establishing a kind of European FBI requires a strengthening of existing common tools such as the Europol, and the gradual harmonization of national legislations. Third, not only laws but also magistrates’ brains in the various European countries need to take on board the notion that we are at war (by whatever name you may wish to call it):  It is crucial to avoid the kind of thing that we have just seen with the criminals/terrorists involved in the Paris and Brussels attack bouncing in and out of jail like yo-yos. And finally, the database established under the Schengen agreement can and must be used as a tool for preventive security – which is one of the reasons why we need to keep Schengen afloat.

In theory, the existence of a common terrorist threat should prompt Europe to close ranks, to unite, not to split. In practice, terrorism and the migrant policy crisis, different though they are, are both posing the first serious threat to the survival of the EU as an entity, because they have an even greater impact than the 2010 financial crisis on our societies’ cohesion and because they have an absolutely radical impact on the political process, working in favor of anti-European parties. The Europe that we need has one crucial goal to achieve:  It has to make its citizens less vulnerable. The Europe that we have, a child of the 20th century postwar era raised on the single currency, is incapable of doing that. It is a fair-weather Europe. When the weather turns stormy, you need new tools to cope with it.