international analysis and commentary

EU counterterrorism efforts and the role of High Representative Mogherini

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As EU leaders at the European Council were discussing the implementation of measures countering the emergence of violent extremism, ferocious terrorist attacks took place, almost simultaneously, in Tunisia, France and Kuwait. Soon afterward, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, launched her first declaration on such events through social networks, “Tunisia, Kuwait, France: Europe and Arab world united as victims and in the response. Terrorists want to divide us, they unite us even more.” In broad terms, Mogherini’s statement is in line with her counter-narrative strategy and with her commitment to increasing a comprehensive internal/external response to transnational terrorist networks.

Much has been said on the complexity of the EU institutional system. Even more has been written about the pitfalls of EU foreign and security policy. Yet, not as much time has been dedicated to what has generally been considered a niche action of the EU, namely the external dimension of counterterrorism policies. This area has been the core of the EU inter-institutional debate over the last six months. Before the terrorist bombings in Madrid (2004) and London (2005), which took place in the political climate generated by the 9/11 attacks, terrorism had largely been considered in Europe a national problem for individual states to handle. Hence, the history of the external dimension of EU counterterrorism runs in parallel with the development of the transnational dimension of terrorism on the continent.

EU counterterrorism policies suffer the same pitfalls as the broader EU foreign and security policy. The most crucial of these stems from the dichotomy around which the EU is structured: a supranational side and an intergovernmental one characterized by two decision-making processes. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, Mogherini has been trying to promote a counter-value narrative to bridge the gap between supranational and intergovernmental policies and to foster a truly comprehensive approach to counterterrorism. Taking advantage of Member State and inter-institutional convergence on the necessity to introduce new counterterrorism measures and managing to contextualize violent extremism on the general international stage, Mogherini has injected more dynamism into the cooperation among Member States regarding in this area. She has done so through her agenda-setting power as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Council, through public declarations directed at shaping policy decisions, and through her implementation tasks.

The Paris attacks in January provided a window of opportunity for Mogherini to push for more cooperation on these traditionally sovereign matters. The fight against terrorism was listed as the first point on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council held after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. On this occasion, the EU’s Counterterrorism Coordinator (Gilles de Kerchove) joined the meeting for the first time since the role was establishment in 2004. Member States also decided to introduce the figure of security attaché within EU delegations abroad. Shortly after, on February 9th, the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Meeting stated clearly that the EU would “step up, as a matter of urgency, its external action on countering terrorism in particular in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, including Yemen, and North Africa, in particular also Libya, and the Sahel” and that “counterterrorism (CT)” would “be mainstreamed fully into EU foreign policy.” Such conclusions served as input to the informal meeting of the EU Council when heads of states and government met on February 12th. They recognized such commitment and stressed that the European Union would “take this work forward promptly, fully involving the High Representative, the EU Counterterrorism Coordinator and the Member States.”

The external dimension of counterterrorism is also one of the core issues discussed in the “Regional Strategy for Syria and Iraq as well as the ISIL/Da’esh threat’[1], prepared by Mogherini and adopted on March 16th by the Foreign Affairs Council. The official document included, among other things, the principle of complementarity between the action of the EU and individual EU Member States, and envisaged a budget of 1 billion euros for the accomplishment of the objectives of the strategy[2].

Along the same lines, the proposal for a comprehensive European Agenda on Security presented by the Commission at the end of April, which mainly focused on the internal dimension of the fight against terrorism, recognized that EU action has to be “based on a coherent set of actions combining the internal and external dimensions, to further reinforce links between Justice and Home Affairs and Common Security and Defense Policy.” Considering this, only five days before the document was released, a special meeting of the European Council was held with the High Representative to begin preparations for a possible Common Security and Defense Policy mission to fight traffickers in the Mediterranean. After being discussed as the first point in the agenda, operation “European Union Naval Force Mediterranean” was finally launched on June 22th by the Foreign Affairs Council. As Mogherini herself noted, this was the first time Member States agreed by consensus on the launch of a mission decided only two months earlier.

It is against this backdrop that the EU Council held on June 25-26 included, among the issues to be debated, “the implementation of measures to fight terrorism agreed at its informal meeting in February.” The High Representative, reported on the work done in the past months in the external dimension of the fight against terrorism. Additionally, the EU Council agreed that “the High Representative will continue the process of strategic reflection with a view to preparing an EU global strategy on foreign and security policy,” which will be due by June 2016. Such conceptual effort contributes to develop a counter-narrative against violent extremism, which is most likely to bring effective results in the long term.

While Mogherini has sought to act as a bridging figure between the supranational aspects of counterterrorism and the intergovernmental ones, but there is a tangible risk that EU external counterterrorism will be contingent and develop only in times of policy convergence among the strategic interests of Member States and institutions, determining a laxity of the crucial preventive measures that are absolutely needed in this field. A comprehensive approach to EU counterterrorism seems to be gaining ground in Brussels. Let’s hope it will find the conditions to stay long enough to bear fruit.


[1] The October 2014 Foreign Affairs Council called for a regional strategy for Syria and Iraq as well as the ISIL/Da’esh threat.

[2] The strategy includes: the promotion of regional engagement in support of security and long-term peace; the isolation and defeat of Da’esh as a military force and as a terrorist organization and counter its ideological influence; the prevention of regional spill-overs and enhancement of border security; the provision of life-saving humanitarian aid and international protection; the strengthening of local resilience capacities in Syria, Iraq and the affected neighboring countries; and more specific country objectives.