Feb 7, 2011

The Restrained Union: Has EU Counter-Terrorism Policy Become More About Having an EU Policy Than About Countering Terrorism?

The EU is subject to many of the same pressures to act as member governments, but without having recourse to the same resources, notes Toby Archer. The example of counter-terrorism policy shows that less action may be more. Precisely because it does not have the necessary resources to hand, the Union should be capable of self-restraint in such areas.

Why does the EU have a counter-terrorism (CT) policy? To counter terrorism would be the obvious reply, but a critical look at the state of the Union’s CT measures raises questions about whether such a policy is necessary, let alone possible in a meaningful form. The answer to the question clearly lies elsewhere and, worryingly, it seems that there are certain pressures pushing the EU to develop policies even if these have limited or even negative value. The case of CT suggests that it is inherent in the nature of the EU for political goals such as having a common European position and furthering integration, or coherence with other EU policies, to obscure the issue that the policy actually professes to address.

Is EU counter-terrorism policy really a product of activism?

Of course this is not the first time the criticism has been made that the EU seeks out areas for cooperation merely for the sake of increasing the scope of European integration. What makes its CT activities particularly interesting is that, at first sight, they appear to stand above such criticism. Counter-terrorism is not a policy area that the EU ever coveted – despite there being a long history of cooperation across Europe against terrorists groups. It was only as terrorism and counter-terrorism became central issues of both domestic and international politics after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, that it became hard to avoid. But even then, the EU was often slow, or reluctant, to act.

Not only is the EU now active in counter-terrorism policy and counter-radicalization; the threat of terrorism is often used as a justification for other policy initiatives, particularly those that come under the umbrella of the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice. But to what extent has European CT policy become more about proving the Union can produce policies than about actually countering terror? Evaluations of the effectiveness of EU policy offer little comfort. A number of criticisms can be – indeed, frequently are – made about the effectiveness of the EU’s counter-terrorism activity.

Firstly, it is said that the Union simply has no natural role in dealing with terrorism and, therefore, should actually expect to be ineffectual. The concept of subsidiarity means that the EU has to allow member states to do the policy implementation and is left only providing coordination, general principles and best practices. Even those EU measures and agencies which have developed beyond the declaratory stage struggle for meaning. EUROPOL, for example, enjoys limited cooperation from national police and intelligence agencies. Efforts to boost the political will behind these measures have also foundered. The creation in 2004 of the role of Counter-Terrorism Coordinator – as opposed to a director with executive power – has achieved relatively little. Commentators suggest that only a minority of governments actually take the coordinator’s role seriously.

A second major criticism is that the EU has nothing new to offer. Far from adding to the coherence of EU-wide efforts, European CT policy merely offers a duplication or replication of pre-existing structures. There are several, often unofficial networks between European counter-terrorism police and security officials that significantly pre-date even the Maastricht Treaty. These do much of the work that EU measures aim for. The measures adopted by the Union are often more inclusive than these networks and involve a greater number of member states, and from this perspective have an added value. All the same, these EU actions seldom build on the existing groups, and even more rarely achieve or indeed improve the effectiveness of these networks.

A third important criticism of European CT policymaking suggests that the very policy principles and substantial goals underpinning policy are flawed. In the last three years a number of scholars have argued for the necessity of ‘Critical Terrorism Studies’, a field of academic study that looks at the discourse of ‘terrorism’, as much as at the individual terrorists or groups. First results of these studies reveal assumptions about terrorism post-9/11 that are fundamentally misplaced. Terrorism has become almost synonymous with ‘al Qaeda’, which centrally associates terrorism with Muslims. As a result, European Muslims are becoming a central subject of security policymaking, with counter-radicalization as a concept dealing almost solely with young Muslims. This labelling as a potential threat actually increases the chance of radicalization.

A self-generating policy

Of course, the finding that the principles and goals underpinning EU policy are wrong would not normally be a sign of unnecessary activism on the part of the Union. There are ample examples of policy areas where the EU follows odd principles and goals, but nevertheless has a legitimate role to play. Counter-terrorism policy, however, is different. Being largely a ‘preventative’ area of policy – a policy which seeks to stop something from happening – it is difficult to measure its success. In such a policy area, the pursuit of faulty principles can actually create a policy that is self-generating. The EU may be chasing problems that are of its own imagining, and then citing their failure to emerge as a sign of success.

The political conditions for this phenomenon were ripe at the offset of EU CT. Interviewing Commission and Council Secretariat officials about various aspects of CT policy they were responsible for in early 2003, less than a year and half after the 9/11 attacks, they quickly – and worryingly – attested to having no special knowledge of the issue. The sudden rise of terrorism in political importance after 9/11 meant that many officials were given responsibility for issues under the CT umbrella when they had no knowledge of the problem and therefore were unable to distinguish between reliable and dubious or politically slanted information.

It is also notable that researchers assessing EU CT policy have tended to be more interested and knowledgeable about EU policymaking than they are about terrorism. This means that there is only limited critical analysis of EU CT policy – indeed this tends to be critical only in the sense that it questions how successful EU policy is in the EU’s own terms. It measures the EU’s success against its capacity to produce a CT policy that the member states and the community institutions can agree on, not against its capacity to stop terrorism.

One example of how perceptions of terrorism are generated can be found in the way researchers, politicians and policy-makers politicise the number of arrests made under anti-terrorism legislation. In 2005, a number of analysts noted that there had been over 1000 terrorism-related arrests in the EU since 2001, 700 of which were in the UK alone. But arrests are not convictions – in the UK, the conviction rate for terrorism and terrorism-related offences since 9/11 has been only 13%, and 56% of all those arrested are released without facing any charge. This is not to say that there is no threat – there clearly is, some of those convicted had carried out, or were planning to carry out serious acts of violence – but rather citing arrests for terrorism can easily create a false impression of the scale of the threat.

Using the (wrong) tools that we have

In such a political context, it is unsurprising how many states – not just European ones – have developed a talent for identifying terrorist threats which justify the political action they were anyway planning. And, worryingly, the EU’s frequent assessments of what it can do to combat terrorism really do seem to pre-date its assessments of the nature of the threat itself. The EU has created certain institutions that need to be used in order to be justified. In the CT policy area, EUROPOL and EUROJUST are the obvious examples.

The EU has also sought to increase its role in other policy areas, citing pressing CT concerns. For instance, the role of development aid is stressed in the EU’s counter-terrorism documents. Short of the doubtful and rather patronizing assumption that angry poor people commit acts of terrorism, development aid actually has little to do with Europe’s internal security problems. Ideas such as the ‘dialogue of civilisations’ are also exceedingly vague and, whilst not necessarily bad notions in themselves, are again far removed from the specific task of countering terrorism within the EU.

Similarly the EU has taken many steps against the financing of terrorism, targeting money laundering and other financial crimes. Whilst the criminal use of the financial system should generally be combated, it is not clear to what extent this specifically helps in combating terrorism. After all, one of the startling facts to emerge from the investigations of terrorist attacks in Europe is their small cost. The 7/7 bombings in London cost only a few hundred pounds to stage and, including the travel to Pakistan for training, it is believed that the perpetrators only needed a total of approximately
£ 8000 (9,500 EUR). The majority of this was financed by the group leader, in part by a bank loan and in part by his wages as a classroom assistant.

On the other hand, new policy initiatives that do seem necessary if we are to avoid the marginalization and potential radicalization of individuals in European societies may not even be the responsibility of member state governments, let alone the EU, but rather best dealt with by local authorities and policing agencies. These are areas where the EU has no or few tools and can only have marginal influence at best. EU efforts to spread ‘best practice’ will be of limited value due to the differing political and social circumstance in the various member states.

Institution-building before policy outcomes

So, is EU CT activity more about European institution building than it is stopping terrorism? Both the policy documents themselves, and the supporting and analyzing academic and think-tank discourse, focus – as so often with the EU – on internal coherence and institutional matters, more than on the issue at hand itself. Political pressure to do something about terrorism becomes caught up in the complexity of producing a policy agreeable to 27 member states and to the Community institutions and coming up with joint European policies seems often to involve giving pre-existing Union legal instruments or institutions a new, and newsworthy role.

The EU is based on impeccable liberal democratic principles – a purposeful rejection of the continent’s brutal past. The use of violence to make political or other ideological points or to influence or intimidate governments or peoples – terrorism – is diametrically opposed to the best of European values and therefore must be opposed. Yet, a critical look at the EU’s fumbling attempts to counter terrorism shows the inherent problems for policy production within an entity that is less
than a super-state and more than just another international organisation.

Firstly, citizens exert much the same political pressure on the EU as they do on their own governments. Since it is more than an international organisation, citizens rightly expect that the EU can ‘do something’. But fearing the creation of a super-state, citizens refuse to put the same tools at the EU’s disposal as a national government enjoys. Secondly, with its contested nature and at times conflicting stake-holders, no EU policy-making can be divorced from the politics of what the EU is, does and will be in the future. Questions such as whether the EU should develop a presence in a certain policy field are viewed from a constitutional perspective rather than one of effectiveness, subsidiarity and proportionality. Thirdly, the sheer complexity of forging a policy agreeable to the different institutions of the EU and the 27 member states means that agreeing on anything can become a goal in itself, and reaching an agreement a victory. Questioning how successful that policy is runs a distant second.

The EU must learn a little more restraint and self-discipline. In a highly politicised policy area such as counter-terrorism, the EU would show greater political maturity than many governments if it resisted the pressure to act unnecessarily and concentrated on those areas where it can make a meaningful contribution. The Union could achieve this greater sense of focus by funding and disseminating research on complex phenomena around terrorism which are still not well understood – questions such as how and why the political dynamics of the Middle East are connected to the everyday experience of European Muslims. And where it funds and disseminates such research, the Union could usefully incorporate it in its own policy measures too. After all, the Commission has already funded limited but good research in these areas, but the nuanced conclusions of academics and social researchers attract less political attention than police, intelligence or military officials can gain for their policy recommendations. Not only could such research boost the success of CT policy at the national level, it could also contribute to the imperative of increasing understanding in Europe between majority and minority groups. In this case, less would certainly be more.

Toby Archer is an EU security analyst based in Helsinki.