Careful, Brussels is listening

On the Need for Further European Intelligence-Sharing and Law Enforcement Co-operation

, by Willem Van Boxtel

Careful, Brussels is listening
The centralisation of criminal databases and giving more powers to Europol would help us combat terrorism.

“Terror came up when lefties and greens managed to delude the ppl [sic.] of our countries”

– Rainer Lanzerath [1]

“Liberal Democrats are the real terrorists”

– Darren Jordan [2]

“It tooks [sic.] bullets to stop the Jihadists after they had embarked on their killing spree. How about same tactic beforehand?”

– David Vance [3]

“Political correctness isn’t just stupid. It’s deadly.”

– Kevin W. [4]

No, these are not comments made by inmates of a mental asylum. These are tweets posted by what most people would call ‘normal’ citizens, and are a prime example of how terror – in this case, the London attacks of June 3rd – directly feed into ignorance to create hate. In recent months and years, this process has become all too clear, especially since the Paris attacks of 2015, and subsequent major terrorist incidents in Brussels, Berlin, and London. [5: 1]

But rather than spend this article ranting about these and other social media responses that we have been able to see since the start of the wave of terror directly or indirectly caused by Islamic State, I will focus on how a European response may offer genuine solutions to this terror threat. Angry tweets won’t help us. EU intelligence and defence co-operation might.

There are several intelligence databases in place in the EU. These all contain various lists and intelligence, but are neither centralised nor effectively co-operative. The Schengen Information System was designed before the opening of Europe’s borders under the Schengen treaty to combat problems with cross-border crime, but has recently hit a wall of national criticism.

SIS maintain records on uncontrolled firearms and other dangerous items, false banknotes and money associated with criminal activity, as well as identity documents and vehicles. It also deals with extradition requests, suspect and witness exchanges, and cross-border protection. [6]

Promising though it may seem, SIS has degraded in political support from member states’ governments, with a French parliamentary enquiry report complaining about France supposedly being the only nation that regularly feeds information into the supranational system. [7] A lack of confidence in the ability or willingness of every national intelligence service to share information is, therefore, limiting the effectiveness of SIS.

Another important aspect of European intelligence-sharing is the maintenance of Europe’s law enforcement agency Europol. Another seemingly promising organisation, which has the potential to effectively counter cross-border crime and dismantle multinational terror networks, but which is coping with legal issues that stop it from operating to great effect. Rather than performing law enforcement activities of its own, Europol is entitled only to support national police forces. The organisation has no legal powers to perform arrests or conduct independent investigations. [8] Moreover, Europol maintains its own criminal database, which appears to be thoroughly lacking.

The New York Times reports that Europol’s counterterrorism database “contains only 2,786 verified foreign terrorist fighters entered by EU member states”, despite it being known that well over 5,000 EU nationals travelled to the middle east. [7] This shows how the maintaining of several different databases can cause information to be present in one database, but lacking in another, which could hinder the efficient prosecution of criminals and terrorists.

Another fundamental problem caused by the current system of continental databases that are fed information by national intelligence services is this: it is up to the same national intelligence services to decide what information to share. The reluctance of several nations to update SIS testifies of this problem.

Sir John Sawyers, former head of the UK foreign intelligence service, MI6, explained: “The service who first obtains the intelligence has the right to control how it is used, who else it can be shared with, and what action can be taken on it.” [9] This is a critical issue that is central to why action on shared intelligence has been cumbersome, slow, and ineffective. Without executive or investigative powers, European intelligence databases and Europol have no way of accurately maintaining a complete information record.

The issue of power asymmetries is another reason why European intelligence-sharing is sometimes problematic. [5: 2] National intelligence services have wildly different powers and rights from nation to nation. For instance, in the UK the infamous “snooper’s charter” (otherwise known as the Investigatory Powers Act 2016) extended the British government’s surveillance powers to levels not before seen, including the retention of private citizens’ browsing history for up to a year. [10] This is information many other European governments do not gather, preventing a unified form of intelligence from being maintained.

The complicated mix of European databases and agencies operating within the field of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering is a problem in itself. SIS and Europol are only two of the organisations concerned with this: other agencies include the Intelligence and Situation Centre (INTCEN) and the European Counter-Terrorism Centre. There is, therefore, no centralised intelligence database or law enforcement office.

Eurofederalists like myself are often accused of simply shouting “more, more, more Europe” when faced with any problem currently at play. However, as far as intelligence-sharing is concerned, more European standards and centralisation would be the solution to many of the issues I have listed. Expanding Europol and integrating its co-operation with all national police forces, as well as awarding it summary powers of investigation and arrest, would create a solid basis for European law enforcement in the future. The centralisation of criminal databases, and standardisation of the intelligence provided to them (with, possibly, penalties for nations which fail to provide) would help prevent major cross-border terrorism of the kind we have seen recently.

After all, the network responsible for the attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016 worked across both France and Belgium, and could move freely between European capitals. [11] This is certainly not an appeal to terminate free movement and Schengen, which have brought about countless benefits on the European continent in terms of trade, tourism, and various other aspects.

But free movement and open borders require an effective way of cross-border policing. Uncoordinated databases, different levels of national intelligence-gathering, and a lack of executive powers of European institutions, do not contribute to a safer continent.

Nor do, on a side note, the hateful and often racist tweets posted at the start of this article. Europe also must provide a stern answer to this, by making itself, its uses, and its benefits, more widely-known. Yes, there will be those who still will not accept fact – anti-rational sentiment is and always will be attractive to some – but if Europe manages to solve its intelligence-gathering capabilities and credit itself with its success, we may yet see a change in attitude towards greater union.

Award more powers to European institutions, and we may yet see an end to this streak of terror. Remove the opportunities of national governments to block effective continental intelligence-gathering, and the people of Europe may yet live freely and without the threat of terror. No angry tweets required.

Footnotes and references





[5] Fägersten, B. (2016) For EU eyes only? Intelligence and European security. Available from [Accessed 05/06/2017]


[7] Nossiter, A. (2016) “As Terrorists Cross Borders, Europe Sees Anew That Its Intelligence Does Not” New York Times, March 23rd. Available at [Accessed 05/06/2017]


[9] Simcox, R. (2016) Europe, Stop Trying To Make ‘Intelligence Sharing’ Happen. Available from [Accessed 05/06/2017]



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