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14th Jun 2021

EU commission keen to set up new counter-terrorism office

  • The Madrid train bomb saw Austria and Belgium propose a quantum leap in EU intelligence co-operation (Photo: Cocoabiscuit)

The European Commission is testing the water for creating a new EU internal security body on the model of Catherine Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS).

Speaking at a European Parliament hearing in Brussels on Wednesday (30 March), senior commission counter-terrorism official Olivier Luyckx envisaged a new entity that would pull together existing security agencies Cepol, Cosi, Eurojust, Europol and Frontex under EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator Gilles de Kerchove.

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"There is new room for action at EU level," he said. "This is how I see the change: to set up a system that would mirror the one that is being set up for monitoring external crises [in the EEAS], a one-stop shop for information-sharing."

Luyckx cited Guideline V on Operational Co-ordination of the EU's recently-adopted Internal Security Strategy as containing the "embryo" of the project: "Today, crisis centres in member states share contacts and information on a voluntary and informal basis. We need to go a step further and to see, while respecting the division of labour set up in the EU treaty, how to make those linkages in a tighter way."

He underlined that the new body would not be an EU intelligence service which carries out its own operations in the field. "We have no mandate, no appetite and no perspective for doing intelligence work. But we are prepared to add value if mandated by member states," Luyckx said.

Speaking at the same hearing, Austrian counter-terrorism chief Peter Gridling went even further.

"It is time to ask ourselves this question: 'Is it realistic to start thinking about a future EU intelligence service?'" he said. "I think it's realistic to start thinking about it."

Austria and Belgium first proposed a European intelligence service after the Madrid train bombing in 2004. But they were shot down by big member states, not least the UK. Gridling noted that EU capitals still have "different positions" on the subject and laid out some of the obstacles on the way.

He explained that EU countries' intelligence services work on rules such as 'originator control' and 'need-to-know' designed to limit information to as few people as possible. He also said that member states do not trust EU institutions to keep secrets.

"We should ask ourselves who would be the users, the consumers of intelligence and are they trained users, are they conscious enough to understand the principles and the importance of secrecy, of protecting this information," he said. "Can we expect anything in the next two to three years? The answer for me is clearly No."

Gridling gave a rare insight into current EU intelligence co-operation.

All 27 EU countries plus Norway and Switzerland share secrets inside the non-EU body, the Club de Berne. They share secrets on terrorism in a Club de Berne offshoot, the Counter Terrorist Group (CTG). The CTG is also a non-EU body but talks to the EU institutions via the Joint Situation Centre, a branch of Ashton's EEAS.

"The Club de Berne is an institution based on voluntariness. The members come together to speak about problems, to exchange views and exchange experience and information. These meetings on the level of heads of service take place frequently," Gridling said. "The CTG is nowadays the interface between the Club de Berne and the EU ... the Joint Situation Centre has been attending CTG meetings for years and acts as a gateway for the CTG to the EU institutions."

Remarking on the growing trust between EU countries, former Spanish intelligence director Gabriel Fuentes Gonzalez told MEPs: "Some of the co-operation systems we have today would have been unacceptable 20 years ago."

For his part, Andre Vandoren, a senior Belgian intelligence officer, put forward the modest idea that EU countries should use one system of terrorist alerts.

"I hope in the future we can have threat levels that are common for the 27 countries so that we are speaking the same language. For the moment we have different ones in each country. We can speak with each other. OK. But that's the way to go," he told MEPs.

Belgium's system goes from one (the lowest) to four. The country is normally on level two, but US, Israeli and Jewish interests are on three. The last time it jumped from two to four was due to a plot to attack Christmas festivities in winter 2007. Greek parcel bombs last year saw it briefly go from two to three and back again.

"I'm sorry, but if you know Brussels, and with the EU and Nato here, I think two is the minimum," Vandoren said. "Antwerp is the second Jewish city in the world after New York and we have already had attacks in Brussels and Antwerp against Jewish targets."

Correction: this article was changed at 13h Brussels time on 19 April, altering the title of Olivier Luycx and removing a link to an outdated version of the ISS

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