23rd Oct 2016

Counter-terrorism sparks hot debate in EU parliament

  • The EU anti-terror chief has limited powers (Photo: EUobserver)

A day after security services in Denmark and Germany foiled imminent bomb attacks, lawmakers in the European Parliament criticized EU capitals for failing to fill the bloc's anti-terrorism post, vacant since March.

The position was created after the attack on Madrid commuter trains killing 191 people in March 2004, but the chair has been empty after previous anti-terrorism coordinator Gijs de Vries stepped down from the job six month ago.

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According to the centre-right leader Joseph Daul, the fact there is still no successor "shows the great deal that remains to be done" in the fight against terrorism.

Mr Daul urged EU governments as well as the bloc's chief diplomat Javier Solana "to appoint a new Mr or Mrs Anti-Terrorism as soon as possible... and equip him or her with adequate means".

It is exactly the weakness of the postion that has lead some countries to question the need to fill the post.

"Everyone knows that the inadequacy of means put at Mr de Vries' disposal did not allow him to properly conduct the fight against terrorism and to properly fulfil his task", France's Mr Daul told the plenary.

The liberals' chief, Graham Watson, added to criticism by saying "you tell are reflecting on the best way of ensuring cooperation. Well, the terrorists had six months while you have been reflecting".

Portugal – currently at the helm of the 27-nation bloc – acknowledged delays, with the country's European affairs minister Manuel Lobo Antunes promising to improve Mr Anti-Terrorism's responsibilities and powers.

"We have to put our foot on the accelerating pedal", he concluded.

New counter-terrorism measures

The parliamentary debate on terrorism came just a day after three men, suspected members of an Islamic terrorist organisation, were arrested in Germany on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack against a US military base in Ramstein and Frankfurt airport.

In another operation on Monday night (3 September), Danish security services prevented a bomb attack, plotted by men said to be linked to al-Qaeda.

According to EU home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini, "all sources indicate that the threat of new terrorist attacks continues to be high...there is no room for complacency or letting our guard down".

Mr Frattini has confirmed he is set to table a new package of measures this autumn, including an EU-wide rapid alert system on lost and stolen explosives or a proposal to criminalize those who misuse the internet for terrorism purposes.

An EU-wide air passengers name recording system is also foreseen by the commission – something that would mirror the US' database on European air passengers.

"The time has come to change focus and devote resources to the security of the Union", the Italian commissioner told MEPs.

"The Union is at least as much a potential target of a terrorist attack as the United States and the use and analysis of passenger name records is an important law enforcement tool to protect our citizens", he added.

Security versus privacy

MEPs from across the main political groups unanimously backed stronger cooperation among EU states in combating terrorism and religious extremism.

But there were differences on what exactly the measures should be.

"Some really restrictive measures have been adopted", French socialist MEP Martine Roure said, asking for the right balance between security legislation and civil liberties.

"Here in parliament we should be insisting on sunset clauses for anti-terror laws so that legislation susceptible to abuse does not remain on the statute books any longer than necessary", Mr Watson added.

But according to Konrad Szymanski from the centre-right UEN group, "the concerns relating to data sharing should not block co-operation [within the EU]", arguing "international terrorism uses armed movements in an unprecedented manner".

For his part, Mr Frattini – representing the commission, the guardian of European law – said he would send EU governments a questionnaire on the anti-terrorism measures they have adopted looking into their effectiveness and human rights aspects.

"I am ready to share with you data and results of this exercise", Mr Frattini told MEPs.

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