Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Opinion

Europe builds tower of babble against terrorism

  • Maelbeek metro station after the attack that killed 21 people. (Photo: Eric Maurice)

The dust has hardly settled from the terrorist attacks in Brussels, but the recriminations and remedies are already being voiced loudly across Europe and beyond.

Brave little Belgium is bearing the brunt of the blame, as critics point to its complex federal structure, linguistic divide, and apparently weak efforts to coordinate police and security services in the face of the Islamic State terror threat.

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France said much the same after suffering its own attacks in Paris last November, which had been linked to plotters based in Belgium, and others around the world have joined the chorus since the bombs went off in Zaventem and Maelbeek.

Security services should be held accountable in these situations, of course, yet there is plenty of blame to go around considering the wider pattern of Islamic terrorism facing Europe, America, and, most importantly, the Middle East, the ultimate source of funding and inspiration for these attacks.

Many other countries besides Belgium have suffered such intelligence "failures", while suspects on watch lists have slipped easily through border controls in the US, the UK, France, Belgium, and other countries.

Search for solutions

The fact is that even if Belgium had become a police state after the November Paris attacks, the probability that one or more of these small, "remote control" Islamic State cells could have mounted a successful attack would have remained very high.

Hardening public facilities like airports and metro trains and EU buildings would have encouraged terrorists to find softer targets: sporting events, public meetings, schools, hospitals, or other symbolic buildings, like the World Trade Center. Or the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

So what is to be done?

The blame game has morphed quickly into a search for "solutions", and again the European chorus is singing a familiar, but always dissonant, tune.

Those who believe the EU is the root of all evil (you know who you are) believe that national solutions, such as strict border controls and limits on migrants/refugees, must prevail. Those in favour of greater European integration stress a need for joint intelligence services, greater cooperation regarding border and refugee/migration policies, and even (here we go again) a common European army.

National reluctance

Yet the EU has had elements of these solutions in place for years, if not decades. Debates over a common defence date back to the 1950s, and over counter-terrorism back to the 1980s, and over migration/refugee policy back to the 1990s. So these are not new problems or solutions.

In each case, the EU lacked the consensus to delegate more authority over these policy domains to common institutions and procedures in Brussels. Instead, "intergovernmental" solutions were favoured, which required consensual decision-making by all EU member states.

Moreover, some EU states, like the UK and Denmark, negotiated their own "opt outs" to avoid even the possibility that they could be sucked into common policies on migration or defence.

Even France, which almost single-handedly pushed the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy to acquire experience as a military peacekeeper in the Balkans and later in Africa, has resisted the delegation of more military/defence authority to Brussels.

This reluctance, which is still shared by some other EU member states, also applies to efforts to create stronger EU intelligence structures, to create a proper Operational Headquarters for military operations, and to create standing forces for rapid deployment in the face of a crisis.

This reluctance can also been seen in the form of stagnant or declining defence spending across most European states. And the less said about German "leadership" on these issues over the past decade, the better.

Desperation and hope

The inevitable result of this confusion of naming and shaming, wishful thinking, and piecemeal intergovernmental cooperation is the Europe we have today, where all the major recent crises - the eurozone, refugees, and now terrorism - stem from the same problem: profound disagreement among EU member states, particularly the "big three," about the future of Europe and the institutional structures required to maintain its security and prosperity.

Until those states in particular agree to pool their considerable resources and work with other major actors, such as the US and Russia, to confront the root source of terrorism in the Middle East, we can only expect things to get worse before they get better. If ever.

It also must be noted that recent attacks in Belgium, France, Turkey, and beyond often involve suicide terrorism.

This type of attack in particular is motivated by a combination of desperation and hope: desperation at one's current circumstances, and hope for a better life for one's family and compatriots.

Europe represents desperation for many of those susceptible to the lure of extremist violence, while Islamic State provides the inspiration. That situation must be reversed in order to prevent Islamic State terrorism from destroying hope for everyone across Europe.

Michael E. Smith holds the chair of international relations at University of Aberdeen and is a researcher in the EU-CIVCAP project on EU conflict prevention and peacebuilding

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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