Attacks in Paris shock European Union leaders

Incident described as ‘an outrage against France and against Europe as a whole’

French President Francois Hollande visits scene of an attack in central Paris, one of several which killed more than 120 people across the capital. Video: Reuters

 

The abhorrent terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night have shocked the European Union, and left leaders grappling to respond to one of the worst terrorist atrocities on European soil since the Second World War.

The attacks unfolded just as a number of scheduled international meetings were due to get under way. Just hours before, US Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Vienna for the latest round of Syrian peace talks where he was due to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in the latest attempt to forge an international response to the war in Syria.

Leaders of the G20 countries are due to gather in the Turkish city of Antalya on Sunday and Monday, for a G20 summit that had been expected to be dominated by Syria and the refugee crisis - French president Francois Hollande cancelled his attendance on Friday night as the attacks unfolded. EU foreign ministers are due in Brussels on Monday for a scheduled meeting that was also expected to be dominated by Syria.

EU heads of state and the heads of the EU institutions have reacted with shock and dismay to the attacks.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said last night he was “appalled and outraged” at the attacks. European Council head Donald Tusk in a letter to French president Francois Hollande last night said the incident was “an outrage against France, and against Europe as a whole.”

Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “We stand strong and united in the fight against terrorism” adding that “terrorism will never defeat democracy.”

But while the international community garners its political reaction to the atrocities, the immediate focus for most EU governments has been the security situation in their countries. Across Europe leaders have been convening emergency meetings in response to the events in Paris. In London, British prime minister David Cameron has chaired a meeting of Cobra, the government’s emergency response committee.

German chancellor Angela Merkel held a cabinet meeting at 1 pm local time, and pledged to “ do everything to help in the hunt for the perpetrators and instigators” amid unconfirmed reports of an arrest in Bavaria that may be linked to the Paris attacks.

attacks in Europe

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi held a meeting of security and intelligence officials in Rome, while Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy cancelled an appearance at a party event in Barcelona and called a security council meeting in Madrid.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has warned Belgian citizens not to travel to Paris unless absolutely necessary, with Belgian officials introducing checks on passengers arriving from France by road, rail and air.

As security and counter-terrorism systems remain on high alert, one of the issues of concern is the direct linking of the attacks with intervention in Syria. The claim by Islamic State in its official statement claiming responsibility for the attacks that they were perpetrated in retaliation for French airstrikes in Syria is one of the issues that make these events not just a crisis for France, but one that has international implications. A number of EU countries, and not just France, have been involved in aerial bombardments against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since the commencement of the US-led offensive in September 2014. Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom, as well as Canada and Australia have been carrying out airstrikes in one or both of the Middle Eastern countries.

Belgium in particular has also been at the centre of jihadist activity in Europe, with the country of 11 million believed to have the highest number of so-called ‘foreign fighters’ per capita in the European Union.

Armed police and soldiers have been a visible presence in the streets of Belgium guarding public buildings including embassies, schools and places of worship since the terrorist attack in the Jewish Museum in central Brussels in June 2014, in which four people were killed. In January two people were killed by police as part of a series of counter-terrorism raids across the country, weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.In August, a heavily-armed Belgian national who bordered an Amsterdam - Paris train at Brussels, was overpowered by passengers after he opened fire on the packed train.

Evidence of strong links between Belgian and French jihadist networks have emerged over the last few months, with the main suspect in the Jewish museum attacks a Frenchman who had recently returned to France after fighting in Syria.

The need for an EU-wide counter terrorism strategy is likely to be a key focus for officials in the coming days, with European Council president Donald Tusk already pledging to ensure that Europe’s counter-terror strategy “is fit for purpose to face the challenges of the months ahead.”

As well as work by Europol and intensified co-operation between intelligence services across the European Union, this is likely to involve greater surveillance of air and rail passengers, an issue that is likely to touch on the sensitive issue of data protection. In July, the European Parliament finally managed to pass the first EU passenger name record legislation which will allow airlines to share passenger information, despite significant opposition from a number of EU political parties that the legislation impinged on citizens’ rights.

In the longer term Friday’s attacks will undoubtedly shape the ongoing debate about the EU’s response to the refugee crisis. Across Europe, there are plenty of anti-immigration parties likely to make political capital from the attacks. Already Poland’s new government has said that it will not participate in the EU’s refugee relocation programme.

“In the face of the tragic acts in Paris, we do not see the political possibilities to implement [the programme]” the incoming European affairs minister Konrad Szymanski said today.

Just two weeks before regional elections in France in which Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale was expected to make strong gains, it remains to be seen what effect Friday’s attack will have on France’s political landscape.

Undoubtedly, one impact of the latest terrorist attacks is likely to be increasing public opposition to an open-door policy towards the refugee crisis, and increasing wariness about the EU’s Schengen border-free travel zone.

The long-term impact of Friday evening’s terrorist attacks in Paris on European Union immigration and justice and home affairs legislation could be profound.

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