Europe Letter: balancing swift responses with ‘soft’ approach to counter-terrorism

Leaders grapple with reacting to attacks without sacrificing privacy

Last week's terrorist attacks in Paris cast a dark shadow over the start of the new term in Brussels and Strasbourg, as Europe responded to the horrific events in France. In Riga, where Latvia officially assumed its tenure at the helm of the European Union, the country's prime minister led tributes to the victims. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker struck a well-judged balance between outrage and political sensitivity in his first lengthy comments on the atrocities.

Condemning the terrorist attacks as an “attack against our way of life”, he said Europe needed to “react in consequence”. But he swiftly emphasised the need to remain calm. “In Europe it is time now for silence, not yet for action. One shouldn’t react immediately to such terrorist outrages with new proposals, new initiatives. You can get it wrong by going too far or not going far enough.”

The attack, and the revelations that the terrorists were known to police, has increased calls for an EU-wide response to terrorism. The need for greater co-ordination between member states on justice and counter-terrorism issues has long been a contentious subject in the EU, falling under the notoriously thorny area of justice and home affairs.

Passenger Name Records

Focus is now turning to Passenger Name Records; data provided by passengers to airlines during reservation and check-in procedures. In February 2011 the commission proposed a regulation that would oblige air carriers to supply EU countries with data on passengers entering or leaving the EU. Almost three years later the proposal is stuck in the EU legislative process, with the


European Parliament

refusing to back the proposal on data privacy grounds. In November the parliament announced it would refer a similar passenger data arrangement between the EU and


to the European Court of Justice. Sceptics in the parliament have also been boosted by last April’s decision by the Luxembourg court to strike down the EU’s Data Retention Directive following a case taken by Digital Rights



In contrast, all 28 EU member states and the commission are strongly in favour of sharing passenger records. Even before the events in Paris, there had been calls to reinvigorate the dormant Passenger Name Records initiative. In August, EU leaders urged the European Council and parliament to reach agreement on the issue amid growing concern about the so-called "foreign fighters" phenomenon, which has seen an estimated 3,000 EU citizens travelling to the Middle East to fight for jihadist groups.

In Strasbourg, council president Donald Tusk urged the parliament to back the proposal, underlining the need to protect EU citizens' security as well as privacy. EU interior ministers meeting in Paris also agreed to prioritise the initiative which is expected to be discussed at next Monday's foreign affairs ministers' meeting in Brussels.

‘Big-brother’ measures

Nonetheless, the initiative still faces significant resistance in the parliament, particularly from left-wing and German MEPs. Earlier this week the Green group accused the EU of playing into the hands of terrorists with demands for “big-brother” measures, noting that mass storage of flight and passenger data is “clearly at odds” with EU law.

As the EU looks for ways to respond collectively to the threat of terrorism, the bloc’s passport-free Schengen zone has also come into focus.

Unsurprisingly, right-wing politicians such as Marine Le Pen have called for the suspension of the Schengen system which permits border-free travel within 26 of the EU's 28 member states. While Jean-Claude Juncker has indicated that the system, from which Ireland and Britain have an opt-out, could be revisited, the commission has ruled out fundamental change to it.

Instead, countries will be encouraged to tighten up existing rules that already include the possibility of temporarily introducing document checks in certain situations.

As well as ongoing interaction between police and counter-terrorism authorities such as Interpol, there is an attempt at EU level to take a more strategic "soft" approach to counter-terrorism.

De-radicalising the disaffected

The question of how to de-radicalise and integrate disaffected Muslims is expected to be a key focus in the commission’s forthcoming policy initiative on security, which was in train before last week’s events.

A growing awareness of the changing face of terrorism, which is shifting focus to “soft targets” such as schools and supermarkets, has opened up questions about how best to target terrorism.

How the EU can effectively formulate a common response to the threat of terrorism without sacrificing data privacy is likely to be key for the three main European institutions in the coming months.