Amid indications that Islamic State terrorists have used a variety of countries as hideouts while plotting attacks in Europe, calls are growing for European nations to dramatically step up intelligence-sharing.
But with 28 EU countries jostling to have their way, significant progress may be unlikely – particularly since some nations cannot even reach consensus internally about how to handle the terrorism threat. The challenge might best be embodied by Belgium itself, some critics say, a country riven by ethnic rivalries in which the Dutch-speaking leader of the nation’s largest political party has accused his French-speaking opponentsof being soft on jihadist threats.
If Belgium, a nation of 11 million people, cannot reach agreement on how to protect itself against terrorism, can the European Union, an alliance 47 times that size, do so?
The question has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of the Islamic State suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and subway last week, which killed at least 35 victims plus three attackers and injured 340. Raids related to the attacks have been conducted in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy.
Now some top EU officials are calling for a “security union” to bolster pan-European policing and intelligence. Some EU policymakers have proposed creating the European equivalent of an FBI – a security agency that would have sweeping powers to operate across borders. But few countries appear ready to give up their sovereignty.
Some of Belgium’s own leaders appear more focused on sniping at each other than on improving information-sharing.
Belgium – which once went 589 days without a government because its political parties couldn’t agree on a coalition – has long been split among the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. Only in recent years has its political dysfunction come to be seen as a security problem, with the Brussels area of Molenbeek drawing special attention as a haven for radicalism.
Politicians representing French-speaking Belgians “let this situation rot, and fingers are pointing at all of Belgium because everything was permitted in Molenbeek,” said Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp and the leader of the separatist New Flemish Alliance party, in an interview last weekend with Belgium’s Echo business daily.
Brussels – dominated by French-speaking leaders – “doesn’t do anything” against terrorism, said De Wever, whose political party is the largest in Belgium.
In part because of the ethnic divisions, Belgium has a kaleidoscope of police forces, security agencies and local authorities – each with a piece but not all of the responsibility for keeping an eye on terrorist threats and criminality.
Europe’s security problems are particularly pressing within what is known as the Schengen area, in which border controls have been eliminated, allowing travelers to pass freely among 26 countries. The nations have no cross-border security force or intelligence agency to ensure that a crime being investigated in Belgium is flagged in neighboring countries.
“There is a geographical space that makes it really difficult to police, because one minute they [plotters] are in Belgium, the other they’re in Paris,”said Magnus Ranstorp, research director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish Defense University.
In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, EU leaders are issuing familiar calls for more cooperation among national intelligence agencies. They vowed similar reforms after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the Nov. 13 attacks on a sports stadium, concert hall and restaurants in the same city.
One possible policy change after Brussels is the implementation of a European-wide “passenger name record” database that would systematically record basic information about air travelers.
Although the system probably would not have foiled the Brussels attacks, advocates say it would give police and intelligence agencies a tool to monitor movement inside the border-free zone. But critics say it is needlessly intrusive and violates privacy, and the European Parliament blocked an effort to approve the measure as recently as March 7.
“The same feeling of urgency doesn’t exist now as it did after 9/11. There is still this resistance,” said Guy Verhofstadt, the chair of a center-right group in the European Parliament who was Belgium’s prime minister at the time of the 2001 attacks in the United States.
Verhofstadt has pushed for a new European intelligence agency, although many analysts feel its chances of being established are unlikely.
Some pan-European databases already exist – but they are inconsistently used and maintained, security officials say. The main tool is the Schengen Information System, or SIS, a database within the border-free zone that is intended to enable security officials to share information on people considered to be potential threats.
The size of the database has swelled in the past 18 months, as European countries became increasingly concerned that their citizens will go fight in Syria and then return to pursue terrorism plots at home. The number of names in the system has grown from about 1,000 to 8,000, EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said in an interview.
But there is no requirement for countries to deposit information in the database and no substantial guidance on what to put in it.
Some intelligence agencies are leery about adding information to the database, for fear that confidential sources and methods might be exposed, especially because many officials have access to the system. And some Western European countries may not fully trust intelligence and law enforcement agencies in former Eastern Bloc nations, where some intelligence officials may have Soviet training and Russian sympathies.
De Kerchove said that he fears that if European nations don’t share more information, additional attacks could result.
But EU countries have to better coordinate the exchanges of information, or they will face big problems, he said. “We’ll have cybersecurity issues. We’ll have people going in all directions. And the number will be such that working nationally or bilaterally, with no one in the center to coordinate, I think that we will miss something.”
François Heisbourg, a terrorism expert and special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris-based think tank, noted that despite repeated terrorist attacks, EU countries have deeply different assessments of whether they are facing a threat, with most of Western Europe on high alert and Eastern Europe comparatively relaxed.
“You’re not going to get a common policy on the basis of totally differing visions of what the world is like in terms of the risk of terror,” Heisbourg said.