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Protecting Europe

01 October 2004

The terrorist attacks in Madrid on 11 March 2004 provided a grim reminder of the threats facing Europe. They reinforced the EU Security Strategy's assertion that `internal and external aspect of security are indissolubly linked'. The attacks also underscored the need for Europe to reinforce its internal security. With open borders and the free movement of goods, services, people and capital, it is critical that the EU adequately protect its roughly 450 million citizens. There are a number of reasons why the EU needs to act now. First, we are facing a new type of terrorism. Terrorism today is a global phenomenon, characterised by independently operating cells worldwide. These loosely associated groups or networks take advantage of the benefits provided by globalisation and new technologies to carry out their attacks. They are willing to inflict mass casualties and use asymmetric means to put pressure on governments. Europe's experience with domestic terrorism has made it more vigilant, but handling international terrorism requires renewed efforts. Second, non-state actors are pushing the envelope with respect to the acts they are willing to commit to achieve their goals - the events in Beslan are a recent reminder. Certain groups have openly expressed their willingness to use weapons of mass destruction if they were to have access to them. The threat of chemical, biological, radiological or even nuclear attacks is more realistic today than in the past. A number of small-scale plots have been uncovered in Europe. In February 2002, the Italian authorities apparently thwarted a plot by al-Qaeda to poison Rome's water supply with cyanide-based chemicals. In January 2004, French anti-terrorist police detained five people in Lyons - two of them admitted plans to attack specific targets in France using ricin and botulinum bacteria. In April 2004, British anti-terrorist agents foiled a plot involving the use of the corrosive substance osmium tetroxide. While the impact of these attacks might have been limited - with the exception of the possible attempt to poison Rome's water supply - one can only imagine the psychological effects arising from such an attack. Third, our societies are increasingly interconnected and vulnerable to aggression against our critical infrastructures - the virtual and physical systems and assets which ensure the proper functioning of society. Examples include the telecommunications, energy, transportation, public health, emergency service and food sectors. With the advent of globalisation, these infrastructures are increasingly interdependent and rely on information technologies for proper functioning. As a result, they are susceptible to attacks by outsiders who may use electronic means to wreak havoc. From afar, attackers can target the Achilles heels of critical infrastructures and their industrial control systems. The recent blackouts across Europe (Italy, Britain and Denmark/Sweden) provide a hint of the types of effects that could result if the failure of one critical infrastructure brings down others due to a malicious attack. Fortunately, important steps have been taken to protect Europe. For example, in the aftermath of the Madrid attacks, the European Council adopted a declaration on combating terrorism. One of its main provisions is the political commitment expressed by member states to act jointly against terrorist acts, `in the spirit of the Solidarity Clause contained in Article 42 of the draft Constitution for Europe'. The European Council also established the post of Counter-Terrorism Coordinator - currently held by Mr Gijs de Vries - to facilitate a comprehensive approach against terrorism. Member states were likewise urged to fully implement regulations concerning issues such as the European Arrest Warrant, joint investigative teams, money laundering, and police and judicial cooperation. While the EU is moving in the right direction, these efforts must be carried out in a purposeful, consistent and transparent manner. Collaboration is critical, among policy-makers, among institutions, and between business and government. European policy-makers at all levels need to limit the `stovepipe' effect, where one actor is unaware of or unable to affect the actions of other key players. For the EU, this means limiting the barriers raised by the EU's three pillars. Only with adequate cross-pillar cooperation can we properly address the global nature of today's threats. Within individual EU member states, new efforts are needed to ensure that terrorism-related EU legislation is transposed into national law in a timely manner. Several framework decisions, such as those concerning the European Arrest Warrant and joint investigation teams, are still not applicable in all EU member states. Finally, the EU must increase its preparedness. Steps are needed to ensure adequate response in the event of a large-scale incident. Since the results of an attack could affect more than one member state, it is important that solidarity commitments are properly operationalised through adequate interoperable resources. Information must be shared across borders, and large-scale exercises must be organised to test plans, procedures and equipment. To date, the EU has only carried out one such exercise in response to a large-scale terrorist event - EURATOX 2002. Now is the time for more action.