European Union Policy Studies

European Counterterrorism Cooperation

Where are we?


Probably more than any region of the world, Europe has gathered a unique experience in the historical fight against terrorism. Yet, European countries continue to hesitate to cooperate and share capabilities in counterterrorism. In the last two years alone, Europe has been targeted 18 times, with attacks in almost every major city, including Manchester, Stockholm, London, Paris, Barcelona, and Marseille. Other than the peculiar modalities of the aggressions, usually implemented with rudimentary and cold weapons or with ordinary vehicles such as cars or trucks, a common denominator of these events has been that the majority of perpetrators have taken advantage of transnational mobility. The fact that these individuals have been able to travel with ease both within and across European countries, seemed to represent an additional input to relaunch collaboration and strengthening harmonization of national counterterrorism measures. These attacks have, indeed, raised many questions with respect to status of both bilateral and multilateral security cooperation underneath the EU umbrella.

In many ways, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo events represented a new security watershed in Europe. More than in the past, ‘traditional’ sovereigntist prerogatives in terrorism affairs raised concerns and opposition all across Europe. With increased emphasis, the EU has been urged to develop new comprehensive policy framework and new strategies and tools for cooperation.  

However, problems of vertical and horizontal consistency of European counterterrorism cooperation are far from being resolved. The stabilisation of an EU voice in the fighting against irregular threats such as transnational terrorism is not only disputed by the existence of a diverse galaxy of actors responsible for the fight, but also by the heterogeneity of instruments and power-sharing practices between national and sub-national levels. In fact, the EU’s counterterrorism approach includes a wide range of non-counterterrorism measures and instruments. These vary from typical law enforcement cooperation tools and information sharing to instruments designed to act on the spaces terrorists use to operate. For example, EU measures can address financing and internet channels and can support member-states’ capacity to face potential attacks such as protection of citizens and infrastructures.  

After timid attempts to enhance cooperation inaugurated by the TREVI Group in 1975, counterterrorism cooperation under the EU framework became a priority only in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The Conclusions of the extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council released on 20 September 2001 proposed to develop concerted action in thirty-three specific areas and strengthening the cooperation with the US in other eight.  

Recently, the European Commission released a new comprehensive assessment of EU security policy1. The first contribution of the document is to make the point with respect to the Union’s performance in security affairs. As the assessment states, ‘the aim is to assess if the acquis and supporting activities are satisfactory when set against today's reality, and to identify any gaps requiring further action’ (p.4). The document specifically focuses on the three priorities: tackling terrorism and preventing radicalisation, disrupting organised crime and fighting cybercrime. Focusing on the four pillars of the 2005 EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy, namely Prevent, Protect, Pursue and Respond, the assessment highlights achievements and shortcomings of the EU action.  

In relation to counterterrorism, general satisfaction is expressed for EU agencies’ contribution in the area of Justice and Home Affairs. Europol has been able to adapt its organisational structure to the threat and to assist member-states in law-enforcement activities, whereas Eurojust has been particularly prolific in enhancing coordination in criminal investigations and prosecutions as well as implementing the European Arrest Warrant and the European Investigation Order (EIO). Moreover, despite criticisms, positive records have been collected with respect to the status of the information sharing with EU agencies and among MS, especially considering the Schengen Information System (SIS) and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Progresses in managing EU security have also been made in terms of legislation. Recently adopted 2017/541 Directive on Combating Terrorism, the new legal framework applicable to Firearms (2017/853) and the fourth 2017 Anti- Money Laundering Directive are considered a strong added-value of the EU renewed engagement to reinforce cooperation.  

Nonetheless, the assessment also draws attention to gaps and required refinements. Considering the phenomenon of radicalisation, for instance, despite a series of useful initiatives such as the Radicalisation Awareness Network and the EU Internet Forum, which have provided skills and know-how on the matter, there is still much to be done ‘in terms of cooperation, outreach and impact building on the achievements so far’ (p. 9). A more comprehensive approach bridging an enhanced criminalisation framework with measures on the prevention of radicalisation is also necessary. Other than that, the assessment also reports general dissatisfaction with existing financial investigation procedures. In fact, due to the length of the procedures and the high complexity of the subject requiring high-level expertise, cooperation and coordination have been limited. Interestingly, the Commission is now working to develop a parallel European system to the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP), implemented in agreement with the United States, so as to cover the single euro payments area (SEPA).   

Generally speaking, then, it is fair to argue that the EU initiatives on security cooperation have reduced reticence, increased dialogue, and, surely, contributed to stabilizing the floor for more effective work and policy implementation. The EU itself as a political actor, despite precarious foundations in counterterrorism and police cooperation with most of the work conducted within the third pillar, has progressively carved out authority and developed capacities on the subjects.

Hence, if it is true that much remains to be done to talk about an EU role in counterterrorism, it is also true that the picture seems today much clearer and coherent than it was even just a decade ago.

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Silvia D'Amato is instructor of Comparative European Politics and Transatlantic Relations for the JMU M.A. Program 'EU Policy Studies' in Florence. She gained her Ph.D. from the Institute of Humanities and Social Science of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. During her Ph.D. studies, Dr. D’Amato served as a visiting fellow at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and at the Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS) in Paris. Prior to that, D’Amato received her M.A. in International and Diplomatic Science from the University of Bologna and her B.A. in International Studies from the University of Florence. Her research interests include international politics, European security and politics, and comparative counter terrorism strategies.


Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, January 2, 2019

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