EU's patchwork of anti-terror laws leaves it vulnerable

EUROPE - Governments across Europe are rushing to draw lessons from the terrorist attacks in France, but although anti-terrorism cooperation between European states has never been better, there is still no political consensus on how to improve security on the continent.

The first priority is to prevent any copycat attacks which either try to emulate the murders in Paris or "avenge" the perpetrators.

Security chiefs in Britain have raised the threat level from "substantial" to "severe", meaning an attack is "highly likely".

Protection has been tightened considerably around French embassies and community centres, particularly in London, home to about 250,000 people of French origin or nationality.

Large police forces have also been deployed around synagogues and Jewish schools in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, and a special meeting of European Union (EU) interior ministers will take place later this week to coordinate further measures.

Meanwhile, commanders of anti-terrorist units and special forces in Europe are poring over the details of the French security operation last week.

There is widespread admiration for the way French uniformed personnel acted, especially since not one but two different French special forces were involved: the "Intervention Group" which belongs to the paramilitary Gendarmerie and is responsible only for security outside main towns, and the elite Raid (Research, Assistance, Intervention and Dissuasion) police unit, which works in big cities.

This division of responsibilities was often criticised by France's allies as superfluous and potentially dangerous.

However, when the crisis struck last week, it did not prove a hindrance, and the political leadership provided by President Francois Hollande and his Cabinet was firm.

Still, what happened in France amounts to the worst nightmare for special forces: the need not only to act simultaneously against multiple terrorist threats, but also to storm multiple terrorist hideouts at the same time, as the French had to do last Friday.

British and German military commanders are now revamping their own contingency training to make sure they have the necessary resources for similar eventualities.

The numbers involved are huge: At the height of last week's crisis, some 85,000 French police officers and soldiers were engaged.

Yet beyond the confines of the intelligence and military communities, Europe's political class is already bickering over the longer- term strategy of dealing with such challenges.

The British government has responded to an appeal from MI-5, the country's domestic security agency, for more funding with an extra £100 million (S$202 million) to track down returning volunteers from the fighting in the Middle East, now assessed to represent the most immediate threat.

Similar moves are taking place in other European countries.

But a call from Mr Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the British Parliament's intelligence committee, to provide the country's spies with "the legal powers to intercept particularly international communications that might be relevant to preventing terrorist attacks" has already been rebuffed by the opposition Labour party.

Nor are matters any clearer at the EU level. Its executive body, the European Commission, has announced it will "put all its weight" behind a new counter-terrorism plan, as part of a larger continent-wide security strategy.

But a proposal to adopt a new law, allowing the EU as a whole to widen the collection, storage and exchange of personal information about air passengers with the United States, remains stuck in the European Parliament, where MPs fear that it may violate human rights standards.

Individual European governments are now bypassing the EU Parliament by implementing their own data collection systems on air passengers.

However, that risks embroiling them in disputes with the European Court of Justice, which in a ruling last year struck down a separate EU measure to collect data on ordinary Europeans, on the grounds that it violated human rights.

EU president Donald Tusk has announced that the next summit of European heads of states and governments will "discuss more broadly the response the EU can bring to terrorist challenges" and the "vulnerability of nations".

But the summit is scheduled for Feb 12 and by then, most of the urgency generated by the shock of the events in France would have worn off. Europe will, therefore, retain its patchwork of anti-terrorism legislation, providing the men of violence with plenty of loophole opportunities.

This article was first published on January 13, 2015.
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