Latest wave of terror attacks exposes EU’s internal divisions

Leaders from Finland to Spain unable to agree on joint measures to guarantee security

A demonstration in Lyon on Saturday organized by the local Muslim Council.
A demonstration in Lyon on Saturday organized by the local Muslim Council.AFP

For the last six decades, wherever it has been able, and to varying degrees, the EU has lifted barriers to freedom of movement. But now it faces a serious challenge to that policy.

Used to adopting immediate measures to deal with crises, for the first time, the EU has no means at its disposal to avoid indiscriminate terror attacks of the kind carried out in Paris, Nice, Brussels or Germany over the last nine months.

In response, radical parties on the far right have sought to capitalize on the alarm, and even some mainstream social democratic parties are calling for measures that run contrary to the democratic traditions of the EU.

The ideas coming from France and Germany don’t seem like the qualitative leap that the situation demands

Diplomatic sources in Brussels

Europe has been in crisis for most of the last decade. The recession that began in 2008 has hit this side of the Atlantic hard, prompting the near-collapse of economies in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus: and Italy’s banking system is now in freefall. Europe seems more than ever divided along north-south lines.

And the problems continue: the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU could further disrupt the fault lines running through the bloc, while Brussels seems unable to find any solutions to the pressures caused by increasing migration, which is being whipped up in some quarters as a threat to Europe’s security.

Locked in a political impasse for the last seven months after two inconclusive elections that could lead to a third by the end of the year, Spain will have been hoping that Paris and Berlin would come up with some ambitious proposals for the future of the union.

But François Hollande and Angela Merkel have enough on their hands dealing with terror attacks and the threat from the far right, with Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany just months ahead of key elections. At the end of June, the foreign ministers of Germany and France came up with some ideas aimed at strengthening economic union and security.

These included a European Security Compact, under which the EU would establish agreed strategic EU priorities for foreign and security policy and promote an integrated EU policy; a common European asylum and migration policy that would see the creation of the world's first multinational border and coast guard; and measures to foster growth and complete Economic and Monetary Union.

“They don’t seem like the qualitative leap that the situation demands,” say diplomatic sources in Brussels, adding: “Although at least it is something that we can begin to debate just what the devil it is that our partners want just a few months from crucial elections in France and Germany, along with a series of attacks that have many everybody feel unsafe.”

Merkel says the recent attacks in Germany will not change her immigration policies, although she has promised to set up some kind of early warning monitor to check radicalization among refugees, and has said she is prepared to follow France’s lead and put soldiers on the street. François Hollande wants to create a National Guard made up of civilian volunteers and retired members of the armed forces; but the opposition is calling for tougher measures that would include detention or house arrest of anybody suspected of links to terrorism.

Spain makes progress

Spain has decided to keep the national threat level for terrorist attacks at 4 – the highest possible level is 5 – following the attack in Nice.

In Spain, last November, the government and several opposition groups signed an anti-terrorist pact aimed at improving the fight against global jihadism. But the desired show of unity was compromised by the conspicuous absence of the heads of Spain’s two main parties, the ruling Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists.

“It’s logical for all countries to unite because we are all under threat, and it didn’t make sense not to achieve unity at the national level,” said Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz at the time. “The more of us here at the table, the better. Like the pact says, our strength resides in the law and in unity.”

But the absence of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Pedro Sánchez reduced the impact of the event, particularly since it was these two leaders who created the anti-terrorist pact in the first place, shortly after the jihadist attacks on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo.

A report released in July by a leading think tank about the activities of Islamic State (ISIS) in Spain shows a shift away from the “lone wolf” radicalization process to one in which relatives, friends and neighbors are playing a growing role.

Researchers at the Real Instituto Elcano also found that out of the 124 jihadists who were arrested in Spain between June 2013 and May 2016, 34.5% of them – one in three – wanted to carry out an an attack on Spanish soil, either out of hatred or a desire to earn a place in paradise.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Interior Ministry has decided to keep the national threat level for terrorist attacks at 4 – the highest possible level is 5 – following the attack in the French city of Nice.

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Other measures include beefing up security at critical transportation hubs such as airports, in tourist-heavy areas, and in places were crowds are likely to converge.

But as Camino Mortera of the London-based think tank Centre for European Reform points out, the terror attacks carried out in recent months cannot be prevented by traditional means. “Neither the French-German proposals or Brussels’ ideas, or those that individual countries have come up with can stop this new terrorism: a lone wolf who drives a truck into a crowd of people, or a former soldier who goes into a church and slits a priest’s throat,” he says. “Militarization and heavy security are just cosmetic measures. They might make people feel a bit safer, they might help a tiny bit in holding back the populist movements. But their results are hit-and-miss,” he adds.

It’s hard to see Europe adopting the Israeli approach of checking all transportation and militarizing all public spaces, say diplomatic sources in Brussels.

“The West needs a reality check. Not all these attacks can be prevented: it just isn’t possible for the police to protect every airport, cafe and square between Helsinki and Cadiz. Europe’s political elites are in denial and haven’t grabbed the bull by the horns, starting with sorting out Schengen once and for all. It is time for our leaders to take the lead if they want to avoid this perfect storm of security failures, economic crisis, frustration at the negative effects of globalization, refugee crisis, mistrust of elites, and the rise of the far right from wreaking havoc,” concludes Mortera.

English version by Nick Lyne.


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