As the EU struggles to tackle domestic and international terrorism, some wonder whether Europe needs its own version of the American FBI. But in an environment that is already saturated with security analysts and where countries are reluctant to share information with each other, such an agency would be but a poor and powerless copy. (Featured Image © Michel Abada)
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussel, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called for the creation of a European FBI. Not only Michel had this thought, Member of European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt has also spoken in favour of it.¹ Verhofstadt, previously prime minister of Belgium, mentioned that terrorism is borderless and therefore intelligence should be borderless as well.2 But despite of all these calls, it is not entirely clear what kind of problem its proponents want to address. The EU does not have a shortage of intelligence analysts, security service staff or police officers.3 This raises the question: does the EU really need a ‘European FBI’ to stop terrorist attacks or do we simply need more cooperation between existing agencies?
What is intelligence?
First of all, it might be useful to formulate the exact meaning of ‘intelligence’. Intelligence involves the efforts of a state to gather information about and to counter perceived threats against the security and stability of the state.4 The ultimate purpose of intelligence is therefore to provide knowledge of the world in which we live. Intelligence refers to information that meets the stated or understood needs of policymakers.5 Intelligence directly influences the daily decisions of the military, the government, businesses and the industry.6 We can therefore say that intelligence is not something that naturally occurs. In general, it is the result of a process in which information is organized, reviewed, vetted and validated.7 Therefore, intelligence is seen as a process that involves many steps.8 History has shown several times that it is important that leaders have access to the right intelligence.9
Back in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought our world to the edge of total destruction. Nowadays, it is an example of just how significant the work of intelligence agencies can be, as this crisis was a direct result of American intelligence. The United States Intelligence Community (IC) discovered the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Western Cuba by secretly using a U-2 spy plane that made aerial photographs.10 These photographs, led to the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Over an intense 13 days, the American president John F. Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev threatened each other with the atomic power of mutual destruction. In the end, the Soviets accepted an American deal, which prevented the deaths of millions.11 This example shows what enormous effects intelligence, in this case in the form of aerial photographs, can bring about.
How does the EU get crucial security information?
Given the importance of intelligence, the EU has established several agencies that are in charge of the security of European citizens over the past decade.The most important agency is the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre (IntCen). This agency can be seen as the European hub of intelligence sharing.12 The mission of IntCen is to provide intelligence analyses.13 According to IntCen’s director Ilkka Salmi “these analyses provide the national agencies in the EU Member States with information on how they can tackle security issues, like foreign fighters.”14
Europol on the other hand, is a European agency that can be seen as the hub for criminal information. To do this, Europol relies on around a hundred criminal analysts. This agency does not have an executive role, but it is supporting the work of the police in the individual member states of the EU.15 To address issues like foreign fighters and share information regarding terrorist financing, online propaganda and arms trafficking, Europol has recently erected a specialized agency: the Counter Terrorism Centre.16
Several European countries are also member of the Counter Terrorist Group, which is the offshoot of the Club de Berne. Both organisations have no official connection to the EU. Club de Berne is specialized in a broad range of societal threats, like domestic terrorism and the Russian Mafia. The Counter Terrorist Group (CTG) on the other hand, has an exclusive focus on international radical Islamist-inspired terrorism.17 Members of the CTG voluntarily exchange intelligence and engage in discussions to develop cooperation in counterterrorism efforts.18 The CTG has a link to IntCen and regularly briefs EU working groups and decision-makers.19
What would a European FBI be like?
Clearly, we can see that the EU is not lacking in agencies that are providing the necessary information to ensure its security. But still, all of these agencies do not resemble the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States. As mentioned above, Europol does not have any ‘executive policing power’, but is just supporting the police in the individual member states. The FBI has an executive policing power and has over 36000 employees. Many of them are stationed in branch offices throughout the US, but the FBI also has staff overseas in order to address terrorism at its roots.20
The FBI is also empowered to carry out independent criminal investigations in the field, conduct searches, or make arrests.21 EU agencies currently do not have access to these methods. Importantly, one thing we need to keep into account is that the EU is not equal to a state. Therefore, EU intelligence should not be deemed unsuccessful because it does not replicate or mirror a national system.22 However, there are several roadblocks that the EU needs to overcome if it wants to become more effective or resemble the FBI.
Terrorist or misled person?
As expressed in the treaty of Lisbon (2009) the EU sees national security as the competence of member states.23 Therefore, security fundamentally remains under national, if not sovereign, jurisdiction. When it comes to the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration or organized crime, most of the member states have common interests. As far as other issues are concerned, national governments remain divided, which makes cooperation on a European level difficult.24
If the EU wants to make progress in the field of intelligence, it requires approval from the 28 member states and their respective intelligence agencies. This is going to be a difficult task, because of the fact that the member states maintain diverging positions when it comes to security threats. France, for example, wants to punish returned foreign fighters from Syria with a prison sentence. Denmark, on the other hand, sees foreign fighters as misled young men who need help.25 If a European FBI were to be established, would it see foreign fighters as a security threat or not? If these fighters are seen as a threat, intelligence needs to be gathered about these fighters to inform policy-makers correctly.
Lack of trust
All of the agencies that were previously described, serve the useful function of creating technical mechanisms for the diffusion of intelligence among national authorities. But they don’t tackle the problem of mistrust. Trust is a prerequisite for fully effective intelligence sharing.26 Intelligence influences the daily decisions of policy makers in the military, government, business and industry. If states decide to share intelligence, they are able to influence the policy choices of the state that receives this intelligence. This influence can serve the interests of the sending state and can therefore be negative for the receiving state.27
There are several indications that mistrust is a substantial barrier to full sharing in the EU. First of all, intelligence-sharing is voluntary and the Member States have refused to create institutions with the capacity to monitor and punish violations of promises to share intelligence.28 If the Member States wish better intelligence-sharing, the first step would be to require explicitly that they share relevant intelligence. But, if national governments are reluctant to share intelligence fully with the existing agencies, it is likely that they also mistrust sharing with a new European institution.29
Modest realistic goals
In brief, there are several arguments that are stating that the EU does not need its own FBI. Members States maintain too diverging positions, which makes it hard to act with a single voice. Moreover, as we have seen with the recent terrorist attack in Nice on the 14th of July, intelligence agencies cannot prevent attacks committed by a so-called ‘lone wolf’.30 Nor a national intelligence agency, neither a European one can know what is going on in the head of one person.31
It would be useful to acknowledge that a European FBI is not a realistic goal for the future. Instead, efforts could focus on encouraging more decentralized sharing between specific Member States. Members States that share similar interests and trust each other on a particular issue or problem could compose networks for intelligence-sharing.32 Given the fact that Members States are already reluctant to cede even modest powers to the EU in the area of national security, decentralized co-operation might be a modest and realistic improvement, which does not need the establishment of a European FBI.