The European Union’s Counter-Terrorism Policy: clear-cut or counter-intuitive?

Lily Nowroz, LLB student, King’s College London 

In the wake of recent terror attacks throughout Europe, there appears to be an increasing demand for a unified stance by the European Union to demonstrate its condemnation of the acts. However, this demand is not entirely new, it is something that citizens of the EU have witnessed before. Ten years ago following the terror attacks of London, Madrid and events of 9/11, the Union appeared to be in a similar position as it is today, with an unclear manner of presenting a unified stance against the terrorist threat to the citizens of Europe. The EU is a system of poly-governance with an array of abilities and actors to adopt and implement certain policies if it desired. However, regarding its counter-terrorism policy, it has in no way reached its full potential in implementing such policies in an effective way. So what is it about the Union’s counter-terrorism policy that makes it so counter productive?

The Union’s current counter-terrorism policy that was ratified in November 2005 has four predominant goals in its attempt to combat international terrorism through cooperation on both a domestic and international level.[1] These are to prevent the radicalization of terrorist, the protection of citizens from attacks, to pursue terrorists both within the Union and internationally and finally to respond to terrorist attacks when they occur.[2] It is evident, therefore that the Union has clear agreed objectives regarding external attacks, however the actions undertaken by the institutions and Member States within the EU’s framework are not wholly reflecting the aims it has set out to achieve.

A key reason that explains the restricted use of the Counter-Terrorism Strategy is the attitude of Member States regarding the sharing of intelligence. A majority of them are less inclined to share information regarding security issues within the EU framework. This is due to a lack of trust towards particular institutions, such as Europol, that is reflected in the limited volume of intelligence channeled to these institutions. Instead Member States prefer to participate in bilateral agreements to share information with each other and non-EU cooperation structures.[3] For example, in 2005 the G6 group worked closer together regarding the sharing of information due to the dissatisfaction towards the EU’s bureaucratic Justice and Home Affairs structures.[4] This resulted in increased participation and cooperation for Member States regarding information sharing on terrorism that was outside the EU framework. Consequently, this results in a restricted role of EU institutions and the influence they have. This has been recognized by key positions within the organization, such as Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations who acknowledged that “the weakness lies in the anticipation and the prevention of attacks. For that you would need more and deeper cooperation”.[5]

The reluctance of Member States to share intelligence within the Union’s framework shows how they wish to retain their national sovereignty on security issues. This is crucial for the effectiveness of a Counter-Terrorism Strategy at supranational level that very much depends on the willingness of its members to participate. Security issues have always been considered highly sensitive by governments of nation states, because of their desire to keep hold of their defense capabilities within their own national realm.

The tension between the national interests of Member States and the Union’s agenda can be demonstrated through adoption of particular EU legislation, for example, the construction of the transatlantic agreement to Passenger Names Records.[6] Passenger Name Records permit countries to share information regarding passenger data with the European Commission. Despite its recent ratification in 2012 by the Council,[7] there has been continuous disagreement by particular Member States regarding its implementation. A number of MEPs have asserted that it violated civil rights, data protection and is not in coherence with EU legislation regarding the protection of civil liberties.[8] Therefore, following the EU-US Passenger Name Records agreement, many were not willing to concede on similar agreements such as the EU’s own internal version of the Passenger Name Records. This was evident with its rejection by the Civil Liberties Committee in April 2013 with 30 votes to 25 and consequent current proposals.[9] It is clear that the EU projects two contradictory stances when reacting to this threat. On the one hand, the EU strives to be an international actor who leads through liberal norms with the promotion of human rights and the protection of the right to privacy. However, on the other, it tries to push through agreements that enable the sharing of its citizen’s private details. This level of internal conflict between the Member States and the Union [institutions] demonstrates why the EU’s response to terrorism has been somewhat of a delayed and fragmented approach. In order for there to be a unified stance to combating the threat, Member States need to be willing to pursue a communitarian path, and if not, perhaps an EU-wide counter-terrorism goal is something that is a little too far fetched for the Union to achieve. Because of the reluctance by Member States to relinquish their sovereignty to the Union’s supranational institutions, a more effective response could possibly be achieved through individual Member States’ own policies with the use of bilateral agreements on information sharing for example, if they so desire.

All Member States recognise that just as terrorism threats are transnational, so must be their responses.[10] However, deeper European integration regarding terrorism is hampered by Member States being less inclined to delegate power at the EU institutional level because of their desire to retain their national sovereignty. Even though there is a clear policy in place, their employment and enforcement is restricted resulting in an ineffective Union. As the head of the EU counterterrorism coordinator asserted: “The fight against terrorism is and will remain the responsibility of national authorities… under the control of national governments… The EU’s role is to support these national authorities, not to replace them.”[11] Overall, while the notion of a supranational response to terrorism is idealistic, in reality, the current counter-terrorism integrated approach is limited. In order for a real unified stance to be seen, the EU’s role should be to simply facilitate and coordinate national efforts not to override them.

[1] Council of the European Union, 30th November 2005: The European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy,

[2] Council of the European Union, 30 November 2005: The European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy,

[3] O. Bures, “Europol’s Fledgling Counterterrorism Role,” (2008) 20(4) Terrorism and Political Violence 505.

[4] Ibid. 506.

[5] L. Tomkin. After Paris Terror Attacks EU Intelligence Must Improve, Security Experts Say. November 2015:

[6] EU Passenger Name Records (PNR) proposal: an overview, accessed 15 January 2016.

[7] Council adopts new EU –US agreement on Passenger Name Records (PNR) accessed 7 February 2016.

[8] MEPs battle it out over controversial agreement to transfer air passenger data to the US, accessed 7 February 2016.

[9] MEPs debate plans to use EU Passenger Name Record data to fight terrorism, accessed 15 January 2016.

[10] C. Hill and M. Smith, International Relations and the European Union, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) 227.

[11] G. Edwards and C. Meyer, “Introduction: Charting a Contested Transformation”, Journal of Common Market Studies 46 Issue 1 (2008): 9.