The EU after 9/11: a new era for EU external relations

External Relations

Estimated time of reading: ~ 4 minutes

Since the West experienced terror attacks in New York, Madrid and London, the European Union became a relevant counter-terror actor.

If 9/11 in New York represented an accelerator for the rapid approval of measures both in the US and the EU, whose implementation raised more than one eyebrow at the Council, the attacks in Madrid were perceived as a wakeup call for increased European cooperation and with the dramatic events in London finally confirmed counterterrorism as a priority for the EU.

The EU is now considered a legitimate and accountable forum for counter-terror cooperation. Several peculiar aspects of the post-9/11 global context (the transnational character of the threat, the presence in Europe of different networks of violent groups and the worrying phenomenon of radicalization) confirmed the need of growing European counter-terror cooperation. They also mean the need of a comprehensive response that does not only encompasses enhanced cooperation on the prosecution of those alleged terrorists but also on the prevention of radicalization processes, the defense of potential targets and the disposal of response mechanisms.

Unlike NATO, the EU has several competencies on a wide range of economic and social spheres that might have a great impact on counter-terror policies and the implementation of a multidimensional response. Such response has been extensive with the adoption of the EU’s Action Plan on Combating Terrorism in November 2009. Notwithstanding the important results achieved with this political and strategic tool, a wide number of measures gathered in this mechanism has been sharply criticized by some observers for being poorly ambitious and technically complicated to realize.

Indeed, Counter-terror Strategy has aimed to provide clarity to the EU counter terror efforts by framing it under four pillars based on the UK’s own CONTEST strategy: Prevent, Protect, Pursue and Respond. On the top of that, Union policies have so far increasingly contributed in a more and more significantly way to the enhancement of horizontal information exchange rather than pursuing a hierarchical and vertical model of cooperation between EU and the member States’ security agencies.

The global nature of the terrorist threat has sharpened the European need of fostering external relations. This is well visible thanks to the strong external dimension approach that has characterized the EU Counter-terror Action Plan: almost a third of the measures involve some form of international cooperation.

In this regard the EU became an even stronger and fiercer supporter of the Council of Europe, G8 and other regional organizations in their joint efforts to build consensus around and, eventually, establish an anti-terrorist international collective awareness.

The EU’s own counter-terror coordinator has close links with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee as well as encouraging other countries sign and implement the 16 UN Conventions related to counterterrorism.

On the one hand, the EU has cooperated with third countries establishing a stable and accountable political dialogue, taking advantage of technical and financial assistance projects and the inclusion the so-called “Conditionality clause” in a plethora of different trade agreements, as well as several terrorism clauses in bilateral and multilateral agreements.

Since 2004, the EU brokered high-level political dialogues with strategic partners such as India, Pakistan, and Russia, establishing regional conferences on issues like inter-faith dialogue and engaging talks with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council against terrorism financing.

On the other hand, it is true that however most of these initiatives were criticized for not having achieved concrete results.

Special clauses on anti-terrorism have also been included in regional agreements (for example, the Cotonou trade agreement) and several bilateral agreements with non-EU countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Algeria. These clauses however are rather vague and there is poor possibility that a concrete breach of these clauses could in fact lead to immediate sanctions or the freezing of such agreements.

It is difficult not to argue that counterterror clauses have had a purely rhetoric significance and that cooperation was only generated at political level. However, EU officials witnessed that such poor results can be partially explained considering the third countries’ preference to work with bilateral partners rather than the EU.

Finally, notwithstanding the EU’s efforts in organizing a structured network of allies in the fight against international terror, there is little doubt that the US keep on being the EU’s main partner.

Despite divergent strategic cultures as well as for the judicial and data protection practices (just to remember the famous Khadi Case), US-EU cooperation on counterterrorism grew exponentially since 9/11 and it is working at a variety of levels. There are several examples of such international cooperation as the Europol-US authorities information sharing agreements, the agreements on extradition practices and mutual legal assistance, and the transatlantic Policy Dialogue on Borders and Transport Security (PDTBS). No other international actor had a greater impact influencing EU policies more than the US, leading in some instances to a process of internalization of US policies within the EU acquis.

Thus, summing up, what emerges from this brief overview is that if in some areas as police cooperation an important number of measures have been implemented since 2001 at the EU level, in other sectors the EU activity has been less ambitious. Such lack of energy should be taken into account not only due to the relative “novelty” of these issues (anti-radicalization, for example) but also because European action is often constrained by member States’ tendency to protect a particular sector of policy from becoming an EU competence.

This could explain in part the reason why the internal dimension has been significantly more developed than the external action.

Furthermore, there are other aspects where the Union decisions have had an important practical impact. To reach this result however it is crucial to observe this field of EU activity as a connection of different policy sectors with their own separate institutional dynamics and decision-making actors.

Written by: Giovanni Asmundo

Submitted on: 17.09.2021

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