EU justice ministers on Thursday (24 March) agreed to set up a team of national counter-terrorism experts to strengthen Europol as a response to the attacks in Brussels that killed 31 and injured more than 300.
The team, which the ministers backed at an extraordinary summit in Brussels, is meant to support the EU’s law enforcement authorities in investigating current terrorist threats.
It will draw on Europol’s law enforcement capabilities to monitor the threat from foreign fighters, the flows of terrorist financing and illegal firearms, and online propaganda.
On Tuesday, suicide attacks at Brussels’ main airport and Maelbeek metro station left 31 people dead and more than 300 wounded and were claimed by the Islamic State group. Belgian police are still hunting two men suspected of involvement in the Brussels bombings.
EU justice ministers also want the Commission to intensify its work with IT companies, notably in the EU Internet Forum, to counter terrorist propaganda and to develop a code of conduct against hate speech online by June 2016.
The decision to set up a joint EU anti-terrorism team under Europol has already sparked some fears that it will not make for a better and quicker information exchange between member states as one common intelligence service could do.
But the ministers exist that the information sharing should now be so fast that it would not matter whether the EU member countries cooperate through many intelligence services or one single service.
Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramoupolos stressed during a press conference that this was the second crisis meeting in Brussels on counter-terrorism after the attacks in Paris in November which killed more than 120 people.
If EU member states don’t start working better together now to prevent terrorist attacks, they will be held accountable in the future, Avramoupolos said.
“The tools are there. The EU can really do miracles if we trust Europol,” he added.
Mistrust biggest obstacle
Sweden’s Anders Ygeman highlighted the mistrust among intelligence services in the EU is the most important challenge at the moment in the fight against terror.
“The information is very sensitive and has dramatic consequences if it ends up in the wrong hands. Information sharing is about trust,” Ygeman said when he arrived at the Council.
“Hopefully, we will now start to carry out what we have previously agreed to do. The EU has been good at taking decisions, but worse at implementing them in practice,” the Swedish minister continued.
Though intelligence sharing is a very secret area, “it’s now clearly in the international interest,” said Ireland’s Frances Fitzgerald.
“Agencies will have to look beyond that and share as much as it is feasible and necessary in order to prevent these attacks,” the Irish minister argued.
The British Home Secretary Theresa May emphasised that EU member states are now ready to support Belgium in any way to defeat these terrorists.
“We will give Belgium the support that it needs but our message is clear: the terrorists will not win,” May said.
Earlier on Thursday, both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Interior and Security, Jan Jambon, and Justice Minister Koen Geens offered to step down during a government meeting, citing “many errors” in Belgium’s anti-terror fight over the past months. Prime Minister Charles Michel turned down their offers.
31 people are confirmed dead, and about 300 injured, in the attacks in Zaventem airport and in the Brussels metro station Maelbeek, according to the latest report of the Crisis Centre.
The alert level of the terrorist threat is kept at 4, the maximum level.
Brothers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui have been formally identified as two of the suicide bombers, the first in the subway, the second at the airport. The third suicide bomber was Najim Laachraoui, police sources confirmed. A third person present at the airport with an explosive charge is still at large and actively pursued.
The first victim of the attacks has been named – Adelma Tapia Ruiz, a 36-year old Peruvian woman who died at the airport. Names of other victims and some of the pictured survivors have also started to emerge.
- By June 2016: The Commission to develop a code of conduct against hate speech online.