Several key EU leaders, including France and Germany, promised at a mini-summit on Tuesday (10 November) to renew efforts to fight Islamist terrorism, calling for a reform of the Schengen area and measures against foreign fighters.
An in-person meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in Paris was followed by a video conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel.
France and Germany pushed to tighten EU borders and head off what Macron called the “threat of terrorism” after suspected Islamist militants killed eight people in Paris, Nice and Vienna within a month.
“Every security gap at our external borders or within a member state poses a risk for all member states. The completion of both the intelligence system and the legal instruments are essential,” Macron said, speaking alongside Austrian Kurz.
“We will discuss this at the EU summit in December,” Macron added.
Macron urged European countries to develop a “rapid and coordinated response” to the terrorist attacks that have plagued Europe since 2015. Such a response should focus on “the development of common databases, the exchange of information or the strengthening of criminal policies,” the French president said.
The recent attacks refocused the EU’s attention on religious extremism, which fell under the radar after the 2017 defeat of Islamic State forces in the Middle East.
Under pressure to beef up security and reassure voters following the latest attacks, Macron and Merkel said Europe’s borderless Schengen zone of control-free travel urgently needed fixing.
“We cannot keep our borders open if we do not fundamentally reform the Schengen rules,” Macron said.
“The threat of terrorism weighs on all of Europe. We must respond,” Macron said, adding: “To reform Schengen is to allow free movement in security.”
Merkel also named stricter external border controls as an effective countermeasure to terrorist threats.
In particular, she put her hopes in the Entry-Exit-system (EES) due for 2022, which would put in place vast IT-infrastructure across European external borders to monitor border movements.
“It is vitally necessary to know who comes in and who leaves the Schengen area,” she said.
Von der Leyen also announced that the EU executive would present an agenda for combating terrorism on 9 December, just before the last EU summit of the year. A strategy for reforming the Schengen area is planned for May 2021.
Kurz emphasized his concern about “thousands of foreign terrorist fighters” who had fought for the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and are returning to Europe.
“These are ticking time bombs,” Kurz said, referring to Islamists who would soon be released from prisons and would have to be “under constant surveillance”.
Kurz called political Islam a “poison and fertile soil” for terrorism which has to be fought on all levels, particularly referring to the training of Imams or the financing of Islamic associations in Europe.
Merkel sought to tone down Macron and Kurz’s statements.
“This is not about a conflict between Islam and Christianity,” Merkel emphasised, “but about the fact that our democratic social model has to deal with terrorist and anti-democratic behaviour.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, however, spoke of a “struggle between civilization and barbarism”.
At the meeting, European Council President Charles Michel proposed a common European strategy against external financing of religious organisations, calling for a European institute for the training of imams in order to prevent hate preachers aiming to radicalize vulnerable believers.
Joint threat response
EU justice and interior ministers are meeting on Friday – the fifth anniversary of coordinated attacks in Paris in which Islamist gunmen killed more than 130 people – to discuss a joint response to the latest incidents.
Improving the sharing of security data and beefing up the bloc’s border force Frontex are also on the EU’s to-do list, according to their draft decision.
The discussion about harsher security measures comes as the EU’s executive has been making efforts for a “fresh start” on another sensitive debate – immigration.
In September, the European Commission had proposed to member states to share responsibility for asylum seekers under a “mandatory solidarity” mechanism.
With the new migration pact, it hopes to avert a replay of the 2015 migration crisis by giving the countries a choice between taking in migrants or helping to send them back home.
Eastern European countries rejected the EU’s latest plans for handling migrants and insisted that the plans for tougher new asylum rules do not go far enough – a position which is now unlikely to change after the recent attacks.
EU ministers are set to discuss those proposals on Friday, too.
Commenting on the latest attacks, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, said at an event on Tuesday the two debates should not be confused.
“It is important that we are not afraid of migration, especially not of migrants,” Johansson said.
“We need to manage migration, but migration by itself is not a security threat,” she said, adding that “there might be individuals who are dangerous, among migrants but also among people who already live here”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]