EU ministers open talks Monday (25 January) in Amsterdam on ways to save the Schengen passport-free zone from collapse, and tackle the jihadist scourge, as a new counter-terrorism centre in The Hague is launched.
The new Europol centre will improve information-sharing among national police forces whose performance is under scrutiny after the jihadist attacks in Paris in November.
“It establishes for the first time in Europe a dedicated operation centre,” Britain’s Rob Wainwright said in an interview with the French news agency AFP at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday (22 January).
“It will provide French and Belgian police services and their counterparts around Europe with the platform they need to share information more quickly and to crack down on the terrorist groups that are active.”
Although the creation of the centre was announced seven months before the Paris attacks, the coordinated shootings and suicide bombings in the French capital by a team mainly based in neighbouring Belgium have given the 28-country project new impetus.
“We will be working to improve intelligence sharing and to maximise our capability to track terrorist financing,” Wainwright said.
Ministers to debate Schengen
The two-day meeting of interior and justice ministers is the first under the six-month Dutch European Union presidency, which aims to broker a deal by 30 June on setting up a new pan-European border and coastguard force.
Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner warned on Friday that Athens faced “temporary exclusion” from the Schengen zone, in order persuade Greece to better protect its borders.
EU officials said no decisions will be taken at what is an informal meeting, which opens at 9:00 AM.
Alongside counter-terrorism coordination, the centre will also monitor the way in which Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups “are abusing the Internet and social media, in particular for their propaganda and recruitment purposes”, Wainwright said.
The Dutch presidency said on its website it would like the interior ministers to discuss the “remaining underlying obstacles for information exchange on foreign terrorist fighters and ways forward to clear these obstacles.”
French investigators believe the attacks that killed 130 in Paris were planned by a Belgian national, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was widely thought to have been in Syria fighting with IS forces.
The apparent ease in which Abaaoud slipped back into Europe and moved around the continent has thrown into question the intelligence-sharing capabilities of EU police forces.
Wainwright said the attacks had already acted as a catalyst.
“In the context of what happened after the attacks in Paris, France and Belgium have established an extremely close working relationship involving Europol,” he said.
“What I have seen over the last few years but particularly in the last year, in the face of the worst terrorist attacks we have seen in Europe for over a decade, is intensified cooperation.”
Significant growth in fake IDs
Wainwright said he was deeply concerned about the “significant growth” in the faking of ID documents for use by extremists.
Investigators believe at least two of the Paris suicide bombers entered Europe through Greece, posing as migrants and using Syrian passports that were not theirs. Their true identity remains unknown.
The Europol chief said national police forces needed to have better access to a database compiled by its international counterpart, Interpol, of stolen and fake documents.
“There are many criminal actors that have become more active, more sophisticated and also the quality of the faked documents they are providing (has improved), and they responded to the opportunities that the migration crisis in 2015 gave us,” he said.
“So we need to make sure that our border guard officials are alive to that threat, that they are better trained, of course, and to make sure that there is access to the right databases, including the dedicated database that Interpol has on lost and stolen documents.”
Member states acknowledged they did not use all the tools at their disposal to address the terrorist threats following the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
Terrorists with EU passports, such as the majority of the militants involved in the Paris attacks, represent a major challenge for the European authorities, as controls at the external borders are limited to a minimum check to establish their identity, through the verification of their travel documents, according to Schengen rules.
At an emergency meeting on 20 November, EU ministers agreed on making these checks mandatory. Moreover, all EU citizens will be now considered a potential threat, so all EU travellers will be subject to a stricter scrutiny, including checks against the Schengen Information System (SIS), as is the case for all third country nationals.
In response to the Paris attacks, the European Commission also adopted a package of measures to combat terrorism and arms trafficking, including criminalising travel "for terrorist purposes".
The package, presented in December, includes a "Directive on Terrorism" aimed at strengthening the "EU's arsenal in preventing terrorist attacks by criminalising preparatory acts such as training and travel abroad for terrorist purposes".
These "preparatory acts" include travel, the funding, organisation and facilitation of that travel, training and providing funds to commit terrorist acts.
Those measures built on earlier initiatives launched months before in the wake of the attacks onCharlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. They included the finalisation of a deal on sharing air travellers' data, which had been stuck in the European Parliament because of privacy concerns.
>>For further background, read our LinksDossier: From 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo: The EU’s response to terrorism
- Press release: European Agenda on Security: Commission takes action to combat terrorism and illegal trafficking of firearms and explosives (2 December 2015)
- Fact sheet: Implementing the European Agenda on Security – New measures to combat terrorism and illicit trafficking of firearms and use of explosives (2 December 2015)
- Proposal for a Directive on Terrorism