Europe's response to terrorism must be balanced

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The very purpose of terrorism is to instill fear in the mind of its victims and through it to force them into changing their ways. The Islamic State is opposed to the kind of secular and diverse society that Europe—and Brussels in particular—represents. It wields terror in an effort to impose a bipolar worldview in which there are those who believe in its twisted interpretation of religion and those who are to be treated as “apostates” and be hunted down for it.

The response to terrorism is not a misguided anti-terrorism that partakes of the same kind of evil, just as the reaction to wanton destruction and indiscriminate violence is not blanket surveillance and state absolutism. European values need to be protected and indeed reinforced. Rhetoric is not enough though. Policy-makers cannot afford to remain limited to stating their emotions regarding the terrorist attacks and to making claims on their ostensible fearlessness in the face of Islamic State aggression.

Citizens are well-justified to be concerned about their safety. When public venues are targets every person is a potential victim. People’s expectation is that the authorities will do what is necessary to achieve the two-fold objective of (a) safeguarding their constitutional values and order, and (b) guaranteeing public safety, social cohesion, and internal stability.

To that end, the European Union needs to strike a fine balance between two arguably competing policy agendas of (i) ensuring a high standard of fundamental freedoms, and (ii) enabling police authorities to protect the law and the persons bound by it. For the purposes of the present article, we may label these “libertarian” and “securitarian”.

It is becoming clear that the EU’s internal affairs authorities can no longer deliver on their mandate by remaining compartmentalised along national lines. There needs to be interoperability between the Member States’ police and security entities. For instance, Europol, the European intelligence agency, should be given powers and an accountability framework akin to that of an outright federal institution rather than its mostly intergovernmental and otherwise limited underpinnings.

Yet any plans to strengthen the security apparatus cannot be advanced without accounting for the pressing need to standardise European legislation, in particular, as concerns criminal law. For police to do its work on an EU scale, for that to be just and proportionate, it needs to apply and be bound by the same set of substantive and procedural standards. It is a pernicious folly to expect that the integration of police functions can deliver optimal results against the backdrop of a heteroclite legal corpus. Rule harmonisation across Europe is a prerequisite.

Security starts from home

The instinctive reaction in the face of terror is to give a free pass to the government and to feel the urge to provide assent to calls for the implementation of effectively xenophobic and/or militarist agendas. While difficult under the circumstances, everyone must remain calm and true to their European principles. Then they must come to terms with the fact that national security is not just an external affair, as it has equally important internal aspects.

Apart from the obvious measures of increasing safety checks in public spaces, enforcing closer monitoring at the border, offering additional resources to the police, etc., attention should be given to societal and economic parameters that contribute to social cohesion.

Lest we forget, many jihad fighters are European citizens. The domestic influence of fundamentalist propaganda networks should be nullified and their financial conduits traced and blocked. Any structural social-economic factors that may correlate with radicalisation, such as persistent unemployment or social exclusion, need to be addressed with the appropriate means, including through expansionary fiscal policy (“create jobs”).

Combating the Islamic State is not just about bombing their stronghold in the Middle East. That is part of the external aspect of a broader issue. It consists of multiple variables, several of which are not controlled by Europeans. Whereas the elements of the internal dimension are contingent only on the collective will of EU decision-makers.

Security and internal affairs will eventually have to be treated as matters of shared competence (“shared sovereignty”) between the Union and the Member States. A concerted EU-wide response is needed. Meanwhile, national governments that tend to have trouble with certain groups of people should do the most within the law to address the problem and correct any flaw or egregious omission in their policy stance hitherto.

This is not the time for ideological purity, of obstinately clinging on to a libertarian or securitarian platform. The European Union is in desperate need of a balanced approach to safeguard its normative achievements and reinforce its security. The protection of European values and citizens needs much more than public statements. It requires action on the policy front commensurate with the challenge at hand.