Brussels attacks: EU justice ministers urge member states to implement intelligence sharing strategies

EU justice ministers call on member states to better cooperate on security issues, as US Secretary of State John Kerry visits Brussels.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

25 Mar 2016

EU justice ministers have called for rapid agreement on stalled plans to share strategic intelligence data after suicide bomb attacks this week in Brussels which killed at least 31 people and injured 270.

Their demand comes as U.S Secretary of State John Kerry started a visit to Brussels on Friday to meet with Belgian and EU officials.

Kerry is expected to discuss how the international community can counter further attacks both in Belgium and elsewhere.


His visit comes 24 hours after a meeting in Brussels where EU justice and home affairs ministers called for better cooperation and intelligence sharing.

Officials say many of member states, including France and Germany, withhold their most strategic data despite professed willingness to share it.

But, speaking at a news conference after the extraordinary summit, EU migration and home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramoupolos said the planned measures were designed to address such issues, saying, "These horrendous attacks cannot continue to be wake-up calls for ever."

At the meeting, the justice ministers called for better enforcement of existing measures including effective border controls, identity checks, steps to prevent the use of forged documents and the sale of chemicals that could be used in bomb-making.

They additionally agreed to establish teams of national counter-terrorism experts to support the police and other agencies in investigating current terrorist threats.

This move is partly designed to strengthen Europol and its ability to check the threat from foreign fighters, terrorist financing and online propaganda. Since January, a European Counter Terrorism Centre has been operational at Europol and last November, the European Parliament put forward a detailed plan to fight radicalisation.

The European Commission will also be urged to step up its collaboration with information technology firms in order to help combat terrorist propaganda and develop a “code of conduct” against online hate speech.

The declaration issued by EU ministers on Thursday also includes calls for speedy implementation of the air passenger name record (PNR).

Responding to calls for Parliament to speed up the adoption of the PNR legislation, the assembly's rapporteur on the plans, UK Conservative MEP Tim Kirkhope said, "I'm trying my hardest to get PNR through Parliament. I've actually been trying my hardest for nearly five years now, with constant objections being raised by the Left and Liberal groups. It could have been in place for a number of months already without the constant delays and opposition."

"The Council is right to say that they want this proposal but socialist governments now need to phone their socialist MEPs and tell them to get on with holding a vote."

"The PNR proposal is ready to be voted by the full parliament but the Left has falsely created a link between PNR and data protection legislation. We have never agreed to vote on the two proposals at the same time because the safeguards that exist in the data protection proposals are already built into the PNR legislation. The data protection legislation will not be ready for a vote for several weeks at least, and there is no need to wait. 

"If people are politically opposed to the law then I can respect that decision, but I have little respect for this disingenuous smoke and mirrors campaign being conducted by the Left to spare their blushes. Let's get on with it and vote, and give Governments and law enforcement the tools they need to combat terrorism."

Speaking after Thursday's meeting Belgian justice minister Koen Geens, a former finance minister, drew a comparison with the European financial crisis that he said eventually increased cross-border economic cooperation.

Avramoupolos said that the summit was the second crisis meeting in Brussels on counter-terrorism after the attacks in Paris in November which killed more than 120 people.

He said, "If EU member states don't start working better together now to prevent terrorist attacks, they will be held accountable in the future. The tools are there."
UK Home Secretary Theresa May emphasised that EU member states are now ready to support Belgium in any way to defeat these terrorists, adding, "We will give Belgium the support that it needs but our message is clear: the terrorists will not win."

Further comment came from Angelino Alfano, Italy's interior minister, who, speaking of the pace of enforcement, noted, "Terrorism is fast but Europe is often slow."

In a joint statement, the ministers said they were "appalled" by the "horrific" attacks.

They expressed "support and solidarity" to Belgium and discussed what can be learned from "recurrent patterns in terrorist attacks and supporting networks."

Ministers, it said, are convinced of the need to "further build upon  the combined national efforts to investigate, as a matter of urgency, the networks involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks and other similar networks" and also to adopt the PNR directive and implement it "as a matter of urgency."

The ministers also pledged to "share information with transport authorities and operators so that risk assessments can be conducted in an effective and efficient manner" and to "increase as a matter of urgency the systematic feeding, consistent use and interoperability of European and international databases in the fields of security, travel and migration."

They also want to find ways "as a matter of priority to secure and obtain more quickly and effectively digital evidence, by intensifying cooperation with third countries."

Ministers also committed to continuing to "develop effective preventive measures, especially by improving early detection of signs of radicalization at local level and by countering the rhetoric of Daesh."

As Kerry visited Brussels, it was confirmed that at least two American citizens were killed in the attacks.

Following a meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, Kerry said, the "The United States is praying and grieving with you for the loved ones of those cruelly taken from us, including Americans, and for the many who were injured in these despicable attacks.

"We - all of us representing countless nationalities - have a message for those who inspired or carried out the attacks here or in Paris, or Ankara, or Tunis, or San Bernardino, or elsewhere: We will not be intimidated.

"We will not be deterred. We will come back with greater resolve - with greater strength - and we will not rest until we have eliminated your nihilistic beliefs and cowardice from the face of the earth."

On Thursday, Parliament issued a statement  saying it was "determined to continue its work on a range of counter-terrorism measures."

It urges member states to "step up information sharing and ensure that all existing legislative instruments are fully implemented and operational."

Read the most recent articles written by Martin Banks - New EU regulations on AI seek to ban mass and indiscriminate surveillance