The terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22 has brought the European security complex under increased scrutiny for alleged shortfalls, as critics claim the attacks could have been prevented if intelligence-sharing networks were stronger. Amid these charges of incompetence, many European officials have echoed previous calls for the creation of a pan-European intelligence agency to combat cross-border terrorist threats on the continent. But examining the circumstances of these security failures shows that a supranational intelligence organization is neither necessary nor feasible; European countries simply need to coordinate more efficiently and overcome their reluctance to share information.
Following the recent attack, it was revealed that its masterminds were not unknown to intelligence services. In July 2015, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, a Belgian citizen and one of two brothers involved in the attack, was detained by the Turkish police near the Syrian border and deported to the Netherlands. Turkish officials say they alerted both Dutch and Belgian authorities, but requests from Belgium for further information were lost in the consular shuffle and thus no follow-up was conducted upon his return to the continent. Even the Belgian Justice Minister recognized this massive error, stating after the attack that Belgian authorities had “not been diligent” in handling intelligence information. Since the Paris attack, more evidence of links between terrorist threats on European soil––and the intelligence community’s failure to connect them––have come to light as well, as terrorists boast about the ease with which they can operate in Europe undetected by authorities due to uncoordinated intelligence profiles.
In the wake of these attacks, European leaders and thinkers have acknowledged these shortcomings and stressed the need for greater communication. As one member of the European Council on Foreign Relations notes, “after attacks, services are quick to connect the dots…The weakness lies in the anticipation of attacks.” But is centralizing intelligence and security into a supranational organization the right option? Some officials seem to think so. European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker has called for the European Union to expand into a “security union,” and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has even proposed the creation of a “European CIA.” Proponents of such institutions say that an official, comprehensive security structure within the EU is the only way to overcome the lack of willingness among countries to collaborate on intelligence efforts.
Many unofficial forums of information sharing already exist, such as the Club of Berne and the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG) that sits within it, but they are based on voluntary exchange and thus have not received the broad buy-in necessary to effectively track terrorism. The EU also has a counterterrorism coordinator, an Intelligence Analyses Center (INTCEN), and a European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) to facilitate intelligence exchange, but their mandates are narrow and their institutional capacities weak. This multiplicity of networks with overlapping directives speaks not to the robustness of European intelligence services, but to the lack of efficiency necessary to mount meaningful anti-terrorism operations.
All of these agencies stop short of being the supranational intelligence organizations with any sort of enforcement mechanism for participation that some are calling for. However, many limitations on such an institution exist, and render the possibility of its creation highly unlikely. European countries are still very possessive over original intelligence information and reluctant to share it with foreign officials, despite mutual interests. Both opinion and laws on privacy differ among countries as well, which would complicate the synchronization of intelligence databases. National intelligence agencies do not yet have the necessary comfort level with one another to so openly share information, and are thus unlikely to enthusiastically cede sovereignty on such a sensitive issue. Moreover, public favor for European integration is currently very low, with populist, euro-skeptic, right-wing parties growing in influence across the continent. Amid this political climate, further centralization––let alone a centralized continental agency sharing private information––would not be met with approval among the European populace.
Cooperation even within individual governments is difficult. France itself has 33 agencies that gather intelligence with little coordination, and Belgium’s multi-layered and politically convoluted government––the result of deep linguistic and cultural differences––inhibits the efficiency and effectiveness of counter-terrorism operations, leading many to often cite the country as Europe’s weakest security link. When counter-terrorist officials within a country cannot even collaborate, how can we expect a few dozen countries to do so? This issue within Europe almost parallels that of the United States post-9/11, when we learned that two of the terrorists involved in the attacks were on a CIA watch-list that was not shared with the FBI. Intranational consolidation of intelligence gathering is necessary before countries can even begin discussing international centralization.
We cannot know whether the attacks in Brussels or Paris could have been prevented had integration among security networks been greater. Given the deficiencies apparent on the national level, a transnational intelligence organization may have been equally ineffective. And in the current political atmosphere, the notion of a Pan-European intelligence agency is much too idealistic at this time. Rather than aspirational top-down efforts, European nations must work to improve security from the bottom up, with particular focus on refining national intelligence operations. Becoming comfortable with sharing intelligence among countries is a development that will come gradually and may even lead to a supranational intelligence agency in the distant future, but such centralization is not necessary at the moment. To upgrade continental security now and within given constraints, European nations can––and must––work towards more efficient domestic coordination and more proactive communication across borders.