Tuesday, 6 November 2007

New EU terror laws

The EU got one step closer today to establishing a coordinated anti-terrorism policy through all member states. And they didn’t pull any punches this time. The ambitious plan calls for banning web sites that show how to make a bomb or advocate violence, and creating a Europe-wide registry keeping extensive information on the people flying into and out of the EU.

The changes, of course, closely mirror what’s taken place in the United States since September 11th and in fact, such directives were put in place by the EU way back then. But with all the chaos over the failure of the constitution, it got lost in the shuffle and little has been done on a coordinated basis.

The report accompanying the new laws issued by Franko Frattini, the feisty and ambitious European Justice Commissioner, basically criticizes every European country for being too soft on terrorism. Frattini is calling for countries to have a specific category of “terrorist murder” offences with tougher penalties spelt out in law. In addition the commission wants all 27 EU members states to have similar separate crimes for terrorist incitement to violence, terrorist recruitment, terrorist planning, etc.

The commission targets the UK, Italy, Germany, Spain and Ireland in particular on this front, saying they have developed few or none of the specific terrorism offenses the EU called for after September 11.

The report also wants a Passenger Name Records scheme, which would record the names and details of people travelling into or out of the EU, like in the US. And like within the US, the scheme would not record the information of people travelling internally within the EU. The UK already has such a system for itself, but crucially, that information would now be shared between EU countries. Also, the laws call for the monitoring of the explosives industry so people who work with explosives can be tracked and an early alert system can be developed if explosives go missing.

The timing of this unveiling is interesting, as it comes both directly after the ‘constitutional question’ has finally been settled, and also at a time when Europeans are more skeptical and suspicious of the union than ever. In fact the BBC’s Mark Mardell seemed to suggest in his report today that the effort is part of a PR move to win back the hearts and minds of the European public after the constitution debacle did massive damage to their confidence in the union. As Mardell notes, “The European Union has a self-declared and now very obvious purpose to reconnect with its often suspicious and hostile citizens by doing something that most people regard as worthwhile.”

Of course the top things on that list are terrorism and global warming. Those are two things everyone wants to do something about and things on which progress can only be achieved if Europe moves in a united front. Indeed, these sorts of initiatives are going to be crucial to the union if they want to restore public trust and enthusiasm. After all, it’s hard to argue against a system of explosives monitoring, and only the most delusional of Europhobes would decry such a move just because it involves that dreaded phenomenon, ‘harmonisation.’

Of course there are those who will argue that the terrorism laws are just a clever ruse that are actually intended to develop a Brussels-based European legal system, but does this argument hold water? After all, Islamic terrorism is an international phenomenon, a crime without borders. Is it not logical for Brussels to say that a borderless crime requires a borderless solution?

This is the way it works in the US. If I steal a loaf of bread from a grocery store in the state of Connecticut, I am tried in a Connecticut court using the Connecticut legal system. And if I commit a crime in Louisiana, for example, that legal system is actually drastically different than the rest of the states. This is why lawyers in the US are only licensed to practice law in one particular state, because each state’s laws differ.

However if I commit a crime that involves two or more states, or involves defrauding the federal government, then it is a federal crime and I would go to federal court and be tried under federal law. Some of these accusations I hear from Brits about how the EU wants to develop a centralized court system where all facets of law are controlled from Brussels are perfectly absurd. Not only would this be immensely impractical, it would also be historically unprecedented.

But the UK media has responded to Frattini's suggestion with fury. They particularly don't like the suggestion to collect EU passenger flight data. But at the same time, these tabloids have no problem with the UK government collection passenger flight data. I cannot understand this. If your information is being collected anyway, isn’t it best for that information to be used as effectively as possible?

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