For reporters trying to cover the Brussels terrorist attacks this week, it has been a frustrating few days. As in any unfolding crisis, incorrect information been quick to spread. But in Belgium, the amount of conflicting information has had a surreal quality.
Information about whether suspects have been apprehended, or who blew themselves up where, has all depended on which Belgian authority you talk to. And in usual Belgian fashion, the authorities are not communicating with one another.
Yesterday the Turkish President said his country had arrested one of the suicide bombers last year and deported him, telling the Belgian embassy that he was a foreign terrorist fighter. The Belgian justice minister’s response today? “It’s only normal that a justice minister doesn’t know what happens in embassies. We could not know this.”
Much has been said in the past days about Belgium’s chronic dysfunction, which I have been writing about for years. British newspaper The Independent wrote that the attacks have “exposed Belgium’s failings as a society”. American magazine Foreign Policy wrote that “the rampant dysfunction in Belgium puts us all in danger”.
There is a feeling that if Belgium cannot manage this situation, others need to step in and do so. But if that is the case, how can it be done? Security and foreign policy is still a sovereign national competence. If Belgium can’t properly monitor terror plots on its soil, nobody else can make them. Or can they?
Europe has had to deal with an unprecedented series of crises over the past years, most notably the debt crisis and the refugee crisis. The response to both has been increased centralisation at EU level. Countries in the eurzone surrendered some sovereignty by agreeing to be subject to the European Semester process, under which their budgets are reviewed by the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. Angela Merkel is pushing for a pan-European system of asylum and refugee resettlement, and a beefed-up Frontex EU border patrol. Should Europe also consider further centralising security?
It is an idea that Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the Commission, hinted at yesterday in his press conference with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “We feel that we need capital markets union, an energy union, an economic and monetary union…but we also think we need a security union.”
“It becomes more and more obvious that we must reflect on the better cooperation between our respective secret services,” he said. “I think there is a form of recklessness that varies according to states. If terrible events happen, we give the impression we become conscious of the problem. But we should become conscious of the problem before the tragic events happen.”
There are a number of proposals put forward by the EU commission for more harmonisation of intelligence-gathering, but they have not yet been approved by EU countries and the European Parliament.
There are some who want to go even further than the commission’s proposals, by establishing an EU-level intelligence service that can make up for weak links in the chain. Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament and himself a former Belgian prime minister, is calling for an EU Intelligence Service. Such a service could provide resources for struggling countries like Belgium, and even take over certain investigations and surveillance.
“Cooperation between the EU’s intelligence services is a failure,” he said. “After each tragedy, we realise that our cooperation doesn’t work. So we either have to make a mandatory system of exchange between national intelligence services, or create a European structure.”
“These decisions have to be made. How many tragedies do we have to suffer before we make them?” he asked.
But national sensitivities around data-sharing are still strong. Last year Denmark voted in a referendum to continue their opt-out of even the minor police data sharing co-operation in place now.
The UK also has an opt-out from this intelligence sharing, although it still participates in some of it. There is virtually no chance, however, of the UK endorsing an EU Intelligence Service.
But until some better co-ordination is undertaken, individual EU countries will only be as secure as their weakest link allows them to be. At this time, that weak link has been shown to be Belgium. Other governments may wring their hands about Belgium’s difficulties, but until there is better pan-European security measures, there’s little they can do about it.