EU divisions could limit post-Paris terror measures

Christian Spillman
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French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve chairs an international meeting against terrorism in Paris on January 11, 2015

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve chairs an international meeting against terrorism in Paris on January 11, 2015 (AFP Photo/Mattheiu Alexandre)

Brussels (AFP) - European nations have pushed for tighter anti-terror controls after last week's Islamist attacks in Paris, but concerns about civil liberties and intelligence sharing may limit their arsenal, analysts said Monday.

Security ministers from several EU nations, the US and Canada pushed for urgent steps to counter the jihadist threat as they met in Paris on Sunday amid the shockwave from the carnage in the French capital.

The ministers called for a European Union-wide database of passenger travel information, increased Internet surveillance and even changes to Europe's Schengen border-free travel area.

Many of the mooted changes are not new initiatives, but have stalled for years in the face of resistance from some member states in the 28-nation bloc, which jealously guard their intelligence.

"We must see how the EU can move faster and see if it can take additional measures," the bloc's anti-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said on Monday.

The European Parliament has meanwhile blocked other measures due to concerns about civil liberties with the storing of troves of data about the EU's 500 million citizens.

"The limits to sharing secret information remain because sovereign states are reluctant to," Daniela Schwarzer of the German Marshall Fund think-tank told AFP.

- EU 'no place for cooperation' -

Since the three days of bloodshed in Paris during which 17 people were killed -- along with their three assailants -- there has been plenty of talk in Europe about how to prevent further Islamist attacks from within.

An EU summit planned for February 12 will now be dedicated to discussing the measures proposed by the ministers on Sunday.

Yet it has long proven difficult to coordinate any such response across Europe and there is no indication the Paris attacks will necessarily change that, say analysts.

"The European Union is not the place for operational cooperation, but only a framework to establish common rules as needed," Camille Grand, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research in France, told French newspaper Les Echos.

Internal security, legal affairs and intelligence come under the authority of member states and most -- especially the "big guns" of Germany, France and Britain -- refuse to give up these powers to Brussels.

"The counter-terrorism services (in EU states) prefer to work in a bilateral way or in small groups," said Grand.

They also distrust organisations like the cross-border agencies Europol or Interpol, because their intelligence would be available too widely, a European official told AFP.

Meanwhile it has been impossible to create an EU database of "foreign fighters" who have joined the jihadist cause in Syria and Iraq because member states cannot agree on how to define them as suspects.

- Open borders? -

Tracking jihadist movements also poses major difficulties in terms of freedom of movement and of data collection.

Spain's Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz on Sunday called for new border checks within the Schengen free travel area, which covers 22 EU countries plus Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

"The existing mobility in the European Union is facilitating the movements (of jihadists) to any country and also to our country," the minister told El Pais.

But any tightening-up would require changing the 1995 treaty that established the Schengen area. Schengen currently has a system to gather information and impose passport checks at the external borders, but it forbids systematic checks on citizens within its borders.

Meanwhile, there are still deep divisions over plans to set up an EU-wide database of passenger information for travel inside Europe and for all flights leaving or entering the 28-nation bloc.

Member states such as Britain are strong proponents of the scheme, and 15 members have adopted their own systems, modelled on existing deals between the EU and the United States, Canada and Australia in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

But the European Parliament insists that data protection laws must be adopted first, and the situation has been deadlocked since 2011.

The debate plays into wider transatlantic rifts over data protection that have seen Brussels confront Internet search giant Google and express concerns over data harvesting by US intelligence agencies.

"We could see progress on passenger name records with the European Parliament, but the trade off is always between security and data protection," Daniela Schwarzer said.