A European Intelligence Agency: The Cons Outweigh the Pros

The terrorist attacks in Brussels on the second day of spring 2016 have inspired renewed calls for better sharing of intelligence between the EU’s national governments. For example, Guy Verhofstadt, the chairman of the liberal (ALDE) group in the European Parliament, called on 25 March on the European Commission to propose legislation to make mandatory the exchange of counter terrorism intelligence between all 28 national services. The Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, also called for the establishment of a European Intelligence Agency.

So, is a new agency needed? In my opinion, there are good reasons for caution.

According to the Lisbon Treaty, the member states are in charge of intelligence agencies.  But intelligence gathering and sharing, the traditional preserve of nation states, obviously needs to be concentrated on the continental scale. This is in order for the European continent to face up to the increasing threat from Islamic (as well as right-wing) terrorists.

The problems in the way we Europeans currently operate our ‘secret services’ are numerous.

  • Some knowledge about attackers in the Charlie Hebdo (January 2015), Paris (November 2015) and Brussels (March 2016) cases existed in Europe and Turkey. This knowledge did not reach the right authorities at the right time. According to the Czech interior minister Milan Chovanec, until recently only five or six countries fully shared information in the framework of Europol, the EU police agency. 
  • A small common intelligence agency, the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (EU INTCEN), has existed since 2002 (originally under a different name). This body relies on publicly available information, information from EU embassies as well as information delivered by the member states. (It then passes analyses on to the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and the Political and Security Committee of the EU). The member states set the rules for data protection. EU INTCEN does not receive operational intelligence.
  • A prominent EU member, the UK, is part of an intelligence alliance, calledthe Five Eyes. Comprising also the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, no other EU country has been allowed into this powerful club.
  • National intelligence agencies are not working sufficiently with one another, within countries. For example in Czechia, the rivalry between the several agencies, each controlled by a different government minister, is notorious. 
  • Many EU members do not spend enough on intelligence, a trend exacerbated by the recent economic crisis and the efforts to balance national budgets.

If there are all these problems, why not create a European intelligence agency, which would demand a mandatory exchange of information between the member states?

Suggesting the creation of a new agency is easy; explaining how it will work under the current circumstances is another matter. In my opinion those who call for a new agency got the wrong end of the stick.

There are two main problems with setting up a European intelligence body with its own capacity to gather information.

  • Firstly, EU-level bodies are notoriously ‘leaky’ when it comes to classified and secret information. Although hard evidence is hard to come by, these bodies are probably penetrated by non-European intelligence services. These services do not necessarily belong to friendly countries.
  • Secondly, it is not clear which body would supervise such a new agency. The European Parliament has yet to establish a sufficient record in relation to such a delicate task.

So before the issues of trust, security of information and democratic oversight are resolved, it is hard to see how a new EU-level agency would help.

Let us therefore work much better with the tools we already have, including pragmatic cooperation with a key partner, Turkey. The European Parliament and Commission should exert a stronger pressure on national governments to implement the existing anti-terrorist legislation and fulfil their legal obligations.There are 88 binding anti-terror laws in place at the EU level.

For example, the member states need to feed databases, such as the Schengen Information System, with substantive criminal intelligence information. They need to step their cooperation within Europol.  Europol and Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, should also be allowed to share information. There are many such measures which can be achieved with the existing agencies and laws.

One piece of new legislation that is sorely needed is the Passenger Name Record legislation which would allow gathering and storing travellers’ data.

The goal in all this is to increase the speed of information exchange and making sure information comes to the right authorities at the right time.

Only when we have exhausted these options, let us start contemplating a new EU-level intelligence agency.