16 May 2016
Despite its weaknesses, the EU makes the UK more resilient and effective in countering security threats.
Benoit Gomis

Benoît Gomis

Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Toronto)


Launch of the European Counter Terrorism Centre at the Scheepsvaartmuseum in Amsterdam on 25 January 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Launch of the European Counter Terrorism Centre at the Scheepsvaartmuseum in Amsterdam. Photo by Getty Images.


Some of the criticisms directed at the EU on security are justified. The EU’s internal open-border policy makes it more difficult for national law enforcement to monitor the flows of terrorist suspects, financial assets and weapons. Poor information sharing between the member states’ police and intelligence services hampers effective prevention and prosecution. Political disagreements mean that EU countries often compromise on lowest-common denominator measures. To some extent, EU institutions have also failed to address some of the corruption, disillusionment, anger, discrimination and other political, social and economic grievances terrorist organizations capitalize on.

And yet, what the European Union currently offers and promises is greater than its drawbacks, for four main reasons.

First, Europe remains a very safe region. In the wake of recent attacks in France and Belgium, there has been much concern about Europe’s apparent vulnerability to terrorism. The November 2015 attacks in Paris and the March 2016 bombings in Brussels were by far the most lethal in the two countries’ histories. In France, terrorist attacks killed 265 people between 1970 and 2014, and only 16 between 2000 and 2014, but the 13 November 2015 attacks caused 130 fatalities in only one evening. In Belgium, 40 people had died in terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2014, and 32 were killed in Brussels on 22 March alone.

However, put in a global context, Europe is far from fragile. The large majority of terrorist attacks worldwide occur in a small number of countries outside the European Union. In 2014, almost 25,500 fatalities took place in five countries - Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria – or 78 per cent of the global count. In comparison, between 1970 and 2014, fewer than 15,500 terrorist attacks occurred in the 28 European countries that now make up the European Union; 70.5 per cent of these attacks did not cause any fatality, and only 36 killed more than 10 people. Terrorist activity in Europe also decreased in frequency and lethality after the 1980s, with only 2,227 attacks between 2000 and 2014, almost 95 per cent of which were not deadly.

Second, the European Union itself has greatly contributed to the continent’s peace and security. While it is well known that there is not just one individual path to terrorism, a large majority of terrorist attacks occur in countries with weak governance, protracted conflicts, high levels of corruption, or significant socio-economic inequalities – challenges that the EU has strived to tackle both internally and in its neighbourhood.

Third, international security challenges require a coordinated response. Terrorism and organized crime, including firearms trafficking, money laundering and the drug trade – are transnational by nature, given the globalized state of our economies. To be most effective, the policy response should therefore be transnational as well. A Brexit would make Britain’s cooperation with European law enforcement and intelligence partners even more difficult. Were the UK to leave the EU, a number of new bilateral agreements with the EU’s institutions and its member states would need to be negotiated and implemented at a time when relevant authorities are already under heavy strain.

Even France and the UK, two natural partners both belonging to the EU, have encountered challenges since the signature of the 2010 Lancaster House treaties on defence and security. Noticeable areas of struggle have included information sharing, adaptation to changes in political leadership, cultural differences and operational cooperation. This suggests that bilateral cooperation is no easy endeavour.

Beyond EU member states, the UK would also need to rework its collaboration with international partners that value the country’s current EU membership. As President Barack Obama pointed out in a joint press conference with Prime Minister David Cameron on 22 April, the US prioritizes ‘negotiating with a big bloc’ over ‘piecemeal’ agreements when it comes to trade. With transnational security challenges facing Europe as a whole, President Obama’s argument could very well apply to terrorism and organized crime as well.

Fourth, outside the EU, the UK would no longer be able to rely on Europe’s policy instruments against terrorism and organized crime. This includes Europol, which has proved increasingly useful as a focal point for information exchange and investigations on cross-border crime, including firearms trafficking, and whose newly created European Counter Terrorism Centre will serve as an important hub for sharing of intelligence and expertise across Europe. Without access to the European Arrest Warrant, the UK would need to go through longer and more complicated extradition procedures with EU member states to prosecute people suspected of serious crimes or to make sure that those convicted of serious crimes serve their prison sentences.

On leaving the EU, the UK would be deprived of many other important tools, like Eurojust, the EU’s agency in charge of boosting cooperation on judicial matters, CEPOL, which trains law enforcement officers from across the EU, OLAF, the European Anti Fraud Office, and many other useful agencies, institutions, peer-to-peer training platforms, formal procedures and informal exchanges. Ultimately, the UK’s ability to access information from, conduct joint investigations with, and learn from the EU and its member states on organized crime and terrorism would be seriously challenged.

None of these tools makes the UK immune to terrorism and organized crime, because these threats cannot be entirely eradicated, they can only be managed and mitigated. But remaining in the EU offers the country the best chance to continue to manage and mitigate these threats most effectively.

Seen in a global context, Europe is still a peaceful and safe region. For all its weaknesses, the EU provides an effective security network which benefits the UK, making it more resilient and effective at a time when consolidating resources is most needed. Fragmenting and weakening this security infrastructure would be imprudent and misguided.

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