December 10, 2015.
European Institutions struggle to solve domestic and international terrorism with unity.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the unsettled air of the quaint brunch café located in the heart of Brussels, Belgium. This spot is infamous for needing a long-standing reservation, but is desolate the morning the “heart of the European Union” was put on lockdown.
“It’s snowing,” the Belgian waitress said in the midst of pouring one of the few patrons their next cup of coffee. What started as a cold drizzle quickly turned into the country’s first snow of the season. A sign for some that light will always overcome darkness, while for others, fear remains too thick for a layer of snow to cover.
The Face of Terror
Waves of anger, solidarity and apprehension were felt universally Friday, November 13 after suicide bombings and gun attacks wreaked havoc on the streets of Paris, just days after an attack in Beirut and downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt.
Terror has quickly become stitched into the fabric of local communities, national governments and global organizations. The extremist group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, goes by many names but most commonly ISIS, has publicly taken responsibility for these acts of terror.
Labeled as crimes against humanity, and no longer a simple homeland security matter, most political leaders and commentators in the European Union see terrorism as an urgent matter for Europe’s external affairs.
“In the absence of a solution to the chaos that we partly created, and we did with our foreign policy, there is going to be continued instability,” Alyn Smith, a member of the European Parliament who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee said with a sigh.
Reclining back in his leather desk chair, the weight of responsibility is more palpable than ever in the Willy Brandt Parliament building. “We live in a globalized world and chaos travels much more easily than it ever has in human history,” Smith said.
In the midst of this new chaos, ISIS has become quick to understand the truth the West must confront. In our borderless world, where intelligence and information still obey the boundaries of sovereign nations, we lack a suitable plan to counter terrorist plots and the resulting disarray.
Under the current system, in which national governments have power over foreign affairs and security, sources say coordination between countries is the weakest link. An EU wide response to the attacks and impending war in Syria seems to be out of the question due to multiple levels of bureaucracy and polarized opinions. So the question on the front burner seems to be how can the EU adapt to this new reality?
Shada Islam, director of policy for Friends of Europe, a non-partisan think tank that aims to provide policy ideas and conceptual goals for European institutions, believes the answer is within reach and that the devil is in the details of implementation.
“I think on this issue frankly there does not need to be new laws or new directives. On this issue, everything is already there on paper. What counts is implementation and better coordination, consultation, more information sharing and trust between organizations,” Islam said.
The latest evidence on those involved in the Paris attacks has shed light on the lack of intelligence shared between Belgian and French officials. The failure to recognize terrorist conspiracies raises the critical question of how to prevent this in the future.
The inability to adequately process information about recent Jihadi suspects in Belgium is all too easily mirrored throughout the EU.
“If we aren’t sharing intelligence across borders properly, as it seems to appear with Belgium and France who weren’t quite cooperating in the way that they needed to be,” Smith said. However, “that doesn’t mean we need an EU wide database or system, it means that we need to examine what is working and what is not. Those discussions are going on now, they are not going on in the media or on Twitter but they are happening.”
Listless chatter about the Brussels Metro shutting down drifts through the quiet cafe, creating a tangible tension that no heavy brew of dark roast can completely cover. As an icy shower drenched the soldier lined streets, fog quickly enveloped the cafe’s large window, blurring the view of heavy artillery and the hope of catching a cab.
Just like the early winter weather, the details are quickly lost as Belgium and France come under high alert due to imminent threats, raising the demand for action from political leaders.
A Political Push
French President Francois Hollande was quick to respond to the terrorist attacks. “We are not committed to a war of civilizations, because these assassins don’t represent any civilization,” Hollande said in a statement after the attacks. “We are in a war against terrorism, jihadism, which threatens the whole world.”
Hours after the outbreak in Paris, Hollande ordered for increased military action by launching missiles into ISIS occupied Syria; member states were called upon to follow suit.
Naturally, not all were on board with this call to action.
“You can copy and paste President Hollande’s speech with George Bush’s after 9/11. We are making the same mistakes,” Member of the European Parliament, Bas Eickhout, said. “And that [Bush’s response] surely worked,” he continued in a tone riddled with sarcasm.
Hollande called on article 42.7, the mutual defense clause in the Treaty of the European Union. Never before enacted, this article names “member states” rather than EU institutions to provide direct country-to-country communication and support. Solidarity came without question for some, while for other historically neutral members, this sounded alarms.
“An attack like this galvanizes leaders and makes them realize more needs to be done,” Fredrick Wesslau, the Director of the Wider Europe program for the European Council on Foreign Relations said.
Wesslau sits in front of his office window that overlooks a Belgian sky consumed with as much tension as the city below it. “We are looking at article 42.7 because this is the first time its been invoked, so it sets sort of a precedent and the question is: what will other member states provide? It is interesting because what they do provide will also set the precedent if this is ever called upon again.”
While the European umbrella of authority aims to shield its members during times of terror, it currently lacks a strong defense policy and there is no European army.
“I think the EU is quite strong and united when it comes to countering terrorism. But the EU itself is not going to go and fight ISIS,” Wesslau said.
In the current heat of terrorism, reform from the EU is being looked at critically.
High Representative Frederica Mogherini functions as chief of the Common Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in Europe. With unanimity, she holds member states’ common external relations with the authority to speak for the Union on international matters. A powerful position, that ironically lacks power.
These restraints are due to a fear in federation.
Mogherini’s authority primarily lies in harmonizing opinions between member states rather than having direct control over international policy.
Right-wing, Republican Member of European Parliament, Gerolf Annemans is weary of such a supranational transfer of power. “The migration policy is a good example of what the European Union is like. They promise, take over competence from member states and then make a mess of it,” he said.
The stakes have never been higher. The battle has left the war zone and is knocking on Europe’s front door. The imminent threat of embedded terrorism remains present; the enemy of this war is fear.
A Homegrown Hub
The heavy wooden door slams shut, rattling the small cafe and every customer inside. As half sipped coffees are left behind, each bang of the door grows louder and the anxiety filling every shaky hand, wide-eyed patron is as clear as their footsteps in the freshly fallen snow.
It is easy to let fear remain in foreign lands, however, recent events confirm that what we fear is home grown and that foreign lands are much closer than they appear.
While ISIS publicly took blame for the Paris attacks, French authorities have released evidence stating that the ringleaders and terrorists involved were of French and Belgian nationality. Similarly, cells where recent attacks were planned and plotted have been located within European communities.
“Instead of focusing on how the far right is reacting, or the question of military attacks on ISIS, what about the other points?” Islam’s think tank, Friends of Europe, aims to fight this problem at its root source. “We need more talk of how people are radicalized, what are the factors that drive people into the arms of extremist groups. I think our role is to take the debate forward, to try to prevent the possibility of such a thing happening again.”
Failure to understand the larger issue was present during last year’s attack on Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper.
Foreign policy advisor for EU Parliament, Schams El-Ghoneimi, explains how, “if you look at the people who killed the journalists in Charlie Hebdo, the guys social conditions were very very difficult. No father, mother forced to be a prostitute, no social aid. This is French born, French raised people who we failed to be apart of our community.”
While foreign policy and political action are anything but certain, one aspect of this war on terror is what extremists fear most; unity.
ISIS has a clear goal, to use rifts between the western world and anyone who feels rejected by it to foment radicalism. Failures at the local level have helped this internal problem grow.
Smith believes that this issue, “will need to be tackled by everybody. It’s about what’s said in our schools, our security works. It’s about making sure people have the right skills for jobs, the right education. If we view it as a security religious thing, we’ll reach a bad answer,” he said.
Reflecting this broader view, MEP Inez Zuber sums up the view of many, “you can not fight terrorism with terrorism.”
Retaliation through war is what ISIS expects, however, distinct opinions amongst parliament members are an indication of how a response across the EU is no where near at hand.
In an imposing EU Parliament building, that houses many representatives who acknowledge the challenges that lay ahead for Europe, it is clear that patience and a willingness to come together is needed to allow the light of freedom to shine through the fog of war, however, the likeliness of this appears dim.
A push for a hasty reaction to this now global issue is expected from all sectors. However, an immediate reaction to a problem with no simple solution, leaves Europe and its allies at a standstill.
As the famed German-American journalist and cultural critic, H.L. Mencken, once said “to every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and totally wrong.”
Avoiding such wrong answers is imperative for European unity and a promised era of peace and prosperity.
As the blizzard’s intensity dwindles to a misty rain and the espresso machine trickles to a halt, the lunch rush appears more like a crawl. Cabs line the empty streets and for cafe goers, as well as European institutions, life after Paris does not offer the same peace and comfort it once did.