The European Union is moving to coordinate its counterterrorism efforts in the wake of the bloody terrorist bombings in Madrid. A series of high-level meetings have been called for the next few days. But the bulky structure of the EU as usual makes progress slow, and there is a strong sense of vulnerability in Europe following the devastating attacks on commuter trains in Madrid on 11 March.
Prague, 16 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has been galvanized into action by the tragic Madrid railway bombings, in which 200 people died and some 1,500 were injured.
The union's interior ministers are gathering on 19 March for an emergency meeting to discuss antiterrorism measures. The meeting came at the suggestion of German Interior Minister Otto Schily, who said the Madrid bombings have led to "a new security situation in Europe."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac met today in Paris for informal talks focusing in part on terrorism. Speaking at a joint press conference, Chirac announced the EU would take steps to step up cooperation. "We will further improve coordination among our intelligence services, police, and institutions of justice," he said. "In the face of this threat, Europe will protect its citizens, of course, with full respect for civil liberties and the rule of law."
Increasing credibility is being given to the claim that the Al-Qaeda network was behind the carefully coordinated Madrid attacks, and if that is true, then Europe is now on the front line in the war against terror, along with the United States. As European Commission President Romano Prodi put it, "The bomb [attacks in Spain] reminded and reminds us of the urgency and the need to be prepared against all these threats to our security."
Spain has also called for an additional conference of antiterror experts from major EU countries to discuss information sharing and coordination of future activities. Interior Minister Angel Acebes announced that move: "We have called a meeting for the coming days of the most important antiterrorist services from the European Union who will meet here in Madrid. This will be to coordinate investigations and efforts, to exchange information, and to plan for the future."
On 22 March there will be a meeting of EU foreign ministers, who will look at the assessment drawn up by the interior ministers. And then comes the scheduled 25 and 26 March union summit, which is now certain to be dominated by the terrorism issue. Prodi says the summit must discuss thoroughly the EU’s entire security strategy.
So there will be no shortage of talking in the coming weeks. But the difficulty will be in producing coherent joint action. The EU, which is to be enlarged to 25 members on 1 May, is always difficult to move forward quickly.
The results of its antiterrorism "action plan" announced after the attacks on the United States in 2001 have been limited. Among the measures agreed was an EU-wide arrest warrant, important because it would cut through time-consuming extradition procedures. But not all EU states have implemented that warrant, partly because of concerns about the erosion of national sovereignty.
A commentary in today's "Financial Times" newspaper notes that four days before the Madrid bombings, a committee working for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana concluded that very little progress had been made in terms of implementing and coordinating agreed EU-wide antiterrorism measures.
The concern about sovereignty affects related issues. Since Madrid, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has renewed a call for the creation of an EU intelligence agency that could track suspects by using information from member states' national intelligence services. But not all member states are willing to share their own intelligence at the union level.
A related idea has been put forward by Solana, who has called for the appointment of a coordinator in Brussels to provide cohesion in counterterrorism measures, and to push for their uniform application. Analysts say that proposal has some chance of being adopted by the 25-26 March summit.
But Europeans are well aware that stopping terrorism completely is nearly impossible. There are big, long-established Muslim communities spread right across the European Union. Although the communities themselves may be law abiding, they sometimes provide the camouflage necessary for Islamic extremists.
European countries who have allied themselves with the United States in the war in Iraq are expressing concern that they may be targeted by Islamist assailants seeking retribution -- as many believe was the case in Madrid. Polish officials in recent days have said that Poland -- which is a top troop contributor in Iraq, with 2,400 troops on the ground -- cannot exclude the possibility that it, too, may be vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Transport is a key point of vulnerability. With airports already implementing tight security procedures, attention is now turning to making trains safer. But with rail systems moving millions of people per day, security measures are limited by the sheer need to keep the trains moving.
France is checking on a random basis luggage being carried on mainline journeys, and Britain is posting plainclothes officers in the London subway. France has also checked the entire 32,000 kilometers of its rail track system after receiving a threat of attack from a group demanding millions of euros in ransom money. Russian railways are also on alert after several deadly bombings.
Back in Madrid, authorities are holding three Moroccans and two Indians in connection with last week’s blasts. One of the Moroccans is identified as Jamal Zougam, and press reports say an investigation is focusing on possible links between the Madrid bombings and attacks in the Moroccan city of Casablanca last year that killed 45 people, many of them Spaniards. The reports say Zougam left Morocco just before the Casablanca blasts.
A Spanish antiterrorism team is now in Morocco to carry on the investigation, and a similar Moroccan group is in Spain.