Brussels, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- European Union interior ministers today held an extraordinary meeting in Brussels to consider responses to the terrorist threat highlighted by last week's Madrid bombings, in which more than 200 people died.
"Let's cut out the waffle, and let's make sure that whatever we do, we are practicing what we preach at home."
Diplomats say the EU's Irish presidency had initially intended the meeting to limit itself to preliminary consultations ahead of next week's gathering of foreign ministers, as well as an EU summit on 25-26 March. However, France and Germany pushed the talks into overtime, putting pressure on others to agree on a set of concrete measures and proposals.
According to EU sources, both countries indicated they are under heavy domestic pressure to show results and alleviate fears that further terrorist strikes are imminent. Arriving at today's meeting, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, made it clear his country is looking for practical steps.
"What matters is that we take operational decisions, that we get to a stage of efficient action to guarantee the protection of the Europeans. I hope that we understand each other better and take decisions. What matters is not the theory, it is action that counts, and that is what we are going to do today," he said.
Ministers and diplomats alike said there is widespread consensus within the bloc that what is needed is not new structures, but enhanced use of existing legislation and mechanisms, as well as improved coordination between national capitals.
Underlining serious concerns in Britain, the country's Home Secretary David Blunkett made the point forcefully today. "The first message today is, for goodness sake, let's implement what we have already agreed to," he said. "Secondly, let's identify very practical measures, let's implement those. Let's cut out the waffle, and let's make sure that whatever we do, we are practicing what we preach at home."
With France and Germany in charge of much of the discussion today, ministers were said to be preparing to strengthen and extend the remit of Europol, the intergovernmental EU law-enforcement body. In particular, plans are taking shape to equip Europol with a functioning center for the exchange of "internal security" information -- that is, intelligence gathered by EU police forces.
Also, many ministers today were said to favor giving law-enforcement bodies wider powers to tap telephones and intercept e-mails and text messages. However, it is widely acknowledged that such measures must remain within existing EU and national legislation.
More effective information gathering -- together with more cooperation within Europol -- is seen as the most essential tool in preventing and preempting terrorist attacks. Some ministers suggested that the Madrid attacks could have been avoided had such measures been in place earlier.
There is also general agreement on the appointment of a new counterterrorism chief, answerable to member states and tasked with coordinating all EU activity in this field. The new official would also oversee the work of the "situation center" already created at the EU's Council of Ministers, which is said to analyze and assess "external intelligence" gleaned from member states' security services.
Suggestions that the EU should evolve its own CIA-style intelligence body were rejected by most countries. Background documentation seen by RFE/RL suggests that member states fear pooling intelligence would not be secure, could compromise sources, and that interagency cooperation would be more cumbersome than in existing bilateral contacts.
Diplomats said ministers today strived to keep references to "Islamic" terrorism to a minimum, preferring to speak of terrorism at large. Nevertheless, the EU is expected to announce it will need to do more to integrate Muslim minorities to prevent the spread of fundamentalism, counteract terrorist recruitment campaigns, and identify and destroy so-called sleeper cells.
Non-EU countries are also likely to come under increased pressure to commit to fighting terrorism in exchange for closer ties with the bloc.