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EU: Ministers Agree To Measures To Preempt Terrorist Attacks

Brussels, 20 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Justice and home affairs ministers from the European Union, meeting in Brussels today, agreed to a long list of measures designed to thwart terrorist attacks similar to those that occurred in New York and Washington last week.

Speaking after the meeting, Belgium's Interior Minister Antoine Duquesne -- who represents the EU's current rotating presidency -- said immediate measures will include tightening controls on EU borders and the movement of third country nationals:

"The ministers of the 15 [EU member countries] agreed on the necessity to increase vigilance in border controls, but also when issuing identity documents and residence permits."

Duquesne said EU countries participating in the border-free Schengen area are expected in future to share information obtained at border control points. He added that EU candidate countries are also expected to collaborate in strengthening security at the EU's external borders.

As the EU's future external borders are as yet undetermined, Duquesne's words are likely to create concern in Bulgaria and Romania, which will not be part of the first wave of enlargement expected to take place in 2004. Membership candidates are obliged to align their border controls and visa regimes with those of the EU.

First-wave EU candidates would now appear to need to step up controls on their borders with Bulgaria and Romania. The latter, in turn, would appear to need to strengthen their borders against non-candidates in the Balkans, as well as Moldova and Ukraine.

Duquesne also said that in case of a major terrorist attack, the EU would be ready to quickly reinstate internal border checks within the Schengen area.

Duquesne promised that the EU -- in his words, the "homeland of freedom and democratic rights" -- will not forsake those values in its fight against international terrorism:

"We want to combat those who do not share our values. We're going to do it respecting our values, and we are convinced that this is no way incompatible with the efficiency of this battle."

Yet other measures agreed by EU ministers today point to a drastic tightening of checks and controls, as well as increased surveillance activities within the EU itself. These measures include a greater emphasis on what Duquesne called "detection" of terrorist activities, improved exchange of relevant information between EU member countries, better practical cooperation between the EU's national law enforcement agencies and the setting up of a special counter-terrorist unit at the Europol, the EU's fledgling law enforcement agency.

According to Belgium's Interior Minister Duquesne, Europol should, in the future, have full access to information gathered by EU member states' police forces and intelligence. EU ministers failed, however, to reach agreement today on proposals made yesterday by the European Commission to bring into alignment national definitions of terrorism and establish a uniform EU-wide arrest warrant.

The author of the proposals, the EU's Home Affairs and Justice Commissioner Antonio Vitorino, said after the meeting that the ministers appeared ready to "sign up" to a uniform definition of terrorism -- that is, to recognize terrorism as a crime and harmonize ways of bringing to justice those convicted of terrorism.

Difficulties remain regarding the issue of an EU-wide arrest warrant. Many member countries appear reluctant to embrace the legislative and procedural changes inevitably following from such a move. They also fear jurisdictional wrangles. Some EU members' legislation does not allow them to extradite their own nationals for crimes committed abroad.

Commissioner Vitorino said he recognizes the commission proposals have serious "technical and political implications," but said he hopes EU governments will be able to approve them by early December.