Select Committee on European Union Fourth Report


EU COUNTER-TERRORISM ACTIVITIES

Letter from Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, Home Secretary, Home Office to the Chairman

  I am responding to your invitation to submit evidence to your Inquiry into EU counter-terrorism activities. I have set out our responses under the headings used in your call for evidence.

JUSTIFICATION

  To a greater extent than ever before, terrorists have an international agenda and are able to operate internationally. To address this we need to ensure that co-operation with international partners is—and remains—effective. There are long-standing arrangements for close co-operation and information sharing between organisations involved in the fight against terrorism, both at national and international levels. These arrangements generally work well and are continuing to develop. While there are some areas where we would like to see more information made available, ensuring the quality, relevance, timeliness and appropriate protection of the information shared are also key concerns. Moreover, it is important to recognise that both privacy and national security considerations place some necessary limits on what information can be shared.

DATA EXCHANGE

  The practical application of the principle of equivalent access to data by national law enforcement authorities in the EU as set out in the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament (COM(2004) 429) is unclear. A large quantity of the data held by UK law enforcement authorities is tightly controlled even within the organisation concerned. This may be necessary for a variety of reasons, including privacy/data protection laws, national or personal security concerns, legal or ethical restrictions on the use to which information may be put, or the need to closely protect information during an investigation or pending a trial. Any requests for access to this information by EU law enforcement authorities would, accordingly, have to be considered on a case by case basis.

  Where information held on UK databases is openly available to members of all the UK law enforcement authorities, it is likely that there would be no objection in principle to sharing this information with law enforcement authorities in other EU Member States. We would wish to get clarification of the Commission proposal before undertaking the further work needed to identify what information fell within this category and whether there would currently be legal or other constraints on sharing it with EU partners. The scoping study envisaged by the Commission should provide the clarification required.

  Interoperability of EU Databases could be of benefit in a number of areas, including the detection of terrorists entering or leaving EU countries. Interoperability could take a number of forms. It need not involve giving open access to all (or any) of the information contained within the relevant database, though its benefits would probably be greatest where there was an agreement to pool or share a category of data. These benefits will, however, need to be weighed against the costs of creating common formats and any shortcoming in the common format itself from a national point of view.

  Europol already holds centralised databases of police intelligence, and the feasibility of creating a forensics database is currently under consideration. The main drawback of a centralised database is that it relies upon all Member States supplying the relevant information, which in the case of Europol has been of variable quality and volume. Moreover, it will not be as up to date as national databases, due to delays in transmission (though interoperability could reduce these delays). Europol's databases are defined and operated under differing legal criteria in accordance with the Europol Convention. There would be considerable practical, resource and legal difficulties to overcome in managing a centralised database. However, centralised databases can offer an additional opportunity to discover links between terrorist suspects operating in different EU countries, especially where they are backed up by an effective analytic capability.

DATA PROTECTION

  We do not envisage that there will be large scale increases in the collection and exchange of data as a result of the Commission proposals, or major changes in the nature of the information exchanged. The UK already has extensive bilateral arrangements in place with law enforcement authorities of other Member States to allow relevant information to be obtained where needed. We are also major contributors to the Europol law enforcement intelligence databases. The UK's current data protection legislation should, therefore, continue be sufficient. It would be for the Commission to establish that a common EU data protection legal framework, or common standards for the transfer of personal data to third countries/bodies, were necessary and proportionate. It is likely that reaching consensus on any such instruments would be difficult and time consuming.

THE ROLE OF THE EU

  Countering terrorism is a vital issue of national security which, in the new EU Constitutional Treaty, is defined as an essential state function to be respected by the Union. The role of the EU is thus one of support. However, there is a wide variation in the capacities of Member States to gather and analyse intelligence, and the terrorist threat is not confined by national borders. It has been agreed at Council that EU intelligence assessment needs should be met by establishing a CT Cell within the Situation Centre (SitCen), which operates within the Council Secretariat. In addition, Europol has been given extra resources to develop its existing CT workstreams. On the international front, the ability of the EU Member States to reach common positions on counter terrorism issues can add to the influence we are able to exert with third countries.

  The Government does not believe that the EU has intelligence requirements which are distinct from those of its Member States. However, in agreeing community wide policies and legislation on counter terrorist measures, there is a need to reach a common view on aspects of the terrorist threat. EU institutions can therefore benefit from access to assessed intelligence material, but we do not believe that there is a need for an EU intelligence policy".

  There is a high degree of consensus among EU Member States on counter terrorism issues. This was demonstrated, for example, in the Declaration on Combating Terrorism agreed following the Madrid bombings, where the EU did speak with one voice" and expressed its solidarity with Spain. It is obviously important that all EU member States are committed to fighting terrorism, that they have effective CT arrangements in place, and that they co-operate with each other and with other international partners where necessary. However, uniformity is not required, and national approaches will sometimes differ. The EU must respect the differing legal and constitutional traditions of its Member States.

  There are a number of informal groupings within the EU at which policy issues, including counter terrorism, are discussed. As well as the G5 these include the Salzburg Group (Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia), the Benelux countries, and the Baltic Sea Task Force. Such groupings can assist rather than hinder the development of EU wide initiatives, allowing Ministers to discuss informally matters of particular importance to their countries, and enabling a freer exchange of views and ideas than would be possible at formal EU Meetings involving all 25 Member States.

INSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTS

  Counter Terrorist activity within the EU is currently dispersed between a large number of different committees dealing with areas such as immigration, borders, transport, criminal law, police co-operation, and foreign policy—as well as those dealing with terrorism itself. There is a need for someone to maintain an overview of this activity, to ensure that there are no gaps or inconsistencies, and to report on progress. The Government believes that this, together with an examination of effectiveness of EU structures in delivering the counter terrorism Action Plan, should be the focus of the new Counter Terrorism Co-ordinator work, rather than policy development or international representation.

  The Government would like to see some rationalisation of EU committees dealing with terrorism. We feel that, at present there is some overlap between the roles of the existing committees, while arrangements for dealing with cross pillar, policy issues such as terrorist finance and radicalisation and recruitment are inadequate. The Government believes that Europol should concentrate on the analysis of criminal intelligence in support of law enforcement agencies in Member States. We do not see a useful independent operational role for Europol in fighting terrorism within the EU.

  Training at EU level provides a hands on way of sharing experience and good practice between Member States. CEPOL, although only in its third year of operation, is now well-placed to contribute to the coordination and benchmarking of EU police training. The Secretariat is permanently established at Bramshill and will soon have legal personality and be properly resourced. This will enable it to deliver its ambitious training programme for 2005, which will contain 51 modules covering 30 subject areas, including counter-terrorism, setting up joint investigation teams and intelligence-led policing. It will be delivered through a network of national colleges. Around 870 senior police officers (up from 500 in 2002) received training in 2003. There is also a growing emphasis on co-operation with Europol, training trainers, and developing the research database. Furthermore CEPOL can contribute to furthering EU (and thereby UK) links to Third Countries in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. For example, the MEDA programme involves 12 countries—Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. It is a two year project costing €2 million, and is designed to provide training for trainers in money laundering, anti-terrorism, drugs, and organised crime linked to new technologies.

9 September 2004



 
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