The new politics of EU internal security

The new politics of EU internal security

28 March 2008

by Hugo Brady

EU interior ministers are racing to finish a raft of new legislation on terrorism, crime and illegal immigration by the end of the year. One reason for their sudden sense of urgency is politics. Interior officials are anxious to make the most of the last few months of an old regime. If ratified as expected, the EU’s new rulebook, the Lisbon treaty, will give the European Parliament powers for the first time to amend future EU laws in these areas from 2009 onwards.

This is area of international co-operation that has long been the exclusive domain of national governments. For over 20 years, interior ministries – meeting in the EU, UN and Council of Europe – have quietly agreed and implemented inter-governmental agreements on internal security and judicial co-operation between themselves. There was little need to accommodate outside views and concerns. Now officials look nervously to 2009 when euro-parliamentarians should begin to use their new authority.

The ministries are right to be anxious. The European Parliament’s civil liberties and justice and home affairs (JHA) body – known as the LIBE committee – has made no secret of its intention to exercise the new powers to the full. The committee wants to reverse a trend in EU decision-making on terrorism, crime and immigration that many parliamentarians feel is wrongly skewed towards state security at the expense of civil liberties. For example, MEPs have been wary of the member-states’ eagerness to create databases and new information-sharing arrangements for terrorism and other cross-border crimes. They complain that the member-states are conspicuously less interested in reaching an agreement on data protection legislation needed to ensure such data is not mis-used.

The parliament has already demonstrated that it is not afraid to cause the member-states real headaches in internal security co-operation, in order to advance its views. In 2006, MEPs successfully applied to the European Court of Justice to quash an EU-US agreement on the sharing of airline passenger data. (The agreement was rapidly re-negotiated.) The member-states fear similar upsets that could hamper other types of co-operation against terrorism, crime and illegal immigration, if the LIBE committee pursues an agenda defined in outright opposition to the governments’. Some form of rapprochement between the parliament and the governments is needed to avoid a gridlock.

The chief divergence between the two on security matters is really more a problem of style than substance. The language the member-states use to present JHA initiatives to the public is couched almost exclusively in terms of the need to protect citizens from cross-border threats. The language used by the LIBE committee on internal security issues emphasises the need to protect the citizen from the state. Hence their future working relationship must involve a new modus vivendi, one where MEPs learn the language of state security and where the member-states show greater respect for the language of liberty.

The MEPs should bear in mind that their electorates mostly expect JHA co-operation to make them safer. Arguably, they look more to their national parliaments and judiciaries to safeguard their civil liberties. The parliament stands a better chance of achieving its goal of a more balanced justice and security agenda if it can show the EU governments that it is serious about working with them to pass laws that enhance the individual’s security as well as liberty. One idea, symbolic but also highly resonant, would be for the parliament to change the name of the LIBE committee simply to the ‘committee for justice, liberty and security’. Another useful step would be to significantly boost the resources the parliament gives to the analysis of JHA issues. Most proposals in this area are so highly technical in nature that they can only be credibly influenced by those with a full mastery of the issues at hand.

The parliament already enjoys some power over EU policies on border controls, immigration and visas. It has shown itself a perfectly credible partner on security issues linked to these and other areas so long as its role is respected. For example, in 2005 the LIBE committee was successfully wooed by the EU presidency to allow single market rules to be tweaked to allow for the retention of telecoms data for use in terrorism investigations.

EU governments have been dismissive of the parliament’s civil liberties concerns in the past. This is partly because interior ministries believe that it is their responsibility to ensure cross-border security co-operation does not infringe the civil liberties of their own nationals. They should now recognise that MEPs too have a legitimate part to play in this process. A good start would be for officials to involve the LIBE committee fully in the security-related legislation they are currently rushing through. This would be less cynical than waiting until legally obliged to do so under the new treaty. It would also be good politics, setting the tone for a more constructive working relationship in future.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.