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Paper Tiger or Crouching Tiger: the evolution of the European Union’s counter-terrorism

Dernière mise à jour : 16 avr. 2021

Written by Jan Rymszewicz


Terrorism – even though people collectively know what it is, the international community is divided about its definition. Alex Shmid identifies up to 250 different definitions of terrorism (Schmid, 2011). Javier Argomaniz observes in “Post-9/11 institutionalisation of European Union counter-terrorism: emergence, acceleration and inertia” that the European Union was the first international actor who came up with a more or less consensual definition of terrorism by adopting the “Council Framework Decision on combatting terrorism” on 13 June 2002.

The purpose of the present article consists in tracing the evolution of the European Union’s engagement in counter-terrorism in order to answer three fundamental questions: is the European Union an active actor in counter-terrorism? How has its engagement in counter-terrorism evolved over time? What are the likely predictions regarding its engagement in counter-terrorism in the future? The European Union’s activity in counter-terrorism empirically follows a couple of stages: pre-9/11 and post-9/11.

Credits: Josua Di Maggio

Pre-9/11, counter-terrorism conducted by the European Union was tenuous. Several European states actively tackled terrorists threats, the United Kingdom, West Germany, Spain, and Italy in particular (Kaunert & Léonard, 2019). The United Kingdom had the Irish Republican Army (IRA), West Germany had the Red Army Faction (RAF), Spain had the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), and Italy had the Red Brigades. Those terrorist organizations are either ethnonationalist terrorist organizations, such as the IRA and ETA, or far-left terrorist organizations, such as the RAF and the Red Brigades.

Contemporary terrorism in Europe stems from the 1970s and the 1980s (Bossong, 2012). The terrorist threat in those states failed, however, to usher the collective securitization of terrorism within the European Economic Community because of three potential reasons (Chalk, 1996).

First, the perceptive discrepancy of the threat of terrorism: the United Kingdom, West Germany, Spain, and Italy faced terrorist violence throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, but other European states remained unharmed, and consequently, the need for cooperation in counter-terrorism was undermined.

Second, the differences between terrorist threats within the European states: the United Kingdom faced the threat of the IRA and Spain faced the ETA. Both are ethnonationalist terrorist organizations. West Germany faced the RAF and Italy faced the Red Brigades. Those are far-left terrorist organizations rather than ethnonationalist terrorist organizations. Even though those organizations are all terrorist, the nature of the terrorist threat varies.

Third, the exercise of national sovereignty accompanied political, historical, cultural, and legal differences between European states: each state had its way of facing terrorist threats. France, for example, openly negotiated with terrorists, in contrast to, for example, Spain. Such differences hindered international cooperation in counter-terrorism at that time.

Christian Kaunert and Sarah Léonard emphasize however that some international cooperation in counter-terrorism indeed emerged between European states in the 1970s and the 1980s, both outside and inside of the European Economic Community (Kaunert & Léonard, 2019).

Outside the EEC, European states forged bilateral relations in order to reinforce national capabilities in counter-terrorism and coordinated national strategies in counter-terrorism within Interpol’s global network (Barnett & Coleman, 2005).

Inside the EEC, European states undertook a couple of moves. First, the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism signed in 1978 incited cooperation in counter-terrorism by facilitating extradition. Its impact was however severely inhibited by belated ratification by Belgium, France, Italy, and Greece. Second, the TREVI, formalized in 1976, was an intergovernmental network independent from the EEC (Bunyan, 1993). Its purpose consisted in coordinating national strategies in counter-terrorism. The TREVI established a couple of working groups: the WG1 focused exchanging information, while the WG2 focused on sharing technical know-how. Even though TREVI’s practical impact on counter-terrorism capabilities was modest at best, its existence developed trust and cooperation between national counter-terrorist actors.

The event that led to the collective securitization of terrorism in the European Union was the 9/11. On 11 September 2001, the United States fell victim to arguably the worst terrorist attack in contemporary memory. 19 terrorists affiliated to Al-Qaeda hijacked 4 planes. A couple of planes were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City, while the third plane was flown into the Pentagon, and the fourth plane crashed on a field on a field in Pennsylvania. 3000 people have been killed as a result of 9/11.

The 9/11 changed the face of terrorism forever because of three reasons (Kaunert & Léonard, 2019). First, its scope was bigger than any other terrorist attack before. It not only claimed many victims, but also destroyed a couple of powerful symbols: the Twin Towers, which symbolized the prosperity of capitalist economy, and the Pentagon, which symbolized the United States’ leadership and military prowess. Second, its modus operandi was completely original. It shocked the international community not only by its effectiveness, but also by its audacity. Third, its extensive media coverage, including the live broadcast of the collapse of the Twin Towers, awoke collective consciousness about the terrorist threat.

The 9/11 therefore forged the perspective that the new terrorist threat, namely Islamist terrorism, was menacing the West (Kramsch, 2005). That new perspective was particularly impactful in Europe because the states that fell victim to terrorism in the past, such as the United Kingdom and Spain, learned that the terrorist threat reaches beyond ethnonationalist and far-left organizations, and because the states unharmed by terrorism now felt vulnerable.

The consequences of 11 September 2001 were so strong that terrorism was collectively securitized not only in the United States, but also in the European Union. The posterior terrorist attacks in Europe, namely Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Paris in 2015, Nice in 2016, and Brussels in 2016, undeniably had profound impact on European counter-terrorism. The collective securitization of terrorism was the immediate result of the 9/11, however, and posterior attacks rather resulted in the finalization of the securitization of terrorism.

The collective securitization of terrorism resulted from three of external factors following the 9/11. First, President George Bush, put pressure on the international community to take action by modifying the conventional categorization of warfare during the speech to the United States Congress on 20 September 2001, known as the “Act of War Speech”, qualified the 9/11 as an act of war, even though it was an act of terrorism. Second, President George Bush further exacerbated pressure on the international community by implementing a moral rhetoric during the State of the Union Address of 29 January 2002. It presented the War on Terrorism as a struggle between Good and Evil. The Good was of course the West, while the Evil was terrorism, its sponsors, dictators, and states that pursued the alleged development of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Libya, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in particular were named “Axis of Evil”. Third, NATO invoked Article 5 following the 9/11, which defines the casus foederis, meaning that it commits each member state to consider any armed attack against any one or more member state whether in Europe or North America, as an armed attack against all member states. Article 5 has been invoked only once in history and that was following the 9/11 by the United States in October 2001. Its result included the launch of Operation Eagle Assist and Operation Active Endeavour.

Post-9/11, the collective securitization of terrorism prompted the European Union engage in the fight against terrorism. The European Union created several instruments to combat terrorism. The most substantial development arguably include: the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), and the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator.

The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, set up in 1998, is the agency of the European Union dedicated to law enforcement. It contributes to the fight against organized crime and terrorism internationally by facilitating cooperation between authorities at the level of the EU and at the level of its member states. It lacks executive powers and its agents are prohibited from arresting suspects or acting without prior consent of the adequate authorities of the member states. Europol’s origins stem back from the TREVI, which initially focused on international terrorism, and later on evolved in the direction of international and cross-border crime. Europol’s current mandate consists in assisting the member states by facilitating cooperation and providing intelligence in international crime, including counter-terrorism.

The European Arrest Warrant (EAW) compels member states of the European Union to arrest and transfer a suspected or sentenced criminal to the state that issued the warrant. The EAW is valid for conducting a prosecution or enforcing a sentence. It is therefore invalid for conducting an investigation. The initial purpose of the EAW consisted in increasing the speed of extradition and in facilitating the conduct of extradition in the EU by streamlining political and administrative decision-making.

The idea of modernizing and harmonizing the rules of extradition across the EU date back to the 1990s following the Maastricht Treaty, and particularly, the European Convention on Extradition. The 9/11, however, only led to an increased interest in extradition. The EAW was indeed initially proposed for counter-terrorism, and only later covered other crimes. The EAW Framework Decision was adopted on 1 January by Belgium, United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. The remaining member states adopted the EAW Framework Decision by 1 November 2004, except for Italy, which adopted it on 22 April 2005 (Wouters & Naert, 2004). The European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report published by Europol in 2020 indicates that in 2019, 119 foiled and failed terrorist attacks occurred in 13 member states resulting in 1004 arrests on the suspicion of terrorism in 19 member states, with Belgium, France, United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy having the highest statistics.

The Counter-Terrorism Coordinator is a position established following the 11M in Madrid on 11 March 2004 by the Declaration on Combating Terrorism. The CTC is responsible for coordinating the work of the Council on counter-terrorism, presenting recommendations to the Council on counter-terrorism policies, surveying the implementation of the EU Counter-terrorism Strategy, and ensuring the active engagement of the EU in counter-terrorism. The EU’s legislation fails to state, however, specific modalities of the CTC’s powers.

The first CTC was Gijs de Vries. The initial difficulty of the CTC was the organization of coherent strategy between 28 member, all with varying experience and interest regarding terrorism (Bures, 2011). The weakness of difficulty of the CTC was confirmed when Gijs de Vries resigned in March 2007 and the position remained vacant of six months (Kaunert & Léonard, 2019). Gilles de Kerchove became the new CTC in September 2007. His efforts for more than a decade have focused on improving cooperation on counter-terrorism between state and non-state actors all around the Planet.

The European Union’s engagement in counter-terrorism evolved since the 1970s. European counter-terrorism pre-9/11 throughout the 1970s and the 1980s consisted in national resistance against ethnonationalist and far-left terrorist organizations. The 9/11 constituted the precipitating event under the constructivist framework that led to the collective securitization of terrorism, not only in the United States, but also in Europe. European counter-terrorism post-9/11 has been taken to the forefront of the EU’s policy.

The EU is likely to pursue further development of its capabilities and instruments regarding counter-terrorism. The launch of any predictions about the potential nature of such development is however ambiguous. Javier Agromaniz, Oldrich Bures, and Christian Kaunert observed that counter-terrorism is even-driven (Agromaniz, Bures, & Kaunert, 2015). Early 2019 brought about the arguable defeat of ISIS following the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in the Operation Kayla Mueller, while late 2019 brough about Covid-19, which is currently ongoing and which is currently at the forefront of political agendas around the Planet. The EU counter-terrorism will likely expand in the future. The risk, however, is that the interest in counter-terrorism will come only following a 9/11 2.0.



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Bossong, R. (2012). The evolution of EU counter-terrorism: European security policy after 9/11. Routledge.

Bunyan, T. (1993). Trevi, Europol and the European state. Statewatching the new Europe.

Bures, O. (2011). EU anti-terrorism policy: a paper tiger. Farnham: Ashgate.

Chalk, P. (1996). West European terrorism and counter-terrorism: the evolving dynamic. Springer.

Kaunert, C; Léonard, S. (2019). The collective securitisation of terrorism in the European Union. West European Politics.

Kramsch, C. (2005). Post 9/11: Foreign languages between knowledge and power. Applied Linguistics.

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Wouters, J; Naert, F. (2004). Of Arrest Warrants, Terrorist Offences and Extradition Deals: An Appraisal of the EU's Main Criminal Law Measures against Terrorism after 11 September. Institute for International Law, K.U. Leuven.

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