After Paris, calm decisions needed
The Paris massacre and related events last week have not only opened the eyes of the public to the threat from Islamic fundamentalists Isil but have forced the governments in Europe to act to protect the safety and welfare of all citizens. In Brussels last Friday, EU interior and justice ministers pledged solidarity with France in the wake of the attacks and agreed a series of new measures on surveillance, border checks and gun control. These measures include fast-tracked new legislation to share air passengers' data, curbs on firearms trafficking and closer checks on EU citizens crossing Europe's external borders.
At a minimum, these measures must be welcomed, but if more needs to be done then that should be done without hesitation. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who asked for the crisis meeting, said: "We must be implacable in our determination, we must speed up our action, otherwise Europe will lose its way."
There are those who argue that Europe had already lost its way on the issue of security, although for every atrocity committed, the security services have prevented many others. That said, it is clear that more needs to be done. The commissioner for internal affairs and migration had said the EU executive would propose a common "European intelligence agency" but, questioned later, Dimitris Avramopoulos made clear that was a distant prospect.
The idea of a European intelligence network has been floated before but was regarded as a step too far for many governments whose sovereignty over national security issues is enshrined in EU treaties. Europol, the EU police co-operation agency, meanwhile, is increasing its work in distributing shared counter-terrorism intelligence. Governments everywhere, including in Ireland, must engage to a greater extent in this process. The massacre in Paris has left no room for doubt on this issue. There is now a pressing need to improve the level of intelligence sharing among member states.
Ministers have also agreed to press for a deal by the end of the year on sharing airline travellers' data, the so-called Passenger Name Record programme, which has long been stalled in the European Parliament over concerns for privacy. Leaders in Europe, and the citizens they represent, must now accept that this issue needs to be dealt with to support all efforts to contend with the threat from Isil.
Citizens of the 26 Schengen countries of Europe have their documents visually checked by security forces when they leave or enter the area. Under new proposals, those controls are likely to be upgraded, so documents are systematically checked against criminal and security databases. This is to be welcomed.
Some of the Belgian and French suspects involved in the Paris attacks are known to have travelled to fight in Syria and returned, apparently undetected, to Europe. Officials have said some may have taken advantage of the large influx of refugees from Syria over the summer to evade normal border controls.
This disclosure will not come as a surprise, but neither should it form the basis of an ill-considered rejection of the notion of assistance towards refugees fleeing from the same terror which has been visited on our continent.
As the French interior minister has said, Europe needs to act firmly, swiftly and with force. We agree. However, now is not the time for panicked reaction, but for decisive action and cool heads.