Another deadly terrorist attack splashed the European coast, but for the first time, the target was the capital of Austria, Vienna. The Islamic State claims the responsibility for the terrorist attack which left four casualties and several wounded, clearly sending a message that no place in Europe is safe anymore. The European Union is facing a threat of a critical magnitude, as in past weeks and months, terrorist attacks and beheading sow fear throughout entire Europe.

Terrorism in Europe is not a new phenomenon, it has been manifested in different forms throughout the history of the European continent. Nationalist movements, separatist movements, anarchism, far left or far right, and many other forms of political extremism created the global issue that is still withstanding, terrorism. The issue of security has gone through various waves of terrorism, yet the religious one does not only remain critical but grows even further.

In order the understand the fundamental parts of the issue, we have to go back to its roots. The religious-driven terrorism began with two crucial events. Those are the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These events triggered the Islamic world and created a common ground for extreme Islamic indoctrination which will be targeting and recruiting people from all over the world. Islamist terrorism, led by the largest organization Al-Qaeda and its former leader Osama Bin Laden, achieved its zenith in 2001, on 9/11, after one of the deadliest terrorist attacks the world has ever seen. The immediate response by the United States included the declaration on the war on terror which will be followed by the participation of more than 100 countries. The members of the European Union have jointly supported the United States and its action plan.

This ultimately meant that the European Union became the target itself, which will be felt not so long after. The terrorist attack in Madrid in 2004 left 191 people dead and hundreds injured, instantly catapulting the security issue at the top of the EU agenda. From this moment on, the terrorism-security nexus will be prioritized over any other security issue, and the search for a more secure Europe will address the new approach (Keohane, 2005).

From Zero Strategy to the Four Pillars

In 2001 the EU has already redirected the course and three principal measures have been adopted. The first one was the Council’s decision 2002/187 which formalized the establishment of Eurojust, the EU’s law enforcement agency that works together with national governments on cross-border investigations. The second decision, 2002/475, defines terrorist offenses in relation to the activities. Moreover, it established criminal penalties and adopted jurisdiction across the European Union.

The third one was decision 2002/584 which created a common European arrest warrant (EAW). The EAW requires member states to arrest and transfer terrorists or criminals to the issuing state. This decision was brought up in order to ease the procedures and create more efficient prosecution of criminals across the EU. These measures came as a result of 9/11 and are still considered as one of the crucial aspects of the Area of Freedom Security and Justice (AFSJ represents one of the key security concepts covering a wide range of policy areas in the EU).

The Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg (Photo: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

After the terrorist attack in Madrid, in 2004, the EU counter-terrorism strategy has undergone additional alteration. Fifty-seven specific measures were adopted in order to reflect the urgency for a safeguard in the EU. However, even though certain adopted decisions encompass the counter-terrorism strategy, it is still a small portion of them. Twenty-seven decisions were still concerned with criminal law and did not directly impact the counter-terrorism strategy (Herlin-Karnell, 2014).

The London bombing in 2005 was another punch in the face to counter-terrorism strategy. Again, new initiatives came as a result, this time the modifications included the appointment of the Coordinator for EU counter-terrorism. The Coordinator‘s role was primarily based on the regulation of counter-terrorism strategies within the EU. Namely, coordinator’s role increased as well as his implementation abilities, and today, he is a principal interrogator on counter-terrorism affairs in the EU.

This includes “coordination of the Council’s work in combating terrorism, making policy recommendations to the Council, and monitoring implementation of EU CT strategy” (Sgueo, p.14, 2015). Coordinator’s work has helped in the formation of the current EU’s CT strategy by redirecting it towards themulti-dimensional conceptualization, and the counter-terrorism strategy has gained its final shape in 2005 with the comprehensive “four pillars” strategy.

The Four Pillars of counter-terrorism

The four-pillar strategy is primarily based on the four critical matters, these are: prevention, protection pursuit, and response. Although the prefix “four pillars” refers to the four crucial components of counter-terrorism, the strategy involves far more complex measures to tackle terrorism indirectly. Some of them include the promotion of democracy, strong governance, and cooperation with external sources such as countries out of the EU’s membership spectrum or NGOs.

The four main pillars of counter-terrorism strategy can be divided into those elements that focus on the external dimension of countering terrorism, and those that deal with internal aspects. Correspondingly, the prevention and pursuit of terrorism fall into the category of external measures, while protection and response remain within the EU’s internal matters. Thus it is not surprising that internal pillars have been more successful than external ones, having in mind that most of the tasks have been done by the European Commission, Europol, and Eurojust (Argomaniz, 2011).

The prevention mechanisms aim to block new recruitments, prevent radicalization, and counter the recruiting methods. According to studies of the Nixon Centre, respectively 40 percent of the terrorist from the EU have been either naturalized or have converted to Islam. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the prevention concept tackles terrorist activity both nationally and internationally.

A military police officer guard at the crime scene near a synagogue in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. (Photo: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
A military police officer guard at the crime scene near a synagogue in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. (Photo: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

The protection pillar of the grand counter-terrorism strategy is composed of two primary goals. The first aims to “reduce the vulnerability of targets of a terrorist attack; and the second is to limit the resulting impact of attack” (Sgueo, p. 18 2015). Some of the mechanisms that are considered to be crucial in this aspect are the Schengen Information System and Visa Information System which enhance protection on the EU level through information sharing scope. Additionally, the protection also refers to the securitization of critical infrastructure, as well as transport. Throughout time, the importance of cybersecurity has been introduced, as new ways of terrorist mobilization incorporate internet tools.

The pursuit pillar delivers special attention to the cutting of terrorist sources across the borders while disturbing terrorist networks. Essentially, it has as an aim to pursue terrorists, investigate them, but also to diminish financing of terrorist groups and it does so “by carrying out inquiries, freezing assets and impeding money transfers.” (Sgueo, p.18 2015).

The last pillar – Response focuses on the preparation of the groundwork in case of a terrorist attack on one of the members of the EU. Considering the fact that terrorist attacks are unpredictable, the fourth pillar aspires to minimize the consequences, coordinate the appropriate responses, and prepare for the aftermath.

The Harsh Reality

The EU counter-terrorism strategy remains efficient, but only on paper. Not so long after one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe that took place in Paris in 2014, information leaked that certain EU member states held back the information about the suspects and did not share it with French authorities. It was not the first time, however, that criminal records had not been shared among the EU member states. This phenomenon has a long history and is partly caused by the lack of common EU authorities that deal with security issues. Many experts and politicians argue that the general cause for insecurity lays in the fact that there is no such thing as a specific counter-terrorism policy area.

Most of the EU member states see counter-terrorism on a national level, rather than supranational. Although pooling sovereignty by joining the EU should account for more security in general, the trust on particularly sensitive issues such as national security proved to be far more difficult than expected. Therefore, a majority of states in the EU take an intergovernmentalist approach when it comes to sensitive information sharing. Accordingly, the EU ended up with a very limited opportunity, and pretty much handcuffed by their own member states.

Another issue tightly connected with the state’s internal spheres of interest would be information sharing. The terrorist threats vary from state to state in the EU, and only a few see information sharing as more valuable than risky for their national security. The discrepancy in the national security matters among the EU member states proved to be one of the major reasons for the incoherence on counter-terrorism policymaking (Daly, 2017). Strictly speaking, member states frequently disregard multilateral means of information sharing, and rather deal with it on a bilateral level. The question worth asking is what can be accomplished on the matter of trust among EU member states (Wensink et al. 2017).

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left, of Austria and President Emmanuel Macron of France speaking at the Élysée Palace in Paris, Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo: Pool photo by Michel Euler)
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left, of Austria and President Emmanuel Macron of France speaking at the Élysée Palace in Paris, Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo: Pool photo by Michel Euler)

Further criticism of EU counter-terrorism policy advancement highlights the broad nature of the definition of terrorism. Namely, different states in the European Union face different elements of threats, which all fall on the margin of essential types of terrorism, yet consist of the elements of the narrow definition of it. The efficiency ultimately faces great decline as the elementary threat of terrorism keeps increasing. The European Union cannot be accused of trying to keep safe and secure its citizens, but it indivisibly has to sort the priorities through the modification of the term terrorism (Wensink et al. 2017).

The overall cooperation in the EU seems to be vulnerable when it comes to sensitive issues such as one of security. Every member state wants the top security system for its citizens and is falling behind when the common European security question is raised. It is understandable that bilateral cooperation is more trustworthy than multilateral ones. However, if EU authorities aspire to further integrate its member states and diminish terrorist threats within the European Union, then more sacrifice in sense of pooling sovereignty could be the only way of achieving it. Joint cooperation on a crucial matter such as terrorism is an inseparable part of common security construction, and it must be built on trust.

A European FBI?

It is important to stress that one of the lessons learned from the history of cooperation on counter-terrorism in the European Union is, that the Union is greatly lacking European capacities to deal with the terrorist threat. If we take the United States as an example, and the European Union natural process of integration, which aspires to reach a similar form of the federation such as US ones.

Then we are facing the truth that the European Union cannot continue functioning on a bilateral level any longer. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was created in 1901 as a result of the assassination of US President William McKinley, and the threat that anarchist terrorism posed to the American citizens. It is about time for the European Union to embrace the same idea and engage in the creation of European capacities that will deal with the threat in every country of the European Union.

If we take into consideration the intergovernmentalist argument and assume that national security concerns should remain in the domestic domain of the member states, then we also have to raise the question of whether that is actually more efficient and in the interest of the member states. The explanation for that lays in the fact that the terrorist attackers from Madrid in 2004 were known by the French and British police. The London attackers were followed and even arrested by the French police prior to their terrorist operation, as well as the terrorist attackers from Brussels. This argument seems to oppose the aforementioned approach that more efficiency on countering terrorism derives from within the member states themselves.

“Schengen Terroristory”

Another argument that exposes the contradiction of intergovermentalist position on countering terrorism in a domestic manner is that of the Schengen Area. That is to say, the free movement of EU citizens within the EU borders consists of one of the most fundamental rights and values of the EU. Yet, it also provides an opportunity for potential terrorists to move freely from state to state and pose a threat. If EU member states do not plan to abolish the Schengen Agreement, then the common European investigation capacity, again, proves to be inevitable.

A temporary border barrier in Koewacht between Belgium and the Netherlands during lockdown in March (Photo: Nico Vereecken/Photonews via Getty Images)

To sum it up, the European Union is currently faced with a wide range of issues such as migration crisis, COVID-19 pandemic, populism, the rise of the far-right, nationalism, and terrorism. This road has two paths, the path of further integration or disintegration. The high influx of refugees has infiltrated the high number of potential terrorists inside the European Union, and this fact cannot be refuted. The top priority of the European Union should therefore become one of the security, as it possesses the potential for disintegrating the Union even further. One way of achieving the goal would be the creation of a common European investigation authority which would not only build the safer European Union but also affect the disintegrational process in the time when it is desperately needed.



Argomaniz, J., 2011. The EU And Counter-Terrorism. Routledge.

Daly, H. (2017). The development of EU counter-terrorism policy as a result of critical junctures: has it created a volatile long-term policy lacking effectiveness? – Dublin European Institute. [online]

Herlin-Karnell, E. (2014). External dimension of the EU counter-terrorism policy.

Sgueo, G. (2015). Counter-terrorism funding in the EU budget. [online]

Wensink, W. (2017). The European Union’s Policies on Counter-Terrorism Relevance, Coherence and Effectiveness.

Naslovna fotografija: AP Photo/Eric Gaillard 

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Rođen je 9. maja 1994. godine u Beogradu, Republika Srbija. Diplomirao je na Američkom koledžu u Solunu, na smeru međunarodni odnosi i diplomatija. Za vreme, i nakon osnovnih studija stažirao je u Dukakis centru, gde je radio na projektima koji se tiču pitanja demokratije na Balkanu, migracija, kao i budućnosti glasanja u Sjedinjenim Državama. Trenutno pohađa master studije Univerziteta u Padovi, na smeru evropske i globalne studije. Učestvovao je na brojnim međunarodnim konferencijama i forumima iz oblasti politike. Bio je lider radne grupe na skupu „Convention on the Future of Democracy in European Union“ gde je prezentovao probleme i izazove država članica Evropske unije, zatim оrganizator i moderator panel diskusije „Women in Decision Making Process“, održane na Fakultetu političkih nauka Univerziteta u Beogradu, zajedno sa predsedavajućim profesorima Američkog koledža u Solunu. Direktno je zaslužan za uspostavljanje akademske saradnje između navedene dve obrazovne institucije. Polja interesovanja su mu demokratija, regionalna stabilnost, evropske integracije i društveno angažovanje. Tečno govori engleski jezik, a služi se francuskim i grčkim.

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