Pragmatism in EU Security

Alexandros Michailidis

Julian King, European Commissioner for the Security Union.

Interview with Julian King, European Commissioner for the Security Union


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Sunday, 13th of November 2016, marked one year since the deadly attack in Paris that took the lives of 130 victims. The images of the Bataclan massacre still haunt not just citizens of Europe, but the entire world. Against the backdrop of terrorist attacks that have plagued Europe in the last year, the European Commission has installed its first ever Commissioner for the Security Union, Sir Julian King.

New Europe’s Editor, Alexandros Koronakis, sat down with Commissioner King in a wide ranging interview that examined the important steps taken at a European level when it comes to tackling the threats of terrorism, the effect of the election of Donald Trump, the French elections and rise of populism in Europe, the controversial – even in Europe – issue of gun control, and the inner workings of the European Commission.

King is the Commissioner of British nationality, perhaps the country’s last Commissioner after the UK referendum. Previously he served as the Ambassador of the UK to France, and is highly experienced in EU politics and public policy, having worked at the European Commission as head of cabinet to Peter Mandelson, and subsequently Catherine Ashton.

With citizens expecting more from the EU when it comes to security and being protected against the threat of terrorism, King’s job is daunting. A survey in April of 2016 found that 82% of those questioned would like the EU to intervene more than at present in the fight against terrorism, more so than in any other policy area. In Paris, “It was all of Europe, all democracies, which were attacked,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, “The memory of the victims of that brutal night will remain forever etched in our hearts.”

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Alexandros Koronakis: What do you hope to achieve while you’re in this position of European Commissioner for the Security Union?

Sir Julian King: We’re going to start by re-doubling our efforts on the core work at the heart of building a security union, which is to tackle terrorism, cyber-, and organized crime and we’re going to do that by closing down the space in which terrorists and criminals can act. [We will achieve this] through legislation and regulation where that’s necessary, effective implementation, and through using our agencies. We have some excellent agencies in this field, and their cooperation with member states should be reinforced.  On many of these issues I’m clear that member states or member states authorities are in the front line but there is a lot that we can do and should do at the European level to help and support them. 

Then there’s work that we need to do on preventing and countering radicalization, a huge and ongoing challenge, both on the internet and in our communities.  Then there is a very important piece of work that we need to continue to pursue –  building our resilience: it’s not that it hasn’t started but we need to reinforce our resilience as societies and the resilience of our critical infrastructure, against terrorism and crucially against cyber threats.   That’s the core set of tasks that we are going to take forward through the security union.   But, as I’ve said, our work also needs to reach out into other areas of policy, whether that is transport and issues connected to transport security, energy, critical infrastructure, effective use of our funding, particularly our research funding, to promote overall security. 

If you want to come back in two years’ time, I hope that I will be able to tell you that we have established a solid core of work that is having a recognizable effect, where people can see that we’ve improved our support and our effectiveness in building security within our states, and that in the next commission there is no question that there should be a Commissioner for the Security Union to take that work forward .

You find yourself in the unfortunate position that the occasion of this interview is of course the one year since the Paris attacks, and in a position coming into this job after the string of attacks that took 130 lives in Paris, the Brussels- and the Nice- attacks that followed. European citizens are asking for security. Are they any safer than they were that day one year ago? What has been done, what has the EU’s role, and essentially your role been?

I’m acutely conscious of that because I arrived in Paris as British Ambassador shortly after the 13th of November. Sunday  [marked] one year on from that and I was in France throughout the attacks of this year and indeed was in Nice the morning after the 14th of July attacks. [I] saw, very directly, what that meant to people who were caught up in that [attack]. 

That gives me a very strong personal motivation to move this agenda forward and do what I can to help.  The last thing I did in France before leaving my previous job was to attend the commemoration ceremony that President Hollande organized for the more than 230 French citizens killed by terrorists in the previous 18 months. We’ve not had anything like that, at that sort of level of present, persistent, indiscriminate threat for a very long time and for me that is a huge motivation to try and respond effectively to the requests from EU citizens to do more.

I inherited a solid track record of work done over the previous year. For example in the immediate aftermath of the Bataclan, moves to tighten controls on deactivated weapons, the agreement of PNR which had been debated for a long time, and the move to establish the European Border and Coast Guard.  All of these are really concrete steps but there’s a lot more that we still need to do. 

There are some particular pieces of legislation that I think we need to take forward between now and the end of this year. 

I would like us to complete work on the new counterterrorism directive, which is going to criminalize travel to and from Iraq and Syria, training for terrorist purposes and also help tighten some of the issues around terrorism funding. 

I would like us to complete work on the revision of the Schengen border code, which is going to introduce systematic checks at the border for everyone, including EU nationals. 

And I think we need to continue and complete the work on the proposed firearms directive.  We have done good work on cracking down on trade of illegal smuggled arms including from the Western Balkans working with our Western Balkans’ partners. We [also] have a set of proposals for tightening the controls around legal arms and I think we need to finalize that agreement.  It is controversial for some. I think there are misunderstandings we need to dispel: we’re not trying to make the lives of sportsmen, hunters, reservists in some countries difficult. We can make appropriate exceptions for these groups and still remove military grade automatic Kalashnikov type weapons from wider circulation. I think it would be good if we could get on and complete [the] agreement this year.

Then there’s a whole series of things beyond that that we are going to need to take forward, where we’re working on entry/exit system, there are going to be proposals for a European version of ESTA called ETIAS which is , a pre-clearance system for non-visa third country nationals.  These are important building blocks for our security. There is a solid body of work ready, but we need to continue to be creative and responsive to the challenges as they shift and change. 

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The President said that security is “Europe’s responsibility”, but where does that end?  What are the limits to the security union?  Tell us about the relationship with the member states.  Do you find them willing to, not give up national sovereignty, but actually pool their sovereignty together in these issues?

I am clear that in many of these areas the member states are the front line.  And the work that we’re doing is to make sure that we can effectively support them.  So my colleague, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has taken forward, very successfully, the launch of the new version of FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard. They are doing excellent work  in support of the authorities in Greece and Italy. Working with those authorities, they have helped to tighten up the controls, the documentation, the recording of arrivals in both Greece and Italy. It’s about effectively working together.    

President-Elect Trump has made statements during his campaign calling NATO “obsolete” and saying that it is “is costing [the US] a fortune.” What does this mean for the EU and its security Union?

I think it’s very early days. We’ll see what President-Elect Trump says in the upcoming weeks and months in this and others areas. President Juncker has made very clear, we have every interest in working closely with the United States in a whole range of areas; certainly in the area of security.

I don’t’ feel that that has changed the concrete challenges the EU has to face together on tackling terrorism tackling cybercrime, and serious and organized crime. I intend to get on with the agenda that we’ve been discussing.

France has elections coming up soon. We’ve seen the power of populism that has been eating away Europe, do you think this wave of populism also affects terrorism, is there a link between the two or there is no relation?

I think we should resist any suggestion that conflates the challenges on managing migration with the threats of terrorism. If you conflate those two things, you are doing Daesh’s propaganda work for them. They want us to believe that somehow migration and terrorism are the same thing.

Migration is a challenge across the EU, and we have taken steps in dealing with that challenge. Terrorism is a direct threat but is separate and different and we need to strengthen our defenses against it. I’m conscious that some supporters of Daesh who wish us ill have sought to come back and enter the EU using routes used by migrants. That underlines the importance of reinforcing security at our borders through the checks that we’ve now reinforced in Greece, Italy and elsewhere.  Also reinforcing security behind our borders.

We have the New Entry-Exit systems, ETIAS (European Travel Information Authorization System), anti-money laundering directive. The EU is trying to catch up with terrorists as they keep developing more sophisticated methods. Are we fast enough? Do you think these tools are appropriate?

We have done a great deal in the recent past. If the creation of this new post and task force allows us to reinforce our efforts, to focus and in some cases to go a bit quicker, that would be great. There are some measures like ETIAS, which are complicated and challenging, and we will go as quickly as we can. There are other measures we can take like the revision of the Schengen border code to introduce systematic checks, which can deliver in a matter of months. In Charles De Gaulle airport they are already doing it.  So we shouldn’t be daunted by the scale and complexity of the challenge, we should get on with purpose and do what we can as quickly as we can.

We talked about returning fighters, which are one of the issues that ordinary EU citizens are most worried about, how are you tackling that?

First of all two words of context: It’s not a new threat, the threat already exists. There is, I hope going to be progress in combatting Daesh on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and as a consequence of that there is speculation about further returns. I think we need to keep that in perspective. Of those who are fighting, there will probably be casualties, some people who were highly motivated will probably move elsewhere to continue what they consider to be their fight. That is the pattern we’ve seen in the past in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some could also seek to come back to the EU, and not just men, but maybe women and children as well. That poses a range of problems; it means that we need to have effective control and knowledge of who is coming in and out of the European Union. We’ve spoken about some of the measures that are relevant to that. It also means we need effective control behind our borders, effective information exchange through Europol, SIS, and other information exchanges. It means that we need to think together about how to deal together with the challenges of reintegration of some of these people including women and children.

Rhe Radicalization Awareness Network is an excellent framework, not only for exchanging best practice on how to prevent young people from becoming radicalized, but also for exchanging ideas on how to de-radicalize people who have already been tempted down the routes of violence or radicalization, to take forward discussions on the challenges of dealing with – for example – returning children. It’s a new challenge; no one really knows quite how to do that, but there are lessons that we can learn from women and children that have been caught up in cults and cult-like activity. It’s not the same, but we’ve got to learn from other experiences.

One of the most dangerous domains both in terms of inciting hate speech, and recruitment, is the Internet. Is this something the Commission is working on? What needs to be done?

The internet referral unit – set up by Europol is engaging very constructively with the internet service providers on these matters. Some material on the internet is illegal and should be taken down. But  some while not strictly speaking illegal is clearly pernicious and extremely unwelcome. There we need to enter a dialogue with the Internet Service Providers and encourage them to take things down according to their own rules and procedures. The Internet Referral Unit has referred 12-13,000 items over the last 12 months, and 9 out of 10 of those items were taken down by internet service providers.

This is welcome progress. But there are hundreds of thousands of such items, so we need to scale up our cooperation in this field. We are having the EU internet forum meeting in December which brings together institutions, member states and the key private sector player, to look at what more we can do together to take down stuff that shouldn’t be there and indeed to provide alternative voices. One of the things that we need to look at is how to get counter-narratives and different voices up onto the web so people can use their critical intelligence to check whether they actually believe some of the propaganda material.

The first big terrorism attack that sparked this wave was 9/11. Following that, we had The Patriot Act and many Americans started feeling that the government had gone too far in regulation and curtailing their personal freedoms. Should EU citizens feel that they are over-controlled?

I think we’ve come a long way since 9/11, and indeed the United States have come a long way since 9/11. We all have learned, including the US, from some of the reaction to the particularly restrictive measures that were taken right at the very beginning. As I’ve said before in front of the European Parliament I am convinced that the only effective way to tackle terrorism is firmly rooted in the respect of fundamental and human rights. You need to have the widest and fullest possible support across the community for your efforts if they are going to work.  The best way of securing that support is to show that your efforts are firmly rooted in respect of people’s rights. That’s what we’re trying to defend.

You’ve worked in the European Commission before, you know what it’s all about, but what did you expect coming into this job and how did this reality meet your expectations?

Well I didn’t really expect to come into this job of course.  I’m in many ways delighted to be back here. … It’s a city that I know and I love, but the circumstances in which I come back weren’t planned – far from it. 

I really appreciate the fact that President Juncker decided to offer me this role because it’s a very important portfolio and there’s a lot of work to be done in this area, so I feel privileged to have the opportunity to do it. 

It had been eight years or so since I had last been here. Some things are the same.  Some things have changed quite a lot.  I find that the workings inside the Commission have evolved. It feels now more in line with my own culture of team working, project working.  I also find that … the European Parliament is more present in our work and that is positive.

You’re managing a portfolio where you have to work closely with both Vice-President Frans Timmermans on one hand and Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos on the other.  Is that tough or do you find that working with both these teams makes your work more productive and efficient?

I’m benefitting enormously from working with Frans Timmermans and Dimitris Avramopoulos  and other colleagues. The taskforce the President has asked me to set up and take forward brings together more than twenty different Directorate Generals and Services.  There’s a core of work around  DG HOME on terrorism, cyber and serious organised crime.  But there’s an enormous amount of other things that we’re going to be taking forward as well  to mainstream the security dimension in other policy areas. That means, for example, working closely with Violeta Bulc on transport and transport security, with Carlos Moedas on  research funding and Vera Jourova on judicial cooperation .  So there’s a lot of impetus to working together across the Commission to drive this agenda forward and I welcome that; I think it’s great.

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