Bracing for Eurospies

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding attempted to shock the intelligence community by asserting that the Union should create its own intelligence service by 2020 in order for Europe to “level the playing field with our US partners”. Is she for real?

While the EU already has its own smallish intelligence body in INTCEN, it has neither spooks on the ground (even if it posts staff to non-EU countries on research trips, it is always with the agreement of the host state) nor the means to intercept and snoop calls or emails. Its mission is to provide intelligence analysis, early warning and situational awareness by monitoring and assessing international events.

INTCEN carries out its work by using satellite imagery from the EU Satellite Centre, reports from EU embassies in risky places (Regional Security Officers), publicly accessible sources of information (General and External Relations Division) or whatever information the security services and intelligence agencies of the Member States considers liable to be shared (Analysis Division). That’s all.

Will we then eventually see the revolutionary European Intelligence Agency Reding envisions? Well, just don’t buy the spy trench coats yet: not even entering into the complications posed by the need to revise the Treaties, free-riding, confidentiality and Parliamentary accountability, the clash of interests between the EU and NATO is probably too deep to be easily overcome. As highlighted by the competitive race of sorts they apparently engaged in during their dual Eastern enlargement processes, the ability and willingness to effectively cooperate shown by these two supranational bodies is doubtful at best.

Even if scholars and analysts suggest a clear-cut division of tasks, with soft power going to the EU and hard power staying with NATO, reality tells us otherwise. 24 of the 28 EU Member States are also NATO members, and 22 of the 28 NATO members are also EU Member States: plenty of shared interests and synergies, but not a perfect match, especially considering that Turkey is a key NATO member and Cyprus is an EU country. In other words, unless the situation of Northern Cyprus is resolved (with negotiations scheduled to be resumed soon), Cyprus will keep putting hurdles to Turkey’s EU membership aspirations and Turkey will keep on blocking attempts at intensifying EU-NATO ties.

Back in 2012, I already argued that incremental intelligence sharing should become a top NATO priority, ideally by progressively developing joint capabilities which would eventually lead to the creation of a joint transatlantic secret services command. One year later, Snowden’s leaks have shown a much cruder reality: no alliance seems strong enough to prevent massive mutual spying at all levels. National interest still trumps shared interests in an anarchic world order, and he EU might not be able to escape this logic either, as the watered-down CSDP emerging from the Lisbon Treaty also attests.

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One comment

  1. Nico Segers · · Reply

    I understand the need for particular “operational intelligence” to brace for critical events – wether they are man-made or not. However, it’s the sheer level of intrusiveness how such information is acquired that we as Europeans should really shy away from – taking into account that transparency of EU actions remain paramount.

    Plus there are two major hurdles that CANNOT be overcome in the EU. The first is we are still rather in a digital ‘Early Modern Times’ while nations like the US, Israel and other are about 1 or more decade ahead of what is technically possible in terms of digital espionage tools. Secondly, the nature of intelligence prohibits the exchange or delegation of intelligence acquired by a national government to a higher body. Once raw intelligence (which is truly a bartering or pressure device and even exchange currency in real geopolitics!!) is shared, the ownership of intelligence changes and it cannot be controlled by the first ‘keeper’ of it. Member States will, disgruntlement on data integrity aside, not fall in rank to push all this “intelligence capital” in a single EU enveloppe at this tim. The current INCENT (at EEAS) and the INT unit at the EU Military Staff should however broaden its role in NATO’s Cyber Centre of Excellence and push for a bigger critical computer/digital infrastructure security budget. There is a need to review the “rules” under which the cooperation amongst EU and NATO (in particular the U.S. impact on EU cyber response capabilities) is held.

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