How Will Europe Cope?

Putting security front and center will call for unprecedented cooperation

Europe -- two syllables that denote, among other things, well-being. Life has been good in wealthy, self-confident cities such as Paris, Berlin, Rome, and Madrid. After all, the European Union has been mostly about promoting a decent standard of living, not confronting an ideological foe. "The idea has been that if we focus on economic power, we will not offend anyone enough to want to attack us," says Julian Lindley-French, a strategic analyst at Switzerland's Geneva Center for Security Policy.

The 10 bombs that exploded over three nightmarish minutes in Madrid on March 11 also blew that smug reasoning to smithereens. The resemblance to 9/11 would have been infinitely closer had Islamist terrorists succeeded in what Spanish investigators are now convinced was their real goal: to collapse the entire central train station, causing not hundreds but thousands of deaths. "Until now we thought that terrorism was a problem between the U.S. and Islam," says Ernesto Galli della Loggia, political scientist and columnist for Milan's Corriere della Sera. "The 'crusaders' which al Qaeda talks about are us."

Until Madrid, the assumption had been that Europe could live comfortably with its vulnerabilities. Borders were relatively porous, its cities teemed with illegal or barely legal immigrants. Yes, there were terrorists such as the separatist Basques' ETA and Northern Ireland's IRA, but their political agendas are domestic and their actions, however bloody, are relatively predictable. They can be penetrated and repressed with relative ease. Not so the challenge from Islamic fundamentalism.

Deep down, European political elites are now beginning to understand what national police, intelligence agencies, and magistrates have understood for some time: that Europe faces a new Cold War and that the Continent has no choice but to fight it. Until March 11, counterterrorist activities were largely considered the work of police -- not of politicians. Now combating terrorism will be the main focus of the next European Union summit scheduled for the end of this month. Some think security could become a vital new function for the EU. Already, European Commission President Romano Prodi is talking about creating a new post -- Anti-Terrorism Commissioner -- while Austria and Belgium are proposing the creation of a European Central Intelligence Agency.


In Madrid's bloody wake, policy proposals are ricocheting across Europe. Government leaders want a quantum increase in cooperation among police and intelligence agencies in all European countries. Investigating magistrates are particularly keen now to create a European arrest warrant valid across the EU. There is even consideration of creating a European FBI. Measures to ease the extradition of suspects from one European country to another are on the table. And the EU is setting aside new research and development monies for security-related technologies such as biometric identification, bomb detection, and digital wiretapping. "There will be a big shift in priorities toward more security," says Janusz Reiter, former Polish ambassador in Berlin and now head of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations.

This kind of mobilization will likely be a tougher task than the one faced by the Bush Administration in the aftermath of September 11. For one, some politicians are already worried that the complexities of coordinating work of competing agencies within 25 different countries will lead to European turf battles which could make American interagency wrangles seem tame by comparison. At Europol, the European Union's Hague-based effort to coordinate national police forces, officials privately complain that the reluctance of security services in EU member states to share intelligence discourages the vitally important exchange of information. Reijo Kemmpinen, the European Commission's official spokesperson, is already complaining that "the culture of secrecy can be counterproductive."

Building a newly secure Europe is a major task. Getting politicians and voters to work together is another. Just 72 hours after the Madrid attacks, Spanish voters delivered an amazing political upset. The opposition Socialist Party, in the political wilderness for almost a decade, was swept into power against all odds.

The rage of Spanish voters was understandable. And many Spanish make the legitimate distinction that they still want to combat terrorism, even while they punished the outgoing ruling party for supporting the war in Iraq and initially denying that Islamic terrorists were behind the Madrid bombing. But the signal they sent was unsettling, and could have repercussions. "This was Islamic terrorism implementing regime change," says Angel Ubide, a leading Spanish economist. There are already new pressures on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to consider withdrawal of Italy's presence in Iraq. In Poland, another key European member of the U.S.-led coalition, public opinion is shifting against the important Polish military commitment in southern Iraq, where 2,500 troops warily keep the peace. "The criticism is growing, and it will grow further," notes Reiter. "If the government gives in, it will not only mean a total failure of Polish foreign policy -- it will be a signal that al Qaeda decides who is in the coalition."


One thing Europe's political elites must do is convince voters that it's not just supporters of the war in Iraq who could be targeted. France, for example, considers itself on the front line against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. New laws passed on Mar. 3 to maintain the secular character of French public schools by banning the Islamic veil and other "ostentatious" religious symbols have sparked demonstrations across the Islamic world. In a message delivered on Feb. 24 to Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician who is considered al Qaeda's main ideologue, said France would suffer for having attacked Islam. And Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin called for calm Mar. 17 after French newspapers received threats from a previously-unknown Islamist group "to plunge France into terror" if the law on the veil was not immediately withdrawn. "The notion that we in France are protected because we aren't in Iraq is wrong," says Pierre Lellouche, a center-right member of the French Parliament and expert on defense questions. "The law on the veil is a major red flag for them, and they are going to go at it."

The grim truth is that there will be other moments when terrorists test the mettle of the west. Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan police commissioner, said on Mar. 16 that an attack on London is a question of when, not if. The Met has increased its counterterrorism officers by 680 in the past two years and intends to take on another 100 this year. Why? Because Stevens says al Qaeda is still active in London and elsewhere in Britain. This war will have many fronts. The age of well-being is over.

By John Rossant in Paris, with Kerry Capell in London

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.