European Union: “Counter-terrorism” will not stop terrorism, but threatens democratic rights

“Counter-terrorism” was one of the main issues at the EU summit in Brussels 25-26 March.

That was to be expected, following the terrible bomb attack in Madrid, where more than 200 people were killed and 1,800 wounded. The measures themselves were also as expected: more resources for the police and the army and for surveillance, plus harsher counter-terrorist laws.

The political leaders at the summit aimed to demonstrate their ability to act – treating it as the European equivalent of 11 September, 2001, in the US. But, similar to Bush, they will discover that police and military methods cannot stop terrorism. Stronger punishment has no meaning for someone prepared to become a suicide bomber. What is more, Spain already had the strongest anti-terror laws in the EU.

Another similarity with Bush is that the EU tops are totally unwilling to discuss the roots of terrorism. Terrorists like al-Qaeda are politically reactionary and their attacks affect workers and ordinary people. But they have not dropped from the sky.

Groups like al-Qaeda were educated by the agents of the US CIA during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the 1990s, US allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, supported the Taliban.

The political message from al-Qaeda – that only a return to their interpretation of Islam can save the Muslim world – can only gain support under extreme circumstances. The economic exploitation of the Middle East and Asia, for which both the US and the EU are responsible, has led to mass poverty. Western powers are supporting oppressive dictatorships, like Saddam Hussein (up to 1990), the Shah of Iran, the House of Saud, Mubarak in Egypt – and they are supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas.

In the 1950s to 1970s there was hope that pan-Arabic movements (wanting to unite all Arabs), ‘communist’ parties or various liberation movements could abolish oppression, stop exploitation and create conditions for a better life. Disillusion with these movements has been combined with the result of capitalist globalisation in recent decades – growing inequalities on a world scale. The terrorists may in some cases be multi-billionaires, like Osama bin Laden, but they still reflect the relative and absolute decay in big parts of the world.

The decisions of the EU summit cannot stop terrorism. But they cut down democratic rights and they increase state spying on people. In February, Amnesty International warned against new British anti-terror laws. New laws after September 11, they say, have “Already created a small-scale Guantanamo Bay in the UK by allowing the continuing detention of 14 foreign nationals without charge or trial”. Instead, Amnesty demands that unlimited imprisonment without charges and trial should be declared illegal.

Special Commissioner

The EU summit decided to appoint a special commissioner – Gijs de Vries – a Dutch bureaucrat, to coordinate anti-terror measures. The police, intelligence units etc. are supposed to increase their cooperation across national borders. But the weakness of such coordination was, in no small degree, demonstrated after the bombings in Madrid, when the Spanish police and government delivered completely misleading information. The larger EU countries are also hesitant to hand over secret intelligence materialstuff to ‘less reliable’ junior partners.

Previous decisions, taken immediately after September 11, like the increased length of sentences, has not been implemented in all EU countries. That goes also for the new law deporting suspects to another EU country. The new deadline is now 30 June.

Countries not willing to ‘cooperate’ in combating terrorism are threatened with the loss of EU aid money. As with the wall put up against refugees, the EU is demanding that other countries do their dirty work.

The Spring EU summit this year also accepted the old US government’s demand for armed guards on aircraft flying over the Atlantic, something they have refused before.

More important, the summit agreed to a, “Declaration of solidarity”, promising support from all member states to any country affected by terrorism. EU countries should offer “all available resources”, including military. The decision to call for EU states to, “Assist a member state or an acceding state in its territory at the request of its political authorities in the event of a terrorist attack”. In other words, it is up to the governments, as the Spanish government did a month ago, to decide what is terrorism. Already, the army in each EU country is increasingly linked to common EU projects. In Sweden 20 per cent of the army is allocated for missions abroad.

The terrorist attack in Madrid, and the following election result, overthrowing the war-hawk government, offered the EU leaders a new opportunity to appear united. In the draft constitution, which was blocked in December, there were proposals on increased police and judicial cooperation. In the new set of regulations, decided at the summit, even the British government has retreated from its previous opposition to judicial coordination. They are probably convinced that any new deal will be no softer in relation to repressive laws.

A new “pioneer group” against terrorism prepared the EU discussions – the governments of the five biggest states, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain. The then French Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy (now the new Finance Minister), said that the “G5” belonged to the “same culture” and therefore could cooperate more easily than the EU with its 25 member states.

The new spark of cooperation kindled in the European Union is however unlikely to last. The Financial Times pointed to the “reluctant response” of the member states towards the idea of a new EU authority to deal with terrorism and crisis situations. The scepticism is based both on financial concerns and the fact that the governments want to keep control. New contradictions in the EU are likely to develop when the attacks in Madrid are no longer in focus.

The new anti-terrorist laws will not be used only against suspected terrorists. They can be used against everyone seen by the state as a threat to authority and “stability”. Not least, it will be a weapon to use against refugees, with even tighter border controls and pressure on travel companies. The arbitrary use of telephone-tapping, fingerprinting, powers of arrest etc. must be fought against by the trade unions, by the anti-capitalist movement and by all those who defend democratic rights.

Imperialism and capitalism cannot stop terrorist groups except temporarily and by extreme measures of repression. This in turn will create resistance, and the risk of more terrorism. The struggle against undemocratic laws needs to be linked to the struggle for another, a socialist, world to abolish the breeding ground for exploitation, war and terrorism.

The article was printed in Offensiv, the weekly paper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (cwi Sweden)

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April 2004