Even if the perpetrators of the London bombings prove to be home-grown terrorists, there will almost certainly be some international, and probably European, dimension to their deadly handiwork. So it is entirely apt the UK government should use its presidency of the European Union to call a special meeting of justice and interior
ministers of the 25 today in order to step up co-ordinated counter-terrorism measures. It is also a chance for the EU to show its political relevance in an area where EU co-ordination appears to have general support. For precisely that reason, ordinary EU citizens will simply not understand if Europe’s institutions just end up in a snarl.
The UK wants to use today’s meeting to break the logjam over proposals on EU-wide retention and sharing of electronic information held by internet service providers and mobile phone companies that which could be useful to counter-terrorist police. The Madrid train bombings of 16 months ago jolted the EU into stepping up counter-terrorist efforts, but still left the Union with a patchwork of different national regulations governing the increasing trail of e-mails and mobile phone calls that people leave behind them.
Britain, Ireland, France and Sweden have been pushing for a record of phone and web communications to be maintained for at least a year, against opposition from some other member states and the telecommunications industry.
If the UK could get unanimity for its proposal on an intergovernmental basis, it could effectively bypass the European parliament, which is worried about data protection issues. As it happens, the parliament is already up in arms about privacy aspects of other EU security moves, and has taken the Council of Ministers and Commission to court for passing detailed airline passenger information on to the US. For its part, the Commission wants to legislate on web and phone logs in the regular way that would give MEPs a say and placate their concerns with a specific data protection measure.
But this would take longer – perhaps unnecessarily so. For EU telecom
operators would not be placed at a competitive cost disadvantage to each other if longer data retention were required of them all. Nor would the data retained include the content of communications – only details of sender, recipient and time. This would reduce the data’s sensitivity. The key would be access to it, and here there might have to be compromise on parallel proposals to make information more freely available to EU police forces across borders.
But the worst outcome would be deadlock. This would discredit Brussels in the eyes, for instance, of the US which has belatedly realised the EU’s considerable potential as a partner in fighting terrorism. More importantly, it would undermine the EU in the eyes of its own citizens.