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We do not know the next target of the terrorists after Madrid and London. Maybe Rome, where prime minister Silvio Berlusconi will be facing an election next year. Or maybe Copenhagen. The Danish government also helped US President George W. Bush in the war against Iraq. But the surprise of the timing of the London attack reminds us that the terrorists do not usually behave as we expect them to.

The French and Germans also have reason to fear that Paris and Berlin, too, may be future targets despite their governments’ opposition to the Iraq war.

But even if we have no clue where the al-Qaeda network will strike next, we know they operate on a pan-European level. After September 11, al-Qaeda has focused increasingly on the Middle East and Europe, which are today far more vulnerable and less prepared to cope with terrorist attacks than the US.

One reason is the way the European Union has chosen to organise the fight against terrorism. Anti-terrorism is not the business of the EU and its institutions. Europol, the EU’s nascent police services, has extended its official remit to include anti-terrorism. But it hardly matters. The fight against terrorism has remained primarily the job of national agencies, intelligence services and police forces. They were set up at a time when the main terrorist threat in Europe was indeed national – the IRA in the UK, Eta in Spain, Baader-Meinhof in Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy.

The trouble is that the al-Qaeda terrorists are thinking more European than Europe’s national anti-terrorism agencies. It is therefore a legitimate question to ask whether our present institutional set-up is still appropriate. Or rather, whether it is the best conceivable system we could think of, whether we would reinvent it in this manner if it did not exist today.

The answer to all these questions is an emphatic No. If youwe had to build a new system from scratch, we would not establish independent national systems in each country. After the Madrid bombings last year, the EU only went so far as to set up an embryonic anti-terrorism unit, headed by the Dutchman Gijs De Vries, the European co-ordinator for counter-terrorism.

As his title suggests, the main job at EU level is co-ordination. It is essentially a bureaucratic agency, very much the kind of thing one would expect the EU to do. Mr De Vries is not the head of a European Central Intelligence Agency. He has no agents in the field. His job is to provide a bird’s-eye view analysis of terrorist threats in Europe.

There has been some good progress in bringing together national security and anti-terrorism analysts as part of Mr de Vries’s activities. The European arrest warrant and the establishmentsetting up of joint investigation teams of national police forces were also helpful.

While the EU has a limited role in intelligence analysis, it has no operational responsibilities. The defenders of the status-quo always say there already exists a great deal of co-operation between the national security services, on a “need-to-know” basis, mostly bilaterally or trilaterally. We are assured – and have no reason to disbelieve – that this system works reasonably well. The agencies have apparently prevented several deadly attacks. One case we know of occurred in December 2001 when French and German police foiled a terrorist attempt to blow up the Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg.

Despite these successes, it is doubtful that this is the best the EU can do. Richard Falkenrath, a former White House adviser on homeland security, has argued that the EU should tear down the wall between military intelligence and civil law enforcement.

The EU is the natural level at which to base an effective homeland security agency, comprising an analytical and an operation arm.
The reason is that the EU has become a deeply integrated political and economic area. In the so-called Schengen area, citizens enjoy passport-free travel. Travelling to the non-Schengen parts of the EU is not difficult either. In such an area it would be nonsensical to have different standards of airport security or different national systems for the protection of the EU’s external borders.

You might say that this is politically impossible. After all, national security is at the heart of national sovereignty. But this is not how the EU’s citizens see it. Opinion polls – even in eurosceptic Britain – suggest a large majority want the EU to fight terrorism. They no longer believe that national governments can deliver the appropriate level of security in the EU.

This is the fundamental trouble with the EU. It does what it should not be doing, such as running discriminatory agricultural price support systems, while it does not what it should be doing, such as fighting terrorism and providing security.

We have all marvelled at the stoicism and defiance of Londoners in the aftermath of Thursday’s attacks. But we should not fool ourselves. Iit is not our attitude that will defeat terrorism. It is the way we organise the fight. We should have had a fundamental debate about the effectiveness of our anti-terrorism systems after the Madrid bombing last year. We did not.We urgently need it now.

wolfgang.munchau@ft.com

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