Walking around Milan, London or Zurich, as I have been doing over the past couple of days, or indeed any other European city, has been to see displays of instant solidarity. The French flags and light displays of the tricolore are moving sights of fellow-feeling. This is certainly welcome. Yet, as the old English saying goes, “fine words butter no parsnips”. Actions need to follow, and are going to follow. The question before us is whether they will be the right actions.
Understandably, President Francois Hollande says that France is “at war” with ISIS, and has asked the rest of the European Union to stand by its side, invoking Article 42.7 of the EU’s treaty which says that all EU countries have “an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” to any member that is the “victim of armed aggression”. Few knew, or at least remembered, that this article existed. To invoke it is dramatic, but not at all unreasonable.
But what will it involve? We can only guess, at this stage, but my initial thoughts about what EU countries might, or should, do together are as follows:
Tighten, and in any necessary way deepen, collaboration and sharing of information on surveillance, intelligence and all policing. Britain’s stand-offish attitude to collaboration on justice and arrests is thus exposed as hollow but also short-sighted. Collaboration needs to become a daily, even hourly instinct and necessity, not an add-on.
Consider suspending Schengen. This would be controversial, as to suspend passport-free travel between the 26 countries inside and outside the EU that have signed up to it could look like a major concession to terrorism. Yet as I walked through Zurich airport this morning, the fact that I did not have to show my passport because I had flown in from Milan, whereas I would have had to if I had flown here from London, felt to me like a fairly trivial luxury (Switzerland, despite being outside the EU, is a member of Schengen). Much more important are land borders, and it is true that to reinstate border checks would be a bigger nuisance and would impose higher costs on businesses shipping goods from one country to another.
The cost of suspending Schengen would be real, as well as symbolic. But against that must be placed the question of public confidence: can it be preserved, or rather revived, in the absence of border checks, at a time when jihadi killers are known to have travelled freely around the Schengen countries with their weapons? It may well be that a suspension of Schengen for a defined period is an acceptable price to pay in order to avoid much more significant incursions into civil liberties and to help rebuild public confidence in the safety and security of Europe, as well as to make sure that the EU continues to admit asylum-seekers from the Middle East conflicts. Countries are already taking their own unilateral actions, which to me suggests that a collective agreement to suspend Schengen on agreed terms would be preferable. Readers’ thoughts on this would be welcome.
Bombing of ISIS targets has already been intensified, both by French jets and by American drones. That may prove necessary, but it certainly will not be sufficient. What needs to happen if there is to be any sort of success is that ISIS’s flow of oxygen needs to be cut off, by which is meant its flow of finance, weapons and personnel. And that can happen only if a coalition of frontline states is formed. As Olivier Roy, a French scholar of Islam who is based at the European University Institute in Florence, explained eloquently in the New York Times on November 16th the basis for such an alliance with Turkey, Iran, Kurds, Sunni Arab states or the Syrian opposition does not yet exist, let alone any basis for an alliance with Russia.
So the biggest and most important task for the EU now, beyond strengthening intelligence collaboration, must be to work hard and swiftly to try to change those “facts on the ground” in and around Syria and Iraq, to persuade potential allies that it is in their interest to work together with the Europeans (and of course the Americans) to push ISIS out. A collective and coherent foreign and security policy is needed more than ever before, if this is to have any chance of success.
The fundamental point that needs to be borne in mind as all of this happens is that, horrific as the attacks were, they do not show that ISIS is strong. They show that ISIS’s only weapon is to spread fear in the hope of dividing and discouraging us. That is why shows of solidarity and unity do remain important. It is also why we must respond by making ourselves, and our collaboration, stronger in every way – politically, economically, culturally and, yes, militarily. To repeat, the military part is necessary, but will not be sufficient. Worse, if it is used alone and without proper thought, it could end up being counter-productive.
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