Without mandate: EU cooperates with European secret services

Although the Lisbon Treaty excludes intelligence cooperation, European domestic services cooperate with Europol and a Situation Centre in Brussels. Next week, the Justice and Home Affairs Council will discuss extending this questionable practice.

The European Union intends to further intensify cooperation with the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG). At the forthcoming meeting of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers in Brussels, the group will once again present a report on cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Afterwards, an „exchange of ideas“ is planned. Because two non-EU states are also organised in the CTG, the Justice and Home Affairs Council will take place in the so-called Schengen format with Switzerland and Norway.

The secret services group has been regularly invited to the Council of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers for the past four years. Its last report took place at the joint meeting in June. Topics included returning combatants from countries such as Syria and Iraq and the need to decrypt telecommunications. The CTG also reported plans to extend its tasks, currently limited to Islamist terrorism, to other areas.

Also political speeches in „Club de Berne“

For six years, Germany was represented in the „Club de Berne“ by Hans-Georg Maaßen. His leaked speech revealed the Club’s political character (BMI/Sandy Thieme, CC BY-SA 3.0).

The CTG, founded after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, does not belong to the EU and is an informal association of currently 30 secret services. It operates under the aegis of the „Bern Club“, in which European domestic secret services are organised. From Germany, the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) participates in the semi-annual meetings. A leaked manuscript by Hans-Georg Maaßen, then chief of the BfV, has revealed that the „Club de Berne“ discusses not only strategic issues of counter-terrorism but also the political orientation of the secret service’s work.

Four years ago, the CTG finally received a physical presence at the Dutch secret service AIVD in The Hague. The CTG also stores personal data in the „Operational Platform“ maintained there. Details are top secret, only the Dutch Data Protection Control Commission has published some information. The secret services of the CTG member states also send liaison officers to The Hague. There is no secretariat there, all organisational tasks are performed by the AIVD.

„Operational Platform“ in The Hague

Since the establishment of the „Operational Platform“, the EU has been exploring possibilities for cooperation with CTG. The main focus is on the exchange of data between police forces and intelligence services. A „fusion centre“ was under discussion with the police agency Europol, but did not materialise. Further options were discussed at a secret service meeting organised by Peter Altmaier (CDU), then head of the Federal Chancellery. Meanwhile, the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator is regularly invited to the CTG, and according to the German Ministry of the Interior, the EU Commission also takes part in „selected meetings“.

According to the Lisbon Treaty, however, the European Union has no mandate to coordinate secret services. Although it operates an Intelligence Situation Centre in Brussels called INTCEN, this only processes evaluated reports and analyses from the member states. The official interpretation is, that no EU structures cooperate with the CTG, but only individual domestic intelligence services from the member states.

Joint exercises with Europol

However, the Europol Annual Report for 2018 shows that cooperation is much more far-reaching. According to the report, the Police Agency hosted two high-level meetings last year in which the CTG and Europol practiced a joint response to terrorist incidents. Participants included the Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) and the Centre for the European Migrant Smugling Centre (EMSC) at Europol. The CTG also cooperates with Europol’s „Internet Referral Unit“.

This „overall cooperation“ is now to be improved. According to the report, Europol now also participates regularly in meetings of heads of the domestic intelligence services represented in the CTG. The agency gave lectures there on „women and children joining ISIS, focusing
on their use of internet and social media for terrorist-related purposes.“

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.