Response to foreign terrorist fighters and recent terrorist attacks in Europe

The threat posed by Europeans being radicalised, many of who are also travelling abroad to fight, is likely to persist in the coming years. An effective response to these issues requires a comprehensive approach and long term commitment.

The primary responsibility in the fight against terrorism lies with the member states. However, the EU can and should play a supportive role that helps respond to the cross-border nature of the threat. 

The role of the Council

Since the beginning of 2013, the issues of radicalisation and foreign terrorist fighters have been regular items on the agenda of the Council of the EU and the European Council. They have developed a comprehensive response , including both internal and external lines of action. 

After the terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, the European Union decided to reinforce its response and accelerate the implementation of agreed measures. On 12 February, EU leaders held a debate on the way forward and agreed on a statement to guide the work of the EU and the member states in the coming months. This statement called for specific measures, focusing on three areas of action:

  • ensuring the security of citizens
  • preventing radicalisation and safeguarding values
  • cooperating with international partners

The statement by EU leaders built on the work done by ministers of home affairs, justice, economy and foreign affairs during previous months.

In December 2015, EU heads of state and government noted that the full implementation of the measures defined in the statement was still a priority.

Internal lines of action

In June 2013, the Justice and Home Affairs Council agreed on a series of proposals for action. The Council also invited the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator to present a report on the implementation of these measures at its December 2013 meeting.

 In this report the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator identified four areas where EU action in support of efforts by member states would be particularly important:

  • prevention
  • information exchange on identification and detection of travel
  • criminal justice response
  • cooperation with third countries

At the European Council meeting in August 2014, member states called for the accelerated implementation of measures in these four priority areas and the proposal of additional action. 

Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs continue to have regular discussions on the issue of foreign fighters. During the second half of 2014 they agreed on:

  • the urgency of finalising the EU PNR directive, calling the European Parliament to adopt its position on the draft directive as soon as possible
  • the need to improve checks at the external borders of the Schengen area
  • the need to improve the judicial response and, in particular, to update the framework decision on combating terrorism
  • the need for improvements in information exchange, highlighting the role of Europol and Eurojust
  • a number of specific actions to accelerate the implementation of existing measures

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, Justice and Home Affairs ministers issued a joint statement. 

This served as an input for the 12 February statement by EU leaders, which called for several internal measures, including:

  • adopting an EU PNR framework
  • making full use of the existing Schengen framework, including for systematic checks of EU citizens at external borders
  • improving information sharing through Europol and Eurojust
  • fighting illegal trafficking of firearms and terrorist financing
  • cooperating with the internet industry to remove extremist content
  • creating effective counter narratives to prevent radicalisation

At their meeting in March 2015, ministers discussed the implementation of the measures agreed in the recent statements. They focused in particular on:

  • the reinforced application of the Schengen framework: ministers agreed to implement systematic checks based on risk assessment no later than June 2015
  • internet content promoting violent extremism or terrorism: they asked Europol to set up an EU Internet referral unit by July 2015
  • trafficking of firearms:   they called on the Commission and Europol to propose ways to fight against trafficking of firearms and enhance information exchange and operational cooperation
  • EU PNR directive: ministers agreed to actively engage with the European Parliament in order to make decisive progress in the coming months

In May 2015, the Council and the European Parliament adopted new rules to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing. These rules aim to protect citizens and safeguard the EU's internal market, by making sure that EU financial systems are not used for terrorist purposes and money laundering.

At their meetings in June and October 2015, home affairs ministers discussed the implementation of the measures defined in February and exchanged views on the way forward. These discussions took place on the basis of reports from the presidency and the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator.

In October 2015, the Council also adopted conclusions on strengthening measures to fight trafficking in firearms.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, justice and home affairs ministers met on 20 November to discuss how to strengthen EU response to terrorism. They adopted a set of conclusions, focusing on:

  • finalising the EU passenger name record (PNR) directive before the end of the year
  • fighting against the trafficking of firearms
  • reinforcing controls at EU external borders
  • targeting terrorist financing
  • improving information sharing and judicial cooperation

The ministers also adopted conclusions on improving the criminal justice response to radicalisation leading to terrorism and violent extremism.

At their meeting in December, home affairs ministers approved the compromise text agreed with the European Parliament on the proposed EU PNR data directive

They were also briefed on the implementation of the measures defined in February and November.

On 15 December 2015, the European Commission presented a package of proposals to manage the EU's external borders and protect the Schengen area. These proposals aim to improve the internal security of the EU while safeguarding the principle of free movement of persons.

One of these proposals is an amendment to the Schengen Border Code, to reinforce checks all external EU borders. This amendment would oblige member states to carry out systematic checks against relevant databases on all persons, including EU citizens and others enjoying the right to free movement under EU law.  In February 2016, the Council agreed on a general approach, in preparation for negotiations with the European Parliament.

On 18 December 2015, the European Council highlighted the need to:

  • enhance information sharing
  • pursue deeper cooperation between security services
  • implement systematic and coordinated checks at external borders
  • rapidly examine the Commission proposals on firearms
  • take further action against terrorist financing

In February 2016, the Council adopted conclusions on the action plan to strengthen the fight against terrorist financing. The Council expects progress on:

  • avoiding the use of virtual currencies for terrorist financing
  • improving access to information by financial intelligence units
  • measures on prepaid cards
  • measures against illicit cash movements

The Council also called for the establishing of an EU platform containing information about people and organisations connected with terrorist activity whose assets are frozen by member states.

In March 2016, Justice ministers adopted the Council's negotiating position on the proposal for a Directive on combating terrorism. The proposed Directive strengthens the EU's legal framework in preventing terrorist attacks, in particular by criminalising preparatory acts such as training and travel abroad for terrorist purposes, hence contributing to combatting the phenomenon of foreign fighters. The proposal also reinforce rules on the rights of the victims of terrorism.  

The Council also held a policy debate regarding the proposal for a directive on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons which reviews and completes the current directive 91/477/EEC, taking into account the recent terrorist attacks.

Following the terrorist attacks in Brussels, EU ministers responsible for justice and home affairs and representatives of EU institutions met on 24 March 2016. They adopted a joint statement, calling for:

  • urgent adoption of the PNR directive by the European Parliament in April 2016
  • swift completion of legislation under discussion and full implementation of agreed measures, particularly in respect of firearms and precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives
  • increasing the feeding and use of European and international databases in the fields of security, travel and migration
  • finding ways to secure and obtain more quickly digital evidence
  • improving early detection of signs of radicalisation

At their April meeting, Home Affairs ministers focused on the use and interoperability of databases and the recent Commission proposals on the smart borders package. They also adopted a directive on the use of passenger name record (PNR) data for the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of terrorist offences and serious crime.

On 10 June Ministers agreed the Council's negotiating position on the proposal for a directive on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons. The revised directive aims at addressing certain weaknesses in the existing legislation that have been identified especially in the aftermath  of the  latest terrorist attacks in Europe.   

Ministers also endorsed a roadmap to enhance information exchange and information management including interoperability solutions in the Justice and Home Affairs area.  The roadmap sets out a framework for a more integrated EU information architecture and specific, practical short and medium-term- actions as well as long-term orientations to enhance information management and information exchange.

In July, economy ministers held a preliminary exchange of views on a Commission proposal to strengthen EU rules aimed at preventing money laundering and terrorist financing. 

On 18 November 2016, the Commission presented its recent proposal on the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) to the Council. ETIAS will allow for advance checks and, if necessary, deny entry to visa-exempt travellers. Ministers tasked experts to start examining the proposal. 

On 9 December 2016, the Council took note of a report from the EU Counter-terrorism coordinator setting out policy options to face the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters returnees. Ministers tasked experts to continue the discussion with a view to the possible development of EU policy measures regarding this phenomenon. Ministers also took note of the proposals made by France and Germany on the need to improve the cooperation between the law enforcement agencies and electronic service providers.

On 7 March 2017, the Council adopted a regulation amending the Schengen borders code to reinforce checks against relevant databases at the external borders. The amendment obliges member states to carry out systematic checks against relevant databases on all persons when they cross the external borders. The checks will also enable member states to verify that those persons do not represent a threat to public policy, internal security or public health. This obligation shall apply at all external borders (air, sea and land borders), both at entry and exit.

On 7 March 2017, the Council also adopted a directive on combatting terrorism. The new rules strengthen the EU's legal framework to prevent terrorist attacks and address the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters. The directive criminalises:

  • travelling within, outside or to the EU for terrorist purposes
  • the organisation and facilitation of such travel
  • training and being trained for terrorist purposes
  • providing or collecting funds related to terrorist offences or activities

External lines of action

At their meeting on 20 October 2014, foreign affairs ministers adopted the EU counter terrorism/foreign fighters strategy focusing on Syria and Iraq. This strategy presents a broad approach, covering several priority areas for action and a wide range of tools. These priority areas include: 

  • political dimension: supporting the Iraqi authorities and the moderate opposition in Syria
  • prevention: working with third countries who are sources of foreign fighters, building capacity regarding strategic communication
  • pursuit: improving cooperation with third countries to identify recruitment networks and foreign fighters, strengthening border security in countries surrounding Syria and Iraq
  • protection: building regional capacity regarding aviation security, preventing weapons from seeping out of Syria and Iraq
  • response: building capacity in the region to respond to terrorist attacks
  • engagement with key partners: engaging with regional and other key partners, supporting implementation of UN Security Council resolutions by all countries

Following terrorist attacks in Paris, foreign affairs ministers held a debate on further action to counter terrorism at their meeting on 19 January 2015. They agreed that action should be taken to:

  •  improve the exchange of security information with partner countries,
  •  reinforce cooperation with Arab and Mediterranean countries
  •  increase efforts to deal with open conflicts and crises

This debate was continued at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting on 9 February 2015. At this meeting, ministers adopted conclusions on counter terrorism.

G20 statement on the fight against terrorism

Following recent attacks in Paris and Ankara, G20 leaders adopted a statement on the fight against terrorism at their summit on 16 November 2015. They highlighted the need to address:

  • the financing channels of terrorism
  • the conditions conductive to terrorism, including radicalisation and recruitment
  • the threat posed by the growing flow of foreign terrorist fighters

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council and Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, represented the EU at this summit.

The conclusions served as an input for discussions at the informal meeting of EU heads of state and government on 12 February. EU leaders agreed on the need for external action, including:

  • engaging more with third countries on security issues
  • promoting cooperation with the UN and with other global and regional initiatives
  • addressing ongoing crises and conflicts

On 16 March 2015, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted the regional strategy for Syria and Iraq as well as the Da'esh threat.

On 23 May 2016, the Council reviewed the implementation of the strategy so far and adopted conclusions.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, France requested bilateral assistance from member states under article 42.7 of the Treaty of the European Union. At their meeting on 17 November, EU defence ministers expressed their unanimous support and readiness to contribute. Article 42.7 establishes that EU member states have "an obligation of aid and assistance by all means in their power" to any country that is "the victim of armed aggression on its territory". This is without prejudice to "the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states". It is the first time article 42.7 is used.

On 14 December 2015, foreign affairs ministers also discussed the external dimension of the EU's counter-terrorism work. They assessed , in particular, cooperation with countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Turkey and the Western Balkans. They discussed geographical and thematic priorities, including work against foreign terrorist fighters, improving border security and aviation security, curtailing terrorist financing and countering radicalisation and violent extremism.

EU leaders, meeting on 18 December 2015, also highlighted the need to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation with these countries.