“Yes to security, no to closures”

The vice president of the Commission highlighted Member States' responsibilities, calling for true European cooperation. "But we will not give in to threats"

“It would be wrong to speak of “foreign fighters”. In fact, they are “citizens with a European passport, youths grown up in our cities”. But now, shaped by intolerance and hatred, “they are attracted by the culture of death”, they “intend to destroy our own societies”. Frans Timmermans, (Holland), polyglot, refined scholar, diplomat and pro-European politician, acting as vice-President of the Commission, spoke in hot tones. He’s following the issue of terrorism up close and he claims that European countries should join forces if they intend to provide “virtual protection to their citizens” and close ranks around the values enshrined in the DNA of the European Union. Widespread fears, efficient response. A few months ago the Juncker Commission had announced that the security agenda was a priority item of its working programme. “A communication for a Community strategy is planned for May”, Timmermans said on January 21 during a meeting with journalists in the press room of the Berlaymont building in Brussels. Commission headquarters are the center of attention: the purpose is to define a feasible proposal that, overcoming the emotions of the moment, may effectively meet Member States’ interests as well as those established by the European Parliament, mindful of the urgency of the situation and of widespread fears among the population after the events in Paris and Brussels. The alert level has increased in every corner of the continent, and Timmermans is well aware of it. He added: “We are also waiting to see what will happen in the European Council of 12 and 13 February”, when the 28 heads of state and government will finally meet to discuss the problem. Timmermans repeated several times that “responsibilities in the area security lies within the Member States”; “However, the Commission is doing everything possible to coordinate interventions” and “to provide an answer at European level”. With a note of bitterness he added: “There are EU countries that prefer cooperating with the United States than with Europe…” Building mutual trust. The vice president of the Commission pointed out that “Schengen is not an issue”, and that “no country” adhering to the Treaty on internal free movement “has demanded restrictions”. However, “there remains the problem of monitoring the external borders”. Timmermans addressed numerous issues, including PNR, Passenger Name Record, regarding data exchange between States and centralized database with names and addresses of airline passengers. The measure is opposed by the European Parliament in Strasbourg in the name of privacy. The Commissioner went on to highlight “confidence building and strengthening” between governments, judiciary, intelligence and law enforcement agencies: “Certainly, the challenge of security concerns everyone and it will be met only by strengthening cooperation” beyond national borders, he pointed out. A clear message. Timmermans is not afraid of going against the tide: “Our societies are vulnerable because they are open. We will not change the way in which we deal with the terrorist threat. Tolerance and respect, along with rule of law, are essential features” of today’s Europe, where every community must have its own place” and feel at home. “We are required to provide to each and everyone, Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists, the opportunity to live in peace” in every corner of Europe. Brutality, rancour, discrimination, restrictions on freedom of expression or of worship cannot find citizenship in the EU. The message of Juncker’s right-hand person is clear. “No going back”. In your opinion, has Europe underrated the terrorist threat? The question does not take the interlocutor by surprise. “No, I don’t think so. In particular, since the outbreak of war in Syria, it became clear that that the conflict would have had serious repercussions in Europe” at the level of security, of aid to refugees, of migration. Not to mention regional instability in the Middle East. So should we perhaps grant more responsibilities to the EU to ensure citizens’ security? “I repeat – he said with his typical calmness – the competence lies with the Member States. And it’s pointless to return on this point. Competences are clearly laid down. Instead, what is needed is concrete, strengthened cooperation” to prevent terrorism. “We can’t waste further time”. Moreover, Timmermans believes in the cooperation between intelligence agencies, between police authorities, between ministers of interiors, between European institutions (such as Europol or Eurojust). “The Commission can encourage greater cooperation, for example resolving the concerns of the Council and the EU Parliament on the PNR”. “One thing is certain”, he concludes. “Europe is not going back” on freedom and the rule of law.

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