Attacks spur EU to tighten borders, boost policy agency

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union interior ministers pledged Friday to beef up border security, boost the powers of the bloc’s police agency and crack down on hate speech and online propaganda in response to a wave of extremist attacks, most recently in Austria and France.

Four people were shot to death and several were wounded in the Austrian capital Vienna on Nov. 2, when a man who officials said had tried to join the Islamic State group rampaged through the city center, before police fatally shot him. The attack strengthened calls in Austria for a crackdown on Islamic extremism.

In France last month, an extremist killed three people in a church in the French city of Nice, and a Chechen teenager beheaded a teacher near Paris because he had shown his students cartoons of Islam’s prophet for a discussion about freedom of expression.

“The attacks we have seen, not only in recent weeks, have shown the extent of the threat we face from all forms of terrorism. Only together we can put a stop to the terrorists and their backers,” the ministers said in a statement after a videoconference.

Their meeting was held on the fifth anniversary of one of the bloodiest attacks in recent memory on European soil, the Islamic State-claimed rampage in Paris that killed 130 people at a music hall and cafes on Nov. 13, 2015.

Vowing that “Europe’s foundation will not be shaken by the scourge of violent extremism and terrorism,” the ministers said they are determined “to do everything in our power to counter this barbaric terror holistically, with all the instruments at our disposal.”

They pledged “to strengthen and further develop options for security measures” within Europe’s ID-check free travel area. Denmark, France and Sweden reintroduced checks for security reasons more than a year ago, and renewed the controls this month, in part due to “terrorist threats.” Many have done so recently to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The ministers tasked the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, with drafting a tougher mandate for Europol, and said that the policy agency must have more funds and staff.

They welcomed a commission proposal to make hate speech and incitement criminal offences under European law. The ministers also said that they want to “consider the matter” of data encryption to help intercept communications between extremists and criminal gangs.

The ministers urged the European Parliament to help finalize negotiations on rules governing “terrorist content” online, with the aim of getting it removed within one hour of being reported.

The promises aren’t new. New security regulations were drafted in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, and further pledges to bolster security came in the wake of the suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and on an underground commuter train in March 2016, in which 32 people were killed.

But five years on, some of the EU’s 27 member countries still haven’t put the measures into effect.

“We are much better equipped now. But still we need to advance on the files that have been adopted, but still have not been fully implemented,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters.

EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said on Nov. 3 that the Islamic State group doesn’t appear to be actively preparing any attacks in Europe, but it continues to inspire individuals or small groups to commit atrocities.

Given the difficulty of gathering solid evidence against so-called foreign fighters in conflict zones like Syria or Iraq, many former jihadis who’ve been jailed have only received sentences of three to five years, de Kerchove said, and some are now living freely in Europe.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has branded them “ticking time bombs” that are “a permanent danger among us.”

Kurz has also denounced “political Islam, radicalization” in Europe that has become “the poison, the breeding ground for terrorism.” That dovetails with French President Emmanuel Macron’s planned law to fight “separatism,” which is aimed at rooting out those espousing radical Islam in France.

European Council President Charles Michel has referred to a “battle of values” with extremists, and has urged member countries to consider training imams in Europe.

EU leaders will discuss proposals from Friday’s meeting at a summit on Dec. 10-11.