top of page

The State of Our Intelligence

Why Europe is treading water while everyone else is deepening intelligence cooperation.

By Aminata Sarah Roth

Our contemporary security environment is shaped by a post-9/11 world, creating new challenges for national intelligence agencies and forcing them to cooperate and exchange insights with other countries. In the international intelligence community, the best kids in class know that sharing is caring, but unfortunately Europe is struggling to keep up.

Currently, cooperation between intelligence agencies mostly occurs within bilateral agreements. In past decades, we have not only witnessed an increased importance of such bilateral exchanges, but also the expansion of multilateral intelligence alliances. The most prominent of these, the Five Eyes Alliance which consists of the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, saw its surveillance capabilities significantly expanded as part of the Global War on Terror. Meanwhile the European Union has failed to deepen its intelligence cooperation, with proposals of a common intelligence agency repeatedly coming to nothing and its intelligence community being beset with a lack of transparency, duplication of tasks and mistrust. This is especially worrying considering that the structure of the Union itself creates an enhanced need for intelligence sharing, as the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and persons provides the ideal breeding ground for organised transborder crime. Moreover, with Islamist and other terrorist groups of ever-growing concern, smaller countries are facing difficulties monitoring such groupings on an international scale. Appeals for a common intelligence agency – a European CIA if you will – have been made time and again, but national interests unfailingly take precedence, with the discussion usually being reignited following terrorist attacks on European soil. Looking back, many will remember discussions following the 2004 Madrid train bombings or the Charlie Hebdo attacks. However, even faced with a “Belgian intelligence gap”, as Politico phrased it at the time (Belgian authorities were thought to have been aware of the terrorist cell that carried out the attacks), and the shocking truth of what happens when intelligence sharing fails, no significant steps were taken.

Intelligence services are one of the last strongholds of state sovereignty member states are clinging on to for dear life. The UK in particular has always been quick to block any deepening of intelligence sharing, not least because a European agency would constitute unwelcome competition for the Five Eyes alliance. Furthermore, intelligence sharing bears a privacy-security trade-off which hinders cooperation on a European level, as the wide array of privacy regimes and authorisations of national agencies inevitably leads to tension. Lastly, European treaty provisions are the knockout argument employed in this discussion. The Treaty on European Union (formerly known as the Maastricht Treaty) limits national security responsibilities to each member state, thereby letting opponents of increased cooperation off the hook. In 2017, former EU security commissioner Julian King said: “Terrorists are not waiting for us to review the treaties”, asserting that the EU should continue to work within the given intelligence framework rather than striving for deeper cooperation through a common agency. It is clear that arguments brought forward to discredit the idea of a common European intelligence agency may be wrapped up in intimidating Legalese, but they all defend a basic political stance: national interests first.

All of this is not to say that there is no European intelligence cooperation. However, multilateral agreements within Europe are entangled and lack transparency and ability to act. The EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN) is the closest the EU has ever gotten to a common intelligence agency and yet it merely receives information from members and is heavily reliant on publicly available data to enrich and pass on that information, not being able to procure any intelligence itself. The so-called Berne Club is more comprehensive, with the alliance comprising all EU members as well as Norway and Switzerland, but it remains strictly voluntary and informal.

The European Union has failed to deepen its intelligence cooperation, with proposals of a common intelligence agency repeatedly coming to nothing and its intelligence community being beset with a lack of transparency, duplication of tasks and mistrust.

What is more, EU-US intelligence relations have been increasingly difficult in recent years. With the European Union starting to crack down on privacy violations not least with regard to intelligence gathering practices in cases such as Big Brother Watch v. UK, members as well as their allies are under pressure to enforce greater privacy rights in this area. With the CJEU now enjoying the authorisation to review members states’ national security activities, it increasingly monitors intelligence sharing. In a way, the CJEU is placing its privacy requirements on the United States, having already issued a “partial adequacy” verdict regarding its data sharing practices. In part, the EU seems to successfully influence the United States’ security-privacy trade-off in addition to that of its members, but it is also creating a barrier to cooperation as the Americans refuse to alter their practices in certain aspects. More recently, Germany’s generally favourable intelligence relationship with the US came under threat when Washington required Germany to prevent Huawei from extending its fifth generation (5G) network in the country as it was believed that the Chinese company’s presence in German networks could threaten the integrity of their communication.

In summary, Europe’s struggle to deepen intelligence cooperation seems emblematic of the general problems the EU is facing. As German diplomat Kiesewetter pointed out, lacking intelligence cooperation is only one symptom of a need for a large scale reform of its security policy. Some have speculated that the impending Brexit will give states more leeway as the Five Eyes member has been a major opponent of a common intelligence agency. British intelligence agencies appear to be optimistic and affirm that European connections will not be affected by Brexit as the majority of their ties are bilateral, thus precisely capturing the European shortcoming in this area. National interests and mistrust still seem to hinder common European progress and although the EU prides itself with transparency, its intelligence sharing agreements are everything but that. As long as Eurosceptics everywhere blame the EU for ending state sovereignty, a common intelligence agency will be met with resistance. Similarly, with the EU unable to compel members to cooperate in other areas, there is nothing to say it will succeed in doing so regarding intelligence.

One struggles to find voices that affirm that we will see a centralised European intelligence agency in the near future, but arguably such a body is not necessary for states to cooperate more effectively. For all security cares, states can hold on to sovereignty in this field as long as they are able to cooperate in a more binding and comprehensive fashion. This would require voluntary arrangements to make way for automated sharing, based on a joint database (e.g. hosted by INTCEN). In doing so, national interests would be catered to while states can still capitalise on their unique capabilities in terms of varying authorisations or pre-existing bilateral agreements. Furthermore, it would mitigate the risks of interconnecting such a volatile field. It is not uncommon for third parties to deem individual European agencies untrustworthy, as was the case in 2018 when an Austrian far-right party ordered a raid on its own intelligence service. As such, increased cooperation without interdependence would allow states to hold on to their national sovereignty, mitigate security gaps, but at the same time allow intelligence agencies to be truly united in diversity.


Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.

bottom of page