The EU's Security Union: A bill of health

Policy brief
21 June 2019

The Security Union has a mixed record. The next EU leaders should learn from its successes and failures to deal with fresh security questions like migration, China and disruptive technologies.

  • The European Union was hit by a double whammy of a migration crisis and a string of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016, which exposed weaknesses in the bloc’s security arrangements and created frictions between member-states. In response the EU vowed to make the safety of its citizens a primary concern. In 2016, the European Commission launched the Security Union and put the last ever British EU commissioner (perhaps) at its helm.
  • The Security Union aims to plug gaps in the EU’s security co-ordination by focusing on five main priority areas: data collection and sharing; border controls; terrorism and organised crime; cyber security; and co-operation with third countries.
  • Over the last three years, the EU has linked together its range of security databases and has given law enforcement agencies wider access to EU data. It has also beefed up its border security and signed deals with African countries to reduce irregular migration.
  • In an effort to thwart terrorist attacks, the EU is improving its ability to track criminals and suspects, and making it more difficult for them to access weapons and money. The EU is also trying to get social media companies to take down content supporting terrorism faster.
  • The EU’s most pressing ‘cyber problems’ are artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G, the next generation of mobile tele communications. AI algorithms are used for everything from self-driving cars to identifying criminals and can be used for malign ends. 5G promises to boost connectivity and spur technological innovation, but Chinese companies – which the EU and the US distrust – are major providers of the underlying infrastructure.
  • The Security Union has had a mixed record. In two years, the EU has achieved more on thorny issues like border controls and counter-terrorism than in the previous decade. It has also led to the EU’s actions on security and migration becoming more open and accountable. But the Security Union’s use of technology and data to prevent incidents before they happen risks upsetting the delicate balance between public security and personal liberty. For example, plans to fight cyber crime may clash with the fundamental right to free speech; and some EU counter-terrorism measures, like tracking suspects, can endanger the fundamental right to be presumed innocent – and hence the rule of law.
  • A stronger focus on restrictive migration policies could also prevent those with a genuine case for coming to Europe from exercising their rights. The EU’s political obsession with migration has shifted the focus from foreign and development policies towards migration control.
  • Nobody knows what the EU’s next big crisis will be. But the EU will need to deal with three major security questions in the future: migration; disruptive technologies like AI and 5G; and China. The next EU administration should make these issues the priority.
  • The EU’s new leaders should be bolder in furthering legal migration, and develop a better understanding of the trade-offs involved in using foreign and development policies to manage the movement of migrants.
  • Disruptive technologies are mostly being developed outside Europe. The EU should be willing to regulate to mitigate any harm they do to society and the economy. The EU will need a strategy that combines several policy areas, from competition to taxation to the single market. Such a strategy should also include a coherent China policy.
  • Finally, when it comes to the EU’s security, the next administration should prioritise institutional reform: security is a cross-cutting issue which requires co-ordination between departments and institutions. The EU could, for example, organise its new security departments by work streams under the common umbrella of a European Commission Vice President for the Security Union.
  • If the next set of EU leaders want the Union to be a credible security provider and a champion of civil rights, they would be wise to learn from the Security Union’s successes and failures.

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This paper is part of a series on the future of Europe's migration and security policies supported by the Open Society European Policy Institute.  

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