The EU’s ‘Security Union’: A Bridge Too Far?

Stef Wittendorp 7 Oct 2016

The day after the Brussels attacks in March 2016, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker floated the idea of a ‘Security Union’ as the way forward for improving coordination in the European Union’s internal security domain.[i] Julian King, a British diplomat with longstanding experience in Brussels, has been appointed to the new posof Commissioner of Security Union.[ii] The ‘Security Union’ indicates a new level of ambition of the EU in general and the Commission in particular with regard to EU internal security policy making. It also triggers questions concerning overlap and intra- (with DG HOME) and inter-institutional rivalries (with the Council-based EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator), (parliamentary) oversight, and the exact scope of the ‘Security Union’ agenda. While not dismissing the importance of these questions, this contribution explores the notion of a ‘Security Union’ instead. What is the broader context in which it emerged, what are the assumptions informing it, and what trouble might lie ahead?

The ‘Security Union’ reflects the EU’s ongoing effort to define its approach to internal security policy. Involvement of what was then the European Community in this domain started in the mid-1970s as informal cooperation among police officers, also known as Trevi. This cooperation ‘in the fields of justice and home affairs’ was formalised with the Treaty of Maastricht (1992).[iii] A new aspiration was introduced with the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) by aiming to provide ‘citizens with a high level of safety within an area of freedom, security and justice [AFSJ]’.[iv] The ‘area’ in AFSJ being a rather indistinct geographical marker. The Internal Security Strategy (ISS; 2010, 2015) underlined the interdependence of security issues among the member states by confronting ‘common threats and risks using a more integrated approach’.[v] The ISS also introduced the term ‘European security model’ to capture the ‘potential synergies that exist in the areas of law-enforcement cooperation, integrated border management and criminal-justice systems’.[vi] In this light, with the ‘Security Union’ the Commission seems to signal a new level of ambition where member states are asked to ‘move beyond the concept of cooperating to protect national internal security to the idea of protecting the collective security of the Union as a whole’.[vii]

What shape the ‘Security Union’ will take remains to be seen. Is the ‘Union’-terminology mobilised merely for aspirational purposes to spur along reluctant member states in adopting a more cooperative or integrative stance, or is it an actual policy objective with a clearly defined objective? A recent Commission communication refers to ‘an operational and effective Security Union’ amongst others by closing gaps and fixing loopholes of information sharing systems.[viii] In addition, the Commission predicates the realisation of the ‘Security Union’ on a ‘culture change’ where ‘law enforcement authorities (…) acquire the habit of systemic cooperation and information sharing, right down to the last policeman’.[ix] This seems obvious given the controversies about information sharing which emerged in the wake of the attacks in Paris in November 2015 and March 2016 in Brussels.[x] However, caution should be exercised in assuming that increasing the level of ambition with regard to EU security policy is indeed the way forward to better protect citizens.

A recent contribution by the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator contains a different account of information sharing. According to the Coordinator, certain member states have indeed experienced ‘great operational benefit from using the tools [of Europol] on a systematic basis’, but others ‘remain unconvinced of the operational benefit provided by Europol, believing that the risk posed to sensitive operations outweighs what they have thus far deemed to be limited operational gains’.[xi] The question is whether closing gaps and fixing loopholes of information sharing systems, quite analogous to the removing of technical and administrative barriers the notion of ‘Union’ has historically been associated with, will work.[xii] Transplanting methods that worked for the purposes of economic and financial integration might not be suitable in the realm of security policy where cost/benefit calculations are not that straightforward and much depends on trust and personal relations.

As long as member states remain unconvinced of the added value of Europol databases or continue to lack the political will to adopt a different attitude, the Commissioner for Security Union will have a tough job in bringing about a culture change regarding information sharing. Unless the added value of EU-wide information sharing is proven in practice, prescribing a particular form of conduct –exchange on the basis of the ‘need to share’ instead of ‘need to know’ – in a top-down fashion is unlikely to result in a culture change.[xiii] In fact, there is a more fundamental problem at stake here. Not all member states face the same insecurities or face them to the same degree. For some member states foreign fighters are the prime concern while for others organised crime tops the agenda. The insecurity landscape among the member states is diverse and fragmented which raises the question of whether a ‘Security Union’ is an achievable ambition in the first place. At the very least the activities in the name of a ‘Security Union’, including that of the Commissioner, deserve careful scrutiny to unpack the connotations of self-evident unity that informs it.

[i] Jacopo Barigazzi, “Jean-Claude Juncker: EU needs ‘a security union’”, Politico, 23 March 2016,

[ii] Council of the European Union, ‘Julian King appointed new commissioner for security union’, Press release 515/16, 19 September 2016,

[iii] Official Journal of the European Communities, C 224, p. 97.

[iv] Official Journal of the European Union, C 340, p. 162.

[v] Council of the European Union, ‘Draft Internal Security Strategy for the European Union: “Towards a European Security Model”’, 5842/2/10 REV 2, p. 9; Council of the European Union, ‘Draft Council Conclusions on the Renewed European Union Internal Security Strategy 2015-2020’, 9798/15, p. 6.

[vi] Council of the European Union, ‘Draft Internal Security Strategy’, p. 2.

[vii] European Commission, ‘Delivering on the European Agenda on Security to fight against terrorism and pave the way towards an effective and genuine Security Union’, COM(2016) 230 final, p. 2-3.

[viii] Ibid., p. 3.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] See European Political Strategy Centre, “Towards a ‘Security Union’: Bolstering the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Response”, Issue 12, 20 April 2016,

[xi] EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, ‘Information sharing in the counter-terrorism context: Use of Europol and Eurojust’, 9201/16, p. 3.

[xii] Besides the definition of the project of European cooperation and integration as a ‘European Union’ since 1992, ‘Union’ has been mobilised for specific areas as well. The notion of an ‘Economic and Monetary Union’ has been around since 1970. Since 2015, there is speak of an ‘Capital Markets Union’ and an ‘Energy Union’.

[xiii] Council of the European Union, ‘Roadmap to enhance information exchange and information management including interoperability solutions in the Justice and Home Affairs area’, 9368/1/16 REV 1, p. 4.