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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 August 2006, 22:38 GMT 23:38 UK
Europe resolves to shore up defences
By William Horsley
BBC European affairs analyst

Armed officers at Heathrow Airport
An alleged terror plot was uncovered by British intelligence last week

An emergency meeting of European Union ministers, held in London in response to the alleged plot to blow up planes taking off from British airports, saw broad agreement that Europe's defences against attack must be sharply upgraded.

So what will really change, and how fast?

Britain has been called the odd man out in Europe, unwilling to harmonise its laws or accept common European rules.

Today that label does not fit.

Two major European political figures were among the five other EU ministers at the London meeting: the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his German counterpart Wolfgang Schaeuble.

Both voiced support for Britain's strong stance.

Common response

The UK Home Secretary John Reid put forward a bold and urgent agenda for pan-European cooperation in new areas.

He said the EU faced a form of terrorism that is "unconstrained" in its evil intention and its capacity for mass murder. He called for a common response to protect European values of freedom and tolerance.

Dr Reid condemned Islamist extremists, whom he suspects to be behind the latest terror plot. Their creed was one of "intolerant and violent totalitarianism".

They were, he said, subverting a religion - Islam - whose name stands for peace.

Here are Britain's main proposals for new Europe-wide measures:

  • Counter the newly identified threat from liquid explosives. Britain has set an example by barring passengers from taking liquids including drinks and cosmetics into plane cabins. Others have not yet followed suit
  • Step up security at European airports, as well as rail networks and other public transport systems. The strict rules at British airports have caused massive disruption, but Dr Reid says terrorists must not be able to get round them by going instead to airports in Germany or France
  • Swap intelligence better among EU security agencies. On the UK's initiative, EU intelligence chiefs will meet later this month to follow up the British investigation into the alleged plot uncovered last week

Muslim alienation

The European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Franco Frattini, promised quick action. Within days, he promised to present detailed plans, including:

  • New measures to detect and protect travellers against liquid and other explosives, at airports and other key points
  • More exchanges of passenger lists and other information among EU states
  • New EU-wide schemes to counter the recruitment of Muslim youths into extremist groups. Imams may be trained in a peaceful "European" brand of Islam; schoolteachers from across Europe will be asked to work together to reverse the alienation now apparent among many Muslim youths

UK Home Secretary John Reid
John Reid condemned Islamist extremists

All 25 EU Interior ministers may decide to implement parts of this package of steps when they meet in Finland on 20 September.

It looks like a formidable array of anti-terrorist defences.

Other far-reaching EU policies are also under consideration to cut illegal immigration, speed up deportations of terrorist suspects and make wide use of biometric systems for identity checks.

But the tally of past EU efforts to build strong anti-terrorist defences suggests that this time, too, results may be slower to arrive than politicians' resounding words suggest:

  • The European Arrest Warrant system, a key part of Europe's counter-terrorism strategy, has speeded up extraditions within Europe; but it took much longer to bring into force than at first planned
  • The European Evidence Warrant, aimed at further breaking down national barriers to crime and terrorism investigations, is not due to take effect until next year
  • The EU's special Counter-terrorism Coordinator, Gijs De Vries, cautioned after the London meeting against exaggerating the prospects for finding cure-all defences against would-be terrorists. The EU, he said, must not compromise its values of individual liberty, which set it apart from the values of the terrorist; it must also take care not to imply that Islam contains inherent dangers

'Common and real threat'

Anyway, Gijs De Vries says, the EU has limited powers of action. National governments are still responsible for the main decisions about protecting their own citizens.

Preventing new recruits to terrorism
Better protection of potential targets
Pursuit and investigation of existing networks
improved capability to respond to terrorist attacks

Even so, this meeting showed European states - including the "Big Three" of Britain, France and Germany, in unusual accord in the face of a "common and very real" threat.

And the EU's much-derided system of six-monthly rotating presidencies is being put to a useful purpose: the ministers represented all the EU countries that will chair EU business from now until the end of 2008 - including the current holder Finland, as well as Portugal and Slovenia.

Europe is planning for a long campaign of self-defence against those who threaten its populations with death and destruction.

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