The development of EU counter-terrorism policy as a result of critical junctures: has it created a volatile long-term policy lacking effectiveness?

by Hannah Daly

The terror attacks on mainland Europe over the last few years have brought closer attention and criticism to the EU’s current policy on counter-terrorism. The inconclusive policy lacks coherence due to the fact that it is sprawled out amongst a variety of different policy areas with multiple action plans and strategies drawn up by several committees, actors and law enforcement agencies. The lack of a defined, concrete policy and this unruly conglomerate of parts of the policy over different areas is due to the forced development of the policy through shocks and unforeseen ‘critical junctures’. This has resulted in many short-term policy developments but raises concerns for stable long-term developments. This article will assess the development of EU counter-terrorism policy and the issues that go hand in hand with it and what it can do to improve these.

In the Maastricht Treaty 1992, the area of justice and home affairs was a starting ground for cooperation in areas of common interest between member states. The provision of  ‘a high level of safety in an area of freedom and security’ was the EU’s objective in the 1999 the Treaty of Amsterdam followed by a more elaborate focus on combating crime and terrorism in the Tampere Summit 1999 where the Union was to use anything at its dispose, in an integrated way to achieve freedom and justice (Durac, 2017). The attack in the US in 2001  became the turning point for counter-terrorism policy and in 2002 the European Arrest Warrant and the Framework Decision for Combating Terrorism were launched. The introduction of the first counterterrorism coordinator in 2004 and the first overall EU counterterrorism strategy in 2005 were a direct response to the attacks in Madrid and London in those respective years (Cross, 2017). The role and involvement of Europol and Eurojust increased in counter-terrorism as well as the creation of new agency FRONTEX for the regulation and protection of borders. Following the more recent 2015 and 2016 terror attacks linked to extremist group Islamic State and individuals radicalised in mainland Europe, focus has narrowed in on border protection and migration control. This is due to the rapid increase in migration to Europe from conflicted countries, which increased by 14% between 2014 and 2015 and correlated with the increase in the number of terror attacks in these years (Eurostat, 2016).

The European Neighbourhood Policy was also introduced in 2004 as a way for Europe to work with countries on its borders and build relationships to mutually benefit them in terms of socio-economics and security (EEAS, 2016). The evolution of this policy is considerable due to instability in these areas such as mass migration, which shows how external factors have greatly influenced and shaped EU counter terrorism policy. Following attacks in Europe the Declaration on Combatting Terrorism strongly advised that all agreements with third countries include effective counter-terrorism clauses. However due to other commitments and geostrategic priorities the EU has with third countries, these clauses were of very little substance and heavily diluted (Durac, 2017). Though there has been an increase in the number of action plans, strategies and actors fighting terrorism in Europe, their implementation and effectiveness have not been consistent, monitored or successful due to a number of reasons and policy reform is required.

The first issue, and most ambiguous of them all, is the role of the EU in counter-terrorism policy making in the first place. Counter- terrorism is a foreign policy and national security issue which is core to state sovereignty in which most member states take a neorealist approach to and therefore will not easily give up (Lelieveldt & Princen, 2016). The EU has limited power in this sense and the lines are blurred on how far it can go to implement policies in member states. As well as that member states priorities, preferences, resources and military capabilities vary across the board (Lelieveldt & Princen, 2016). Intergovernmentalism is prominent in these areas as member states will only give up a certain amount of sovereignty if integration benefits the state itself. This will continue to be a major problem in the long-term as the driving force of EU counter-terrorism policy is incoherent.

EU counter-terrorism policy in relation to the neighbourhood policy and third countries is inconsistent as the EU’s priority lays with its geostrategic interests.  The EU tends to prioritize other interests such as market access, energy security and border control before counter-terrorism agreements with countries and as a result the policy becomes counterproductive and of very little substance (Durac, 2017). Neighbouring countries will continue to take advantage of this in the long run, dismissing any value or effectiveness to future agreements on counter-terrorism with the EU.  The major lack of coherence of who is driving the counter-terrorism policy is another issue that will inhibit effectiveness of the counter-terrorism policy in the future. There is limited transparency with issues that overlap in different policy areas from law enforcement, border control to critical infrastructure and much more (European Parliament, 2017).

In order to become an effective long-term stable policy, the EU needs to reform the structure of its policy and have defined objectives. Europol has predicted a rise in returning radicals in the coming years as the number of jihadi arrests have increased substantially over the last three years each year, with 718 arrests in 2016 (EUROPOL, 2017) which gives foresight on the situation. Migration is currently its biggest threat and priority should be given to this. Research on the most effective methods of counter-terrorism should be carried out along with frequent monitoring and updates. Increased institutional involvement and data exchange among agencies and member states is essential for legitimacy and effectiveness which it desperately needs after its foundation based on an ad hoc nature.  The Commission is constantly publishing updates on the policy and only time will tell if new strategies work but if change is not made the policy risks being deeply volatile and ineffective in the long-term risking the security of European citizens.


Hannah Daly is a final year Politics and International Relations student here in UCD with a great interest in the areas of counter-terrorism, conflict resolution and Middle Eastern studies and hope to continue research and work in those areas after she has finished my undergraduate degree later this year. This blog post was written as part of her coursework for POL30350 – Politics and Policy-making in the EU.


Cross, M. K. D., 2017. Counter-Terrorism in the EU’s External Relations. Journal of European Integration, 23 May, 39(5), pp. 609-624.

Durac, V., 2017. Counterterrorism and Democracy: EU POlicy in the Middle East and North Africa after the uprisings. Mediterranean Politics, August.22(3).

EEAS, 2016. European Union External Action: European Neighbourhood Policy. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 21 October 2017].

European Parliament, 2017. Directorate General for Internal Policies: The European Union’s Policies on Counter- Terrorism; Relevance, Coherence and Effectiveness. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 21 October 2017].

EUROPOL, 2017. EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2017. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 21 October 2017].

Eurostat, 2016. Eurostat Statistics Explained: Asylum Statistics. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 October 2017].

Lelieveldt, H. & Princen, S., 2016. The Politics of the European Union. second ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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