EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Gilles de Kerchove, EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator
EUBULLETIN: You are the European Union’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator but I would like to start with the terrorist attack at the international airport in Istanbul back in June, which is just outside of the European Union.
De Kerchove: It is actually 60 percent of my time that I focus on regions outside of the EU.
EUBULLETIN: Does this attack at this busy international airport mean that the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, has changed its strategy and we could perhaps expect more similar attacks to happen at airports within the EU?
De Kerchove: First of all, I am very deeply saddened at what happened in Istanbul because it is not the first time that the Turks have been targeted, seemingly by Daesh, we don’t know but it seem that Daesh (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS) was behind the attack. We have had a political dialogue with my Turkish counterpart and we discussed the latest developments. We are really eager to work very closely with the Turks to help them on both sides of prevention, the organization and the fight against Daesh and PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and DHKP-C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front).
On your question, yes, we know that terrorist organizations, and especially Daesh, are keen to target aviation infrastructure or planes and that is the reason why the European Union is working hard to increase the resilience of the different airports around the region. So, we are not surprised – they targeted in Brussels in March, they targeted Istanbul in June – so, that’s not surprising and we have to improve the way we prevent that to happen.
EUBULLETIN: But can you see any correlation between the current military offensive against Daesh in Syria and also Iraq and the latter’s increased terrorist activities outside of this region?
De Kerchove: Well, I am not surprised that Daesh increases its strikes because they are on the defensive – they are pretty degraded in Syria and Iraq and they need to show successes. But this organization has made a success their ‘brand’ and I suspect the more we – the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga, the YPG (The People’s Protection Units) and others – put the pressure on Daesh, the more this organization will want to direct their attacks on the West.
EUBULLETIN: On a different but related story, since the UK is considered one of the main driving forces in the EU’s anti-terrorism campaign, what impact will the Brexit have on this policy portfolio?
De Kerchove: First of all, it is not easy to answer your question – it is too early, the vote was in June, and the heads of governments are at the moment still discussing the consequences of a possible exit because we have not yet received the letter foreseen by Article 50 of the Treaty. I regret it a lot – to see the Brits leaving the EU – also because, as you said, they are a driving force in the field of security. It is one of the Member States, which supported me the most in my position the last nine years. I used to say I am sure they did it because I am a nice guy (smiling) but I believe not only so because they were convinced that the EU could add value and help them to fight more effectively.
So, it will be a serious loss for us and a series loss for them because Britain will not have access to the Schengen Information System we connected some months ago and they themselves recognized the interest and the value of using the Schengen Information System, they will not be connected to Europol and so forth – so, there will be consequences for them, as for us.
EUBULLETIN: Do you think that it will be more difficult after the Brexit to work, to communicate with the British to effectively deal with current challenging security environment?
De Kerchove: This is, of course, we will see because I am not in charge of designing the next arrangement but, of course, we remain pretty close to our British friends and it is clear that all Member States will keep working a lot with our British colleagues at all levels of intelligence and law enforcement and we will have to find ways to work together because we have a common threat. So, it will not be the same institutional framework but I am convinced we’ll find ways to go around and keep working very closely together.
EUBULLETIN: Given the sheer complexity, all those different challenges facing the EU – you have the influx of migrants, terrorism, proxy wars fought in the Middle East – when do you think the EU will finally get on top of these problems to deal with them in an effective manner?
De Kerchove: It’s difficult – I don’t have a crystal ball but, as you said, the threat is no longer in the field of terrorism but we should also not overlook organized crime, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, failed states, rogue states – that should reinforce the need to keep our basic policy more effective, like development assistance, promoting good governance and the rule of law. We can invent all kinds strategies to deal with hybrid warfare but the basic roots of conflicts are still the same – too much difference in the levels of development, violations of human rights and all these can only lead to violence.
EUBULLETIN: But the EU has, for example, been the largest donor of development assistance in the world.
De Kerchove: We have been doing this for years but sometimes not effectively enough. We have contributed to peace and security a lot. I would like to see the EU playing a much more effective role in the big foreign policy nuclear deal we have thanks to the leadership of Frederica Mogherini. We are sure diplomacy can do a lot – so let’s hope that we will be more and more successful in Syria, in our relationship with Russia, in building alliances, in working with Asia, in solving the many frozen conflicts, so that we reduce the tensions. There will always be tensions but although you may question the deal with Turkey on migration, it has now produced results. It prompted the EU to be much more active to promote investment and development in those countries from which most of the migrants are coming.
And, so, I think I have never seen Europe to be so engaged on all fronts – we have more and more CSDP missions, we try to develop strategic understanding with other countries, so we become a more important player. We don’t have a choice, the Americans want us to do more and I think there is a consensus to do more. And, again in this context, it would be sad to see the Brits leaving because they are a very effective international player through their diplomatic network and their vision and competences.
Gilles de Kerchove is the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator. A senior Belgian official, he previously served as Director of Justice and Home Affairs in the Council Secretariat of the European Union from 1995 to 2007. In his role as Director of JHA, he played a central role in negotiations for Eurojust and the European arrest warrant. He obtained his law degree at the Catholic University of Louvain in 1979 and later followed a Masters in Law at Yale Law School in 1984. In addition to its administrative activities, he is also a lecturer in law at several universities in Belgium, particularly at the Catholic University of Louvain, at the Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis and the Université Libre de Bruxelles.