The EU has been an espionage target since the Cold War, and recently has improved its security But recent developments such as the Ukraine crisis, human rights concerns and the risks posed by its own recent foreign policy present new challenges to its security.
In 2003, five espionage devices were discovered in the walls of the headquarters of the European Council. The devices could be activated remotely and were connected to the telephone lines of the delegation rooms of France, Germany, Italy, the UK, Spain and Austria. Prosecutions are rare as it’s in EU Member States’ interest to preserve relations with each other.
As home to major EU institutions and NATO, Brussels is a true spy capital. That’s according to the Belgian investigative journalist Kristof Clerix who writes for MO*, a Belgian magazine on international affairs. He has written two books — Vrij Spel(2007) and Spionage: Doelwit:Brussel [Espionage-Target:Brussels] (2013) — and has a website on espionage in Brussels.
“A recently published brochure by the Council’s security service literally states: ‘Everyone working at the European Council, no matter in which position, is a potential target for organisations who are trying to collect sensitive information’,” Clerix says. “In trade negotiations it’s always valuable to know the position of your counterparty beforehand…during negotiations with big fishery nations such as Morocco secret services are active in Brussels.” Even when the value of information is less clear, the EU is still targeted, as this declassified 1995 CIA memorandum proves.
The EU’s security and Ukraine
The EU has been an ideal playground for intelligence agencies, as Belgium’s security services are small and the European Parliament’s security directorate was created in 2014; the Council’s counter-surveillance unit was founded in 2000.
However these are the days of the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN) and the intelligence directorate of the EU Military Staff. According to Kristof Clerix, together they only employ about 140 intelligence experts, don’t perform operations and are little more than platforms for analysis. But, he says, “It would be surprising if INTCEN would not be interested in the recent developments in Ukraine”. And while INTCEN’s role is limited to analysis and information sharing, it is very active; INTCEN produces over 500 reports per year, including intelligence assessments on hotspots worldwide, and a weekly intelligence report.
In 2013 the Commission announced that the EU and its Member States would cooperate closely with partner countries on security regarding “complex international events”. The CIA stated that an integrated Europe “serves US national interests” in a declassified document, so it may be interested in issues which could divide Europe- another reason for the US to target Russia and the Crimea over the Ukraine crisis. This might mean there is a lot of EU-US cooperation over Ukraine, the results possibly being analysed by INTCEN.
As the EU’s security services are relatively small, new and do not collect information, the EU may present an easier target than the individual Member States. Therefore Russia might target the EU in lieu of the states, to find out not just the EU’s policy on Ukraine but that of individual Member States. “Early March a confidential telephone conversation between EU High Representative Baroness Catherine Ashton and the Estonian minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet, on the developments in Ukraine, was leaked on YouTube. I’m wondering whether this was the result of an espionage operation,” Clerix commented.
The EU’s new policies: A security risk?
Recently, the EU’s admirable determination to promote respect for human rights has driven it to become more involved in foreign affairs, such as giving non-military assistance to the Arab Spring. With a budget of €1.1 billion between 2007 and 2013, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights supports non-governmental organisations. The EU intends to continue and increase its efforts; The EU Strategic Framework And Action Plan On Human Rights And Democracy states “The EU will strengthen its work with partners worldwide to support democracy, notably the development of genuine and credible electoral processes and representative and transparent democratic institutions…individuals fighting for human rights worldwide frequently find themselves the target of oppression and coercion; the EU will intensify its political and financial support for human rights defenders and step up its efforts against all forms of reprisals.” Its Action Plan includes working with NGOs at the local level and providing temporary shelter for persecuted dissidents.
It’s not difficult to imagine that some states may be less than overjoyed about the EU funding and protecting rebels and dissidents. Some of its new policies might put the EU at risk of being targeted by states which previously regarded the EU as a low priority.
“European Common Security and Defense Policy is a relatively new development,” explains Clerix. “The Serbian secret service will be interested in Europe’s position on Kosovo, the Russians in the position on Ukraine. The Chinese will be after information on the European activities in Africa…the External Action Service…is a spy target…[and] the EEAS is a spy target.”
The EEAS (European External Action Service) was set up by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. The EEAS operates 139 delegations around the world. The EEAS’ Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) enables the EU to perform peace-keeping operations and conflict prevention, and draws on both civilian and military assets. INTCEN provides the EEAS with intelligence to support its policy making process and one of its key responsiblities is a daily briefing for the EEAS’ senior management.
Human rights concerns
Back in 1999 the Council of Europewas concerned about European national security services perpetrating human rights abuses, and cited the UK’s violation of the ECHR. Now, Snowden’s revelations have increased concern among the European public and led to GCHQ being sued by human rights NGO Amnesty International. The revelations were also detrimental to EU-US relations.
And it’s not just European states which target NGOs; the NSA surveillanced Human Rights Watch. Clerix reveals that in 2010, the Belgian State Security Service launched an inquiry into the Colombian intelligence service, the DAS, which had been running an intelligence operation focused not just on the European Parliament, but on members of NGOs.
This might indicate a trend among intelligence agencies.
Though he has no evidence that espionage goes on in the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, its Network of Independent Experts or Commission platforms which allow cooperation between NGOs in different states, Clerix doesn’t dismiss the possibility. “[Y]ou never know. Secret services sometimes use the cover of think tanks or lobby organisations in order to influence EU policy.”
And as this cover is used, intelligence agencies arguably have good reason to target NGOs to uncover foreign agents.
However the EU-Russia drama plays out, one thing is certain: even in less challenging times, the EU’s security services will always struggle to protect its vast amounts of information.
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