EU counterterrorism policy: a case of casino technocracy

After years of self-denial, EU policymakers are outing themselves as technocrats. From now on decisions will be scientific and evidence-based. The years of European vanity projects, dogma and ideology are over.

Even our parliamentarians have given the idea of technocracy an enthusiastic I Like This. In a resolution on Wednesday, for example, the European Parliament called for an evidence-based assessment of the EU’s counterterrorist policies.

It all goes to show how much we want to believe that European decision-making is a logical and linear process – a process in which law-makers identify the problems that require EU-wide treatment, adopt the right solution and then tweak it in the unlikely eventuality that it does not work properly.

The trouble is that EU decision-making has its own very particular logic, and it doesn’t quite match the ideal.

Political players in Brussels usually start by drawing up a solution. Then they look for a problem to justify it. Then they try to identify a European dimension to that problem in order to justify action at the EU level.

Imagine a Las Vegas casino full of gamblers playing on fruit machines, and that is pretty much how law-making in Brussels works. The political players spend their time trying to line up their preferred solution with a favourable problem and political level.

Science and evidence do not prevent this kind of abuse; they only disguise it. After all, “objective evidence” can be found for just about anything, especially when the preferred answer is clear.

European counterterrorism policies such as the 2006 data-retention directive throw up many examples of this kind of casino technocracy.

In 2005 interior ministries cited the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London as evidence of the problem of unmonitored telecommunications traffic. They called for the EU to create an obligation for communications firms to store data on customers and to pass these data to security authorities if requested.

The need to act at an EU-level was clear, they said. Not only did the fight against terrorism require cross-border cooperation; any new rules on data retention would create costs for firms, potentially leading to a distortion of the EU’s internal market if adopted on an individual national basis.

Today, the arbitrariness of the directive is clear. For one thing, the directive is still a solution in search of a problem. The legislation does not actually set out the reasons for which the data are stored, and every member state uses the data for different purposes. In hindsight, the fight against terrorism does not seem to have been much of a priority for negotiators.

For another thing, the rationale for adopting an EU measure has proved rather hollow. The directive has actually distorted the internal market. Law-makers never clarified whether telecommunications firms should be compensated for storing data. As a result some firms are; others aren’t. Moreover, with less than 1% of successful data requests cross-national, it seems the directive was not tailored to cross-border cooperation either.

That doesn’t mean that telecommunications data might not play a useful role in combating terrorism, let alone that an EU-wide measure makes no sense. It merely suggests that policymakers had different priorities when drawing up the directive.

Whisper it: many interior ministries had been calling for more generous national powers to fight crime, but had found their plans blocked by courts, justice ministries and NGOs. These domestic opponents were not present in Brussels, so why not try for an EU measure?

Here, then, comes the €375,245-question: would an “evidence-based evaluation” of the directive at least help adapt this measure to its proper purposes?

We are about to find out. Earlier this year, the Commission reviewed the directive and will shortly present a proposal for its reform

The signs are not good though. Interior ministries have already signalled that they have little appetite to reopen the dossier. They suspect that the European Parliament has already decided what kind of reform it would like and is simply picking out the evidence to support its agenda.

The political window which made agreement on the directive possible has closed, and there will probably be little movement on the issue. This time there’ll be no luck with the fruit machine.