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The European Union’s Counterterrorism Strategy Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2021

The European Council adopted the European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy (EU CTS) in 2005 as a response to challenges to international security in the increasingly opened European space. It includes four strands of work: preventing people from being turned into terrorists, protecting citizens and infrastructure, pursuing and prosecuting terrorists, and responding effectively to terrorist attacks (EU CTS, 2005, p. 3). The Strategy provides for a common framework of counter-terrorism measures for all member states. This paper provides research and analysis of the EU CTS, evaluates its performance about the terrorist attacks that occurred after its adoption, and makes specific recommendations to improve its effectiveness.

Research and Analysis

The EU CTS is primarily aimed at combating international terrorism both within and outside the EU borders. The international nature of terrorism requires the consolidation of the efforts of all member states. Researchers note that the “EU counter-terrorism can be perceived as a form of multi-level governance in which the EU is one player amidst several others” (Den Boer & Wiegand, 2015, p. 377). The Strategy consists of 41 items and is divided into six sections, including an introduction, four sections on the strands of work mentioned above, and the democratic accountability part.

The set of preventive measures of the Strategy is mainly directed at the prevention of terroristic radicalization and recruitment. The key priorities in this area are the criminalization of incitement and recruitment, the monitoring of problematic behavior in the media and the Internet, and the implementation of appropriate social and intercultural policies (EU CTS, 2005, p. 9). Most of these are measures that each member state applies independently within its legal framework. Their policies vary due to certain socio-cultural and migration reasons.

Researchers note that “the radicalization of European Muslims is seen as a concern and international terrorism is perceived as being linked to a wide range of other threats” in the UK, France, and the Netherlands (Londras & Doody, 2015, p. 127). At the same time, that is not as common for Scandinavian countries and many Eastern European countries (Londras & Doody, 2015, p. 127). Accordingly, the actions to prevent radicalization and recruitment differ in these countries, depending on the degree of urgency of the problem.

Besides, the Strategy includes several measures aimed at protecting against terrorism. They focus primarily on migration and visa policy issues, as well as on improving security arrangements in critical transport and infrastructure facilities (EU CTS, 2005, p. 11). Leonard states that key EU border control measures include, but are not limited to

  1. strengthening external border controls,
  2. enhancing capacities for identifying terrorists at borders,
  3. improving identity document security” (2015, p. 312).

Thus, the European Council attempts to incorporate these measures into the open border policy and the EU citizens’ freedom of movement. These protective measures are primarily based on the assumption that the terrorist threat comes from outside European borders. Nevertheless, this thesis is rather unconfirmed, and “it is impossible to precisely assess the effectiveness of any specific border control measure in combating terrorism” (Leonard, 2015, p. 327). Therefore, the Strategy encourages to make the best use of research activity in this area (EU CTS, 2005, p. 11). As a consequence, measures to pursue terrorists across borders acquire special significance.

The range of measures devoted to the pursuit of terrorism is extensive enough. It includes the strengthening of national anti-terrorist arrangements, the consolidation of police and judicial efforts through Europol and Eurojust, and the tackling of weapon distribution and illicit financing of terrorism (EU CTS, 2005, p. 14). Joining efforts in this area implies the creation of a unified regulatory framework. According to Den Boer and Wiegand, “the counter-terrorism professionals in the Member States gradually begin to work according to standard protocols and working procedures” (2015, p. 382).

Despite this, the national authorities of Member States still have a more significant role to play in the active pursuit of terrorists. Researchers note that the “EU’s influence on the way counter-terrorism action is conducted on the ground by member states remains extremely limited,” and “operational action is by and large a national responsibility” (Argomaniz, Bures, & Kaunert, 2015, p. 202). Thus, the EU CTS is just one of the first steps towards the consolidation of European efforts in this respect.

The fourth section describes the countermeasures taken in response to the terrorist attack. These include the revision of legislation on the protection of civilians, the development of risk assessment, and the improvement of approaches to assisting victims of terrorism and their families (EU CTS, 2005, p. 16). The Strategy emphasizes that the possibility of terrorist acts cannot be reduced to zero (EU CTS, 2005, p. 15). This group of actions is directed at minimizing the consequences of these attacks, as well as at compensating those who suffered from them.

A large number of publications were devoted to the EU CTS in 2015. At that time, exactly ten years had passed since its adoption. Moreover, that year, there was a major and extremely resonant terrorist act in the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. According to Den Boer and Wiegand, “gradually, increased attention has been devoted to the ‘root causes’ of terrorism and radicalization” (2015, p. 381). In addition to revising the approach to counter-terrorism measures, the Strategy has been criticized by researchers who have reviewed its effectiveness since the case.

Application and Performance

It should be noted that the EU CTS itself is a reaction to the rise of terrorist activity at the very beginning of the 21st century. Researchers note that “as a reaction to the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, and London, the European Union has become increasingly active in the field of counter-terrorism” (Argomaniz et al., 2015, p. 196). These attacks occurred in 2001, 2004, and 2005, respectively, and the Strategy accumulates experience from these events. Nevertheless, its counter-terrorism measures were unable to prevent subsequent shooting in Charlie Hebdo and were also subject to a certain amount of criticism.

The terrorist act in Charlie Hebdo was one of the most notorious and dramatic events that questioned the effectiveness of the EU’s counter-terrorism policy. According to Didier and Guild, these events were followed by the debates about “radicalization and counter-terrorism policies for national and European authorities to deploy in order to best respond to these and future terrorist attacks” (2015, p. 1).

One of the reasons terrorists have succeeded in carrying out the attack is the regulations on freedom of movement for EU citizens. Both terrorists involved in the shooting were French-Algerian Muslims and French citizens. Researchers state that the “EU freedom of movement rules” prohibited “systematic checks and surveillance of EU citizens on the move, which is precisely what” EU regulations, introduced after the Paris terrorist attack, have established (Didier & Guild, 2015, p. 2). The Strategy had not previously provided for such opportunities, and potential terrorists who were EU citizens could benefit from such freedoms.

Moreover, the fact that the terrorists were EU citizens challenges the assumption that the most significant terrorist threat comes from outside European borders. Leonard, when discussing this thesis, states that “border control measures have only played a limited role in the EU’s counter-terrorism policy” (2015, p. 327). This means, among other things, that investigative and intelligence activities make a more significant contribution to the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures. The provisions of the Strategy indicated that most operational activities are national prerogative, as noted earlier. Thus, it does not create a specific organizational entity that would consolidate the efforts of member countries and have enhanced authorities in this area.

Moreover, democratic principles of European law impose certain restrictions on activities to pursue terrorists. It bears mentioning that only “the EU counter-terrorism responses to the Paris events” provided for the possibility of using “large-scale (blanket) surveillance and data retention instruments” (Didier & Guild, 2015, p. 2). The EU CTS did not include any regulations that could be considered civil rights violations, and therefore, its instruments are rather limited. What it involves is a balance between the right to privacy and the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures.

It should be noted that the terrorists were rather rapidly detected by the French law enforcement authorities and eliminated two days after the attack. The EU CTS states that member states “have the lead role in providing the emergency response to a terrorist incident on their territory” (2005, p. 15). At the same time, “the EU collectively has the capability to respond in solidarity to an extreme emergency which could constitute a serious risk to the Union as a whole” (EU CTS, 2005, p. 15). These Strategy guidelines have been fully implemented by the Joint Statement of January 11, an input of the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, and the Riga Joint Statement. Afterward, several EU counter-terrorism measures have been revised and supplemented.

Possible Areas for Improvement

It should be noted that many improvements have been made during the review and revising of the EU CTS framework. According to Didier and Guild, the counter-terrorism proposals concerned “fostering exchange of intelligence-led information and use of large-scale databases allowing for systematic surveillance of EU citizen and resident movement in the Schengen territory” (2015, p. 2). Although this measure affects, to some extent, the privacy rights of citizens, it should be considered very reasonable and effective given the circumstances of the Paris terrorist attack. The priority, in this case, is given to security, which is consistent with the contextual realities.

The main recommendation that could be made for strengthening the Strategy concerns the consolidation and unification of member states’ forces through the establishment of supranational structures. Operational actions related to countering the terrorist threat could be much more effective if the central powers for their implementation were given to a European regional entity.

Given the principle of state sovereignty in the EU, the possibility of such an initiative being implemented is rather low, as it would require the transfer of a large number of national executive functions. Nevertheless, the need for a unified executive functioning in the areas of terrorist pursuit, combating illicit arms supply, and financing is evident. That can be achieved through other forms of law enforcement cooperation among member states.

It should also be noted that some measures may not be considered worthwhile to implement. There is an opinion that “security measures at borders, ports, and airports” may “produce transportation costs that may distort economic activity, while not being a particularly effective security means at the same time” (Londras & Doody, 2015, p. 130). Such arrangements are intended to ensure the primary security of all infrastructure facilities but are not targeted. Preventive policies aimed at preventing radicalization and recruitment may prove to be more reasonable. It can be stressed that such a policy is being pursued by both the EU and the UN, as well as by various states in particular.

Nonetheless, researchers are still unaware of the psychological reasons for young people’s desire to support terrorists. The research of psychological factors contributing to the desire to participate in terrorist activities can have a far greater impact than any other preventive measure. It is worth emphasizing that this will be in line with the tendency of the research of root causes of terrorism and radicalization.


The EU CTS includes several measures aimed at preventing recruitment and radicalization, protecting civilians and infrastructure facilities, securing borders, pursuing terrorists, and responding to terrorist attacks. These regulations are particularly effective concerning the external terrorist threat, but they cannot always prevent the risk emanating from within the EU. Several weaknesses in the Strategy were identified as a result of the terrorist attack in the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

The EU has made several adjustments to its counter-terrorism policy as a result of this event, mainly concerning the systematic surveillance of EU citizens and resident movement in the Schengen territory. Though, other possible improvements to the Strategy have also been proposed about the consolidation of member states’ efforts and the analysis of the root causes of radicalization and recruitment.


Argomaniz, J., Bures, O., & Kaunert, C. (2015). A decade of EU counter-terrorism and intelligence: A critical assessment. Intelligence and National Security, 30 (2-3), 191-206.

Council of the European Union. (2005). The European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy, November 30, 2005. Brussels, Belgium: Council of the European Union.

De Londras, F., & Doody, J. (Eds.). (2015). The impact, legitimacy and effectiveness of EU counter-Terrorism. London, England: Routledge.

Den Boer, M., & Wiegand, I. (2015). From convergence to deep integration: Evaluating the impact of EU counter-terrorism strategies on domestic arenas. Intelligence and National Security, 30 (2-3), 377-401.

Didier, B., & Guild, E. (2015). The EU counter-terrorism policy responses to the attacks in Paris. Towards an EU security and liberty agenda. Brussels, Belgium: CEPS.

Leonard, S. (2015). Border controls as a dimension of the European Union’s counter-terrorism policy: A critical assessment. Intelligence and National Security, 30 (2-3), 306-332.

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