Closer EU intelligence cooperation: Four opportunities
If the European Union takes its ambition to reach strategic autonomy seriously, it needs to work towards closer intelligence cooperation among its member states. Although intelligence has always been a national affair, a stronger role of Brussels is important for the EU to effectively address a wide range of security and defence challenges. Claire Korteweg sketches out the way ahead, identifying four opportunities to improve the EU’s intelligence position.
By its very nature, intelligence is a national affair: cooperation usually takes place among trusted partners, on the basis of a high dose of prudence and scrutiny. Dutch intelligence services generally maintain close bilateral links with their European counterparts, while multilateral cooperation remains largely outside the scope of the European Union. Mistrust and bureaucratic obstacles have kept intelligence cooperation limited to informal set-ups.1
Over the past few years, the EU has taken serious steps towards reaching strategic autonomy, culminating in a new Strategic Compass for security and defence which is due to be adopted in March 2022.2 One of the key goals will be to improve information sharing and intelligence cooperation among EU member states.
This is certainly not a new ambition. Over the past fifteen years, the EU has already taken numerous initiatives to create mechanisms for the diffusion of intelligence between and among national authorities.
INTCEN’s position and role is crucial because it embodies what the EU should stand for
Primarily, the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre (INTCEN) was established in 2002 exactly for this purpose. INTCEN lacks intelligence collection capabilities of its own, and relies fully on the voluntary cooperation and contributions of member states.
In its current structure, it is merely a mixing bowl of liaison officers that combine the information provided by member states into a coherent assessment. INTCEN’s added value is not the information itself, but rather the collective effort and shared and common information base that it represents.3
INTCEN’s position and role is crucial because it embodies what the EU should stand for: acting united against security threats facing all member states. But to do this efficiently, stronger cooperation is needed.
This article examines four opportunities for the EU to develop European intelligence cooperation:
- Improving the EU’s early warning capabilities.
- Strengthening the EU’s policies to hybrid threats.
- Developing a common European intelligence culture.
- Expanding the partnership with Japan to include more rigorous security and defence cooperation.
1. Early warning: Looking at NATO
In a recent report, Danny Pronk and I pointed out that the EU Conflict Early Warning System (EWS) is Europe’s instrument of choice “that identifies, prioritizes and assesses situations at risk of violent conflict in non-EU countries”.4 EWS assessments are based on a comprehensive body of information, dwelling upon a wide range of sources (from diplomatic cables, to intelligence analyses and open sources) in order to keep track of risky situations.
One of our recommendations is that the EU should learn from NATO’s approach to early warning, particularly its focus on specific (and concise) scenarios, and the principle and practice of burden-sharing. There are several reasons why the EU should copy some pages of NATO’s rulebook.
Firstly, the EU Early Warning System currently offers very general regional security assessments, mainly because these general assessments fit well within the EU’s current conflict prevention toolbox. This method is in need of change: working with concrete scenario analyses may help to identify threats assuring a more targeted approach through more case-specific indicators.
There is an urgent need to develop a European intelligence culture
Secondly, a more targeted approach to early warning may also be derived by applying the concept of burden-sharing. Appointing one member state – a ‘sponsor state’ – to be responsible for regular reports on a certain case prevents valuable and scarce resources from being wasted. Each sponsor state would focus on issues based on their own knowledge and expertise.
Take France and Italy for example, which can share their expertise on North African countries like Algeria, Tunisia and Libya; expertise stemming from a shared history as well as from geographical proximity. Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, have tailored their expertise towards Russia, which poses a more direct challenge to them.
Taking such an approach would reduce the need for 27 intelligence agencies within the EU, conducting the same kind of early warning research separately. One of the main challenges here, of course, is that this would only work if EU member states share a common threat perception. In short: there is an urgent need to develop a European intelligence culture – which will be discussed below.
2. Cooperation on hybrid conflict
The second opportunity to develop European intelligence cooperation derives from the increased urgency to tackle so-called ‘hybrid conflicts’. The EU defines hybrid conflict as the “mixture of coercive and subversive activity, conventional and unconventional methods (i.e. diplomatic, military, economic, technological), which can be used in a coordinated manner by state or non-state actors to achieve specific objectives while remaining below the threshold of formally declared warfare”.5
While the concept of hybrid conflict is far from novel, technological change has added new layers of complexity that have proven a major challenge to the EU and the West in general. Russia’s interference in several national elections is just one example of this phenomenon,6 as is the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a large-scale cyberattack on Georgia carried out by Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU.7
The EU and NATO have both set up their own specialised centres with a focus on hybrid conflicts. The EU’s capabilities to counter hybrid threats would be greatly helped if cooperation between these centres was intensified.
Future EU-NATO cooperation on hybrid conflicts would benefit particularly from more regularly updated threat assessments. Almost by definition, hybrid conflicts are dynamic and volatile, and hard to assess ‘in real time’: a cyberattack is difficult to trace back to the perpetrator, which gives plausible deniability for states that refuse to take responsibility.
It would be of great help to the EU if an early warning system for hybrid threats could be set up, linking (seemingly) isolated incidents together, thereby better recognising an opponent’s hybrid strategy.
The need for a higher level of mutual trust and a stronger sense of a common strategic culture is widely felt in Brussels and EU capitals
However, to get there, it will be important for both the EU and NATO (as well as their member states) to adopt similar terminology on what constitutes ‘hybridity’. Once this step is taken, both organisations can move beyond conceptual squabbles and start developing indicators for (hostile) activities that might turn into hybrid threats. This will be all the more important since these new threats increasingly fall beyond the traditional realm of military activity.8
3. A common intelligence culture
How can EU member states be encouraged to share their intelligence with each other, preferably through a dedicated EU institution? Several compelling arguments can be made.
The need for a higher level of mutual trust and a stronger sense of a common strategic culture is widely felt in Brussels and EU capitals. An effective strategy should be based on thorough environmental assessments, for which input is primarily provided by intelligence services.
A common intelligence culture will constitute a core element of the EU’s drive towards strategic actorness, largely because it assumes a common, or at least shared, set of threat perceptions. A key step towards the convergence of these different threat perceptions will be to engage in a process of socialisation.9
This can only work if EU member states agree on a shared foundation of norms and values, and democratic ideals. A common EU intelligence culture should acknowledge that individual member states face different threats and challenges, but that there is great merit in sharing these different but relevant experiences in a common EU framework.
The Intelligence College in Europe (ICE), created in March 2019 on the basis of a proposal by French president Emmanuel Macron, may play a key role in this process of socialisation. ICE is billed as “a platform for reflection, engagement and outreach”10 , where practitioners, academics and decisionmakers can discuss non-operational topics relevant to all European intelligence agencies.
The ICE will not only bring together officials from all EU member states, but also reach out to, and engage with, a broader intelligence community, which includes the consumers. Within the EU these include the External Action Service and the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as the member states.
It goes without saying that overcoming cultural differences through the socialisation of elites will remain a problematic process, particularly in a sensitive area like intelligence. Still, the focus on setting up agencies and institutions often overlooks the value of personal relationships, which is especially important among senior intelligence practitioners.11
By bringing together EU and national intelligence professionals, the ICE is the perfect setting where personal connections may thrive and where trust among EU member states may grow organically, all aimed at finding new ways for national intelligence agencies to work closer together within an EU framework.
EU member states have reached out to Asian partners to strengthen intelligence ties
The 23 signatory countries would do well to use the ICE to develop further intelligence cooperation in the field of early warning. The Netherlands can take a leading role in promoting the importance of early warning, building upon its experience of organising the EU Early Warning Early Action Forum (in cooperation with Germany).
This virtual event took place for the sixth time in April 2021, offering opportunities for experts in member states’ relevant ministries and the EU External Action Service to share knowledge on early conflict prevention.12
4. A perfect partnership?
As part of the EU’s ambition to become a global security actor, EU member states have reached out to Asian partners to strengthen intelligence ties, especially to monitor the volatile situation in the Indo-Pacific.13
Japan is considered a potentially valuable partner for the EU in this region. As a democracy, Japan shares the EU’s values regarding the centrality of the rule of law and respect for human rights, which makes it easier to find common ground on perceived security threats.
The fact that the EU and Japan are strong economic and political partners – as is demonstrated by the Economic and Strategic Partnership Agreements and the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity that have been signed in recent years – most certainly helps.
In April 2021, the EU launched its Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, aiming at strengthening ties with Asian partners on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, maritime security and crisis management.14 China’s growing defence-oriented activities in the region are worrying regional actors as well as the EU.
The 2019 Strategic Partnership Agreement between the EU and Japan already mentions cooperation in military and regional security. Unfortunately, little has been done to go beyond mere declarations. This should and can change by giving EU-Japanese intelligence cooperation a much more prominent place on the agenda.
Sharing intelligence would be especially valuable for identifying potential threats to space systems, China’s military affairs and maritime policy, and the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Facing security challenges
The EU is facing many security challenges – some of them old, but many of them new. It will be critical for EU member states to develop a degree of responsibility to work towards greater awareness of these new and growing security threats by sharing information among themselves, and with trusted partners.
Close cooperation with NATO is one requirement to achieve better situational awareness on hybrid threats. Closer EU-NATO cooperation will be key for the EU to further develop the operationalisation of existing frameworks, including its Early Warning System.
A greater degree of trust and understanding can be achieved by making optimal use of the newly established Intelligence College in Europe. The ICE offers a unique platform to discuss shared challenges facing the European intelligence community and thereby contributes to the much-needed socialisation of national elites and, in the end, the convergence of national interests. Only if member states work on the basis of common threat perceptions and share the same norms and values, a common European intelligence culture will become a possibility.
Finally, the EU should strengthen its security cooperation with external partners, first and foremost by expanding its existing partnership with Japan to include more targeted security and intelligence cooperation to counter the multiple threats posed by China. This will smoothen the EU’s path towards becoming a global actor, reminding European policymakers that they are not facing their security challenges alone.
- 1A notable example is the Club de Berne, an intelligence sharing forum for the intelligence services of EU member states, Norway and Switzerland. Created in 1969, it does not operate within any institutional framework.
- 2‘A Strategic Compass for the EU’, European External Action Service, 15 November 2021.
- 3Bjorn Fägersten, ‘Intelligence and decision-making within the Common Foreign and Security Policy’, European Policy Analysis (Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, 2015), 11.
- 4European Commission, ‘EU conflict Early Warning System: Objectives, Process and Guidance for Implementation - 2020’, SWD (2021) 59 final, March 10, 2021, 3.
- 5European Commission, ‘Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats’, 6 April 2016.
- 6Maggie Tennis, ‘Russia Ramps up Global Elections Interference: Lessons for the United States’, (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2020).
- 7Anthony H. Cordesman, ‘Chronology of Possible Russian Gray Area and Hybrid Warfare Operations’, December 8, (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2020), 26.
- 8Patrick Cullen, ‘Hybrid threats as a new ‘wicked problem’ for early warning’, Strategic Analysis 8, The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, May 2018, 4. Ongoing EU-NATO cooperation on hybrid threats has been outlined in detail in a report by Dick Zandee, Sico van der Meer and Adája Stoetman, which also illustrates the potential for future cooperation on this issue.
- 9Dick Zandee and Kimberley Kruijver ‘The Challenge of a Shared Strategic Culture in Europe’, The Clingendael Institute, 2019.
- 10Letter of Intent’, Intelligence College in Europe, February 2020.
- 11Eveline R. Hertzberger, ‘Counter-terrorism intelligence cooperation in the EU’, European Foreign and Security Studies Policy Program UNICRI, 2007.
- 12Melle Brinkman, ‘EU samenwerking op Early Warning Early Action’, De Veiligheidsdiplomaat, May 2021.
- 13For an example for Dutch engagement, see Government of the Netherlands, ‘Indo-Pacific: Guidelines for strengthening Dutch and EU cooperation with partners in Asia’, 13 November 2020.
- 14Council of the European Union, ‘Indo-Pacific: Council adopts conclusions on EU strategy for cooperation - Consilium (europa.eu)’, Brussels, 16 April 2021.