COSI & the EU’s internal security strategy

europeonthestrand |

By Claudia Hillebrand

Since March 2010, the first meetings of the somewhat mysterious Standing Committee on operational cooperation on internal security (COSI) have taken place. This body, set up within the Council by a Council decision of 25 February 2010, is a crucial product of the changing EU working structures concerning matters of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), and it is likely to take on a central role in the EU policy cycle as applied to internal security. However, while the overall intention is to streamline the Council’s policy-making in this area by creating this central Council body, the whole process of setting up the COSI and its performance in the first months have shown that it is unlikely to improve the transparency of the EU’s field of internal security. Public information about COSI’s composition and its work remain rare.

To piece together a coherent picture of COSI, one has to dig deep into EU documents and governmental reports to national parliaments. To begin with, what do we know about COSI’s membership? The body comprises high-level representatives of national ministries of the EU Member States. The number of national delegates varies; and the governments can send delegates depending on the expertise needed for specific COSI meetings. For example, the German government is permanently represented by one delegate of the Federal Ministry of the Interior and one of the Federal Ministry of Justice, plus one representative of the Bundesländer. A representative of the Federal Ministry of Finance might participate in meetings concerning customs policy. Apart from ministerial officials, a few countries seem to delegate high-ranking police officials as well. And, as a press release of the then Spanish EU Presidency outlines, COSI’s first meeting in March 2010 was chaired by the Spanish Director General of Police and the Civil Guard, Francisco Javier Velázquez, and was attended by ‘directors of police and the heads of European security.’ In addition to national representatives, EU agencies working on JHA affairs, such as Europol, Eurojust and Frontex, can be invited to attend meetings.

What is most striking, however, is the vagueness of COSI’s mandate. Article 71 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) describes COSI’s key task as ‘to ensure that operational cooperation on internal security is promoted and strengthened within the Union.’ It remains unclear what ‘operational cooperation on internal security’ really means. According to a 2005 Council paper, the term refers to ‘action related to concrete cases / events / crisis / phenomena, that require a trans-national approach, whereby all the concerned authorities of the Member States competent at national level for internal security issues collaborate with each other, i.e. in a multi-disciplinary and multi-national approach together with the competent Union bodies.’ A background press release by the Council concerning COSI remains similarly vague, suggesting that its ‘coordination role will concern, among other things, police and customs cooperation, external border protection and judicial cooperation in criminal matters relevant to operational cooperation in the field of internal security’. While one can wonder how an institution can actually improve, strengthen and streamline cooperation in a field that is so weakly defined, it is evident that it gives COSI much freedom to identify future areas of action.

Overall, national parliaments, which were not involved in the creation process of COSI, were kept in the dark about COSI’s exact functions until the body was actually set up. Since then, one finds at least brief information provided by governmental authorities. For example, on 5 March 2010 – right before COSI’s first meeting, Britain’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, Meg Hillier, pointed out in a brief written Ministerial Statement to Parliament that ‘Member states identified five key objectives for this committee [i.e., COSI]: a partly operational and partly strategic role; co-ordinating the various agencies in the EU; assuming the functions of the police chiefs’ task force; assessing the effectiveness of existing legislative instruments; and providing the council with regular reports on internal security.’ No explanation follows, however, on what that means in practice.

One issue COSI picked up immediately was the development of an EU internal Security Strategy. The Stockholm Programme (pt. 4.1) outlined that one of the ‘priority tasks’ of COSI should be ‘developing, monitoring and implementing’ the Strategy, which is to cover the EU’s whole AFSJ. The Stockholm Programme adds that COSI ‘shall also cover security aspects of an integrated border management and, where appropriate, judicial cooperation in criminal matters relevant to operational cooperation in the field of internal security’ in order ‘to ensure the effective enforcement of the internal security strategy’.

The Spanish Presidency prepared the ground for the Strategy, and on 24 February, the JHA Council adopted the Internal Security Strategy for the European Union. The Strategy identifies common key threats to the EU Member States (terrorism, organised crime, illegal migration…) and emphasised the need for concerted preventive action. The JHA Council, now under the Belgian Presidency, agreed on 15 July 2010 that the ‘strategy will be put in place by 2014’. COSI and Europol are the two bodies foreseen to ‘play a key role in this process’. Annemie Turtelboom, Belgian Minister for the Interior, explained: ‘Europol is responsible for drawing up standard definitions of the different criminal phenomena and for collecting and analysing the statistics available. COSI, for its part, will deal with drawing up an operational action plan for any priorities identified by the JHA Council.’

Europol, Eurojust and Frontex have done some preliminary work on the Strategy. In a Joint Report of July 2010 entitled ‘The State of Internal Security in the EU’, they describe the nature of key common threats, based on the Europol’s Organised Crime Threat Assessment (OCTA) and Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) as well as Frontex’s Annual Risk Analysis (ARA).

Overall, it remains doubtful how COSI, which is likely to occupy a central role in the EU’s policy on internal security, will manage to fulfill all its duties without having a legislative or clearly operational role (as explicitly excluded in the COSI Council Decision). For instance, COSI is ‘responsible for evaluating the general direction and efficiency of operational cooperation with the goal to identify possible shortcomings and adopt recommendations to address them’, as described by the General Secretariat of the Council. If COSI takes this role seriously, it will not only have an effect on the Council’s policy priorities in this area, but also on national policing policies. That means it will have at least an indirect impact on legislation on matters of internal security.

Moreover, being set up partly to streamline the work of various committees and working groups of the Council in the field of JHA, COSI has taken over functions that were previously performed by those abolished in the process. Crucially, it took over the work of the European Police Chiefs Task Force (EPCTF), including its operative functions. This includes work related to the Comprehensive Operational Strategic Plan for Police (COSPOL)). The COSPOL Project was set up ‘with the aim of achieving tangible operational results in terms of arresting top level criminals and dismantling crime groups and terrorist networks’ by ‘providing support in strategic planning of law enforcement activities in the fight against organised and serious crime.’ Such involvement in intelligence-led policing and strategic planning for law enforcement operations will put COSI into a position to have an impact on the EU’s priority-setting in this policy field. Similarly, and to give a final example, COSI delegates have suggested that forthcoming ‘regular meetings of the heads of JHA Agencies’ should be either chaired by COSI, or there should be regular reporting to COSI (Council Doc. 9442/10, pt. 3).

To conclude, it appears that COSI is still in the process of soul-searching. This is hardly surprising given its deliberately vague mandate and the fact that there have been only a few meetings so far. Nevertheless, a picture is already emerging of a body that has the potential to play a key role in guiding the EU’s more operational side of internal security. While the overall idea of streamlining the operational aspects of the EU’s internal security has to be welcomed, it is disappointing to see that this is, so far, another rather opaque Council body. Harmonization and streamlining of criminal and policing matters overlaps, and potentially clashes, with civil liberties. Yet, the EU continues to conduct policy in this field behind closed doors.