After the Nice killings we need to think rationally – so let’s start by pressuring the intelligence chiefs

Swedish Germany border checks edit

By Simon Davies

If you ever needed to gain an understanding of Europe’s mindset on the protection of internal security, you need to look no further than the Swedish border. Here, in this former warm-blooded bastion of humanity and freedom, you will see how the future of this region is unfolding.

Do what I did, and take the train from Copenhagen on the short journey to the Swedish coastal city of Malmo. From last January, the new rule is that all Swedish border crossings will be subjected to mandatory identity checking by police.

This is not mere policy posturing. When I took a journey the following day from Denmark to meet colleagues in Lund, our train was boarded en masse by police as soon as it arrived at Malmo Hyllie, the first stop on the Swedish side. No-one was permitted to get on or off the train without being subjected to identity checking. Some people were hauled off. Even local people without sufficient ID were at least temporarily detained.

Swedish police board an incoming train at Malmo

Swedish police board an incoming train at Malmo

Of course the Swedish policy was decided before the subsequent horrific attacks in Paris. The climate in the days since then  escalated even further, moving from a widely expressed fear of invasion by asylum seekers to a fear of death or mutilation. Even now, Sweden has pushed to elevate its security threat level to the highest extent.

The mood expressed in Sweden’s pubs and cafes appears to have shifted in the space of a decade from a default embrace of the outside world to exasperation that its quality of life has been shattered. This view is reflected in a palpable trend of support for right wing parties that have leveraged the climate to their advantage.

Whether or not this fear has any factual base, the expression of that concern is taking hold across swathes of the EU. Walls are being built, the protection of fundamental rights is increasingly suspended and nations are derogating from free movement guaranteed by the Schengen Border Code. Now, that process seems destined for entrenchment. Security forces and reactionary politics appear to have found their perfect storm.

The Paris, Brussels and Nice attacks have rightly raised the urgency of debate around security at the global level. It seems, however, that at the very moment when clear heads should be working cooperatively at a rational level, the reverse trend is taking place. 

Governments that adopt aggressive, intrusive and inflammatory measures through populist motives should rightly be seen as enemies of the public interest. And – at any cost – freedom of expression must be preserved if we are to contain the hysterical narrative that pushes for outright war.

The most disquieting response to the Paris killings unfolded in Britain, where terrorism rhetoric became so intense that Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was persuaded to abandon a forthcoming speech questioning the UK’s military approach to IS.

The speech, which he had been set to deliver on 14 November, would have suggested that British bombing operations against IS in Iraq had contributed to the increased terror threat. Extracts from the speech released in advance indicated he would have used his strongest language yet to criticise the UK’s involvement in the fight against IS.

Even if Corbyn’s alternative non-military negotiation approach was to be utterly discredited, repressing discussion of that option will merely fuel further polarisation across society. With Britain now gearing up to a war footing on terrorism, open dialogue about the full spectrum of options is needed more than ever.

Of course, talking up the need for war will provide the UK – and any other country – with all the justification it needs for new measures for surveillance and control. The draft Investigatory Powers Bill which was to have been carefully considered by the UK parliament over the coming months may well, in the present climate, be fast-tracked. As happened to Corbyn, Peers and MP’s who might otherwise have applied reason and logic to the bill’s more ludicrous and extreme provisions might now be “persuaded” to unquestioningly support the prevailing view that at a time of war, the government should be provided with whatever armoury it requests. Of course little is said of the failure of intelligence agencies – only a raft of excuses about why they continuously fail. In the false logic of government, a discredited security architecture can be made better by adding further layers of failed processes. That rationale should no longer be tolerated.

For too long, security services have been allowed to make specious and unsupported claims about their successes. If rights are at stake, the bar needs to be raised so an evidence based approach is required. If the intelligence leaders cannot provide this, they should be removed.

There is only limited hope that Europe’s bulwark of rights protections will have a restraining influence on such measures. Sovereign rights still reign supreme in the EU. And at a time of conflict, nations have many new arrows in their legislative quiver.

True, some of the current measures such as border checks are supposed to be only temporary, but aggressive action by the likes of France and the UK could well trigger a substantial overhaul of Europe’s protections of some fundamental rights. Freedom of movement together with core elements of privacy rights might well be at imminent risk.

The only sane way through this situation is for all parties – and this includes rights groups and liberal thinkers – to adopt an approach based on a solid foundation of reason and evidence. Without such an approach, there is a real risk that Europe could be caught up in a sort of post-9/11 syndrome which puts security rhetoric above reason.

If, for example, just one of the identity documents discovered after the Paris attacks is found to be fake, there will inevitably be a call for random real-time identity checking across Europe – similar to the regime operated by Czech police. If any connection whatever can be determined between the attacks and electronic communications, data retention could be universally re-introduced along with added layers of intrusion envisioned in the UK. This part of the world would never be the same again. And of course if it is established that any of the attackers had entered Greece or wherever as an asylum seeker, we can expect the evolution of Fortress Europe.

Governments that adopt aggressive, intrusive and inflammatory measures through populist motives should rightly be seen as enemies of the public interest. And – at any cost – freedom of expression must be preserved if we are to contain the hysterical narrative that pushes for outright war.

It’s critically important that we all consider a rational approach to the challenges our nations face. Without such a clear-headed approach, societies will be torn apart through fear and suspicion. Britain and France should know that effect more than most.

As one of my new-found acquaintances on the train from Malmo observed, “Brussels and Stockholm have just thrown us Swedes to the wolves. No-one will protect us”.

Worryingly, all his friends nodded in agreement. Even more worrying, passengers at the next table overhearing the conversation nearly provoked a fist fight on the matter. This is not the Sweden I remember from the past, and it’s not a fate that Europe needs to embrace.