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Rights Versus Fear

Is Europe going to sacrifice individual freedom and its liberal constitutions to increase and promote security?

Rights Versus Fear
Rights Versus Fear

In the aftermath of the terrible bloodshed in Paris, tension is rising. All over Europe controls and surveillance are increasing. Following the speculation of an imminent terrorist attack in Brussels, the city has been shut down. Last weekend the streets of Brussels were deserted and most of the public spaces had been closed. Pubs, movie theaters, concert halls were kept closed under preemptive measures. With a massive number of army agents surveying sensitive spots, many feel that war has broken in the European capital.

On social media, many of my friends living in Brussels expressed their uneasiness, posting pictures of empty streets and closed bars. Some were complaining about this extreme climate of fear and paranoia in which they could not find any place to go on a Saturday night. In the same way, controls have been increased in all the major European cities. Last week several football games had been canceled for safety reasons. Many believe that this is just an extreme and temporary reaction after a great shock, but what if it is just the beginning of a new security consensus around Europe?

Politicians keep on saying that fear is not going to win, that business will continue as usual and that Europeans are united in fighting terrorism. Yet, this is far from reality. Each politician fears a terrorist attack and even if on the surface it is reassuring to his people, in reality, it is already plotting to reduce the risks. In this chaos, ends justify means. Europe finds itself at a turning point in its history. Like the US in the aftermath of 9/11 Europe has to take serious decisions to protect its liberal democracies. In 2001 it was Al Qaeda, today it is Daesh (ISIS). Under the risk of terrorism, the US approved the "Patriot act", a very controversial bill that severally limited individual freedom to protect national security and democracy. This act legitimized NSA and PRIMS, marking the beginning of mass surveillance.

Is Europe going to sacrifice individual freedom and its liberal constitutions to increase and promote security? European leaders seem to hold different positions and they are planning to tackle the emergency with different measures.

French President Francois Hollande declared that he will do everything it takes to stop terror: he believes that a strong reaction is necessary to defend the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality. In the wake of the Paris attack he approved a state of emergency of three months in which normal executives, legislative and judiciary functions are suspended. Furthermore, he declared that the current constitution is outdated to tackle current challenges and must be amended in order to protect the country and tighten security powers. Following a threat to national security, France unilaterally conducted several airstrikes in Syria. Doing so, it neglected international democratic principles, creating a dangerous precedent.

On a similar note, UK PM David Cameron declared to the BBC that the Investigatory Powers Bills should be discussed and approved as soon as possible. In a nutshell, the bill seeks to facilitate investigation, particularly by giving security agencies easy access to our online history and de facto forcing companies to give access to encrypted data. Whistleblower Edward Snowden called that bill "the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West". Cameron also declared that more resources will be allocated to boost security spending.

A different approach was taken by Italian PM Matteo Renzi. He declared that his government will not push for new special laws to fight terrorists. He said that the solutions should be found using the existing laws and that fear should not dictate decisions. Yet, he supported the use of very intrusive new technologies to tackle what he called an "unconventional war" and argued that the solutions should be found with European intelligence agencies. Among others, he believes that it is essential to increase cooperation and coordination among European intelligence agencies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not yet declared anything in regard to special laws or new measures to tackle this emergency. Like the other leaders, she supported tougher security controls. Nonetheless, in the past the German government has been generally less supportive of intrusive surveillance laws compared to other countries and a sudden change should not be expected.

Another major problem is that the exceptional measures that have been enacted in the aftermath of Paris can have devastating effect on the European federalist project. In order to protect their nations most of the European leaders have closed their borders and re-established check-points, de facto suspending the Schengen agreement on freedom of movement. The terrorist attack has also damaged the already weak consensus on the refugee crisis. Following the great risk of terrorist smuggling among refugees, nations are becoming extremely reluctant to accept any on them. Cooperation among European countries is slowly reaching a new low.

On the other hand, there is a growing need to share information among intelligence agencies to form a coherent and comprehensive strategy. Interior minister agreed on Friday to share more information about sensitive individuals, but failed to commit to wider coordination. The proposal of a European intelligence agency was met with skepticism and reluctance to further give up and decentralise power.

On the other side of the Atlantic, CIA director John Brennan talked of Paris as a "wake up call". He argued that citizens should acknowledge that surveillance is in their own interest and ideological opposition can result in terrible tragedies. He further condemned unbreakable encryption in technology, hoping for a policy shift on the matter.

The debate on exceptional security measures is just about to begin and many twists can be expected in the next few months. The outcome of this debate is extremely important and will affect the amount of freedom and security enjoyed by European citizens. Yet, it will also affect the stability and the future of the European Union.

Several reports show how especially Muslim minorities and refugees living in Europe will be negatively affected by security restrictions and surveillance. Already living on the margins of society, stigmatisation and rage against these communities could further increase radicalisation. Solidarity should be the answer.

It is important to make conscious and thoughtful decisions. The debate should not be dominated by fear and hatred against terrorism and Muslims. European citizens should take into account their democratic values before committing to any extreme measure that resembles a "patriot act". Terrorism is not going to be defeated with mass surveillance: targeted operations are certainly part of the solution. More importantly, it should not be used as an excuse to increase surveillance by governments. To give up freedom in order to gain "some" security is something that can destroy the same democracy we want to save. Rights must be stronger than fear.

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