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EU Foreign Ministers Discuss Closer Security Cooperation - 2004-03-22

European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, are trying to come up with an agreement for closer cooperation among their security and judicial authorities in the fight against terrorism. The need for closer European coordination against terrorism has taken on a new urgency following the March 11 Madrid railway bombings that killed more than 200 people.

The European Union has always been good at issuing ringing declarations about how it is going to face up to the terrorist threat. But its record of adopting practical measures like sharing information on terrorist suspects has, so far, not been particularly good.

EU diplomats now say the Madrid bombings have shocked officials into recognizing that none of their countries is safe from terrorists and that they had better adopt uniform practices in dealing with the threat.

The foreign ministers endorsed a decision made last week by EU interior and justice ministers to designate a counter-terrorism coordinator who would report to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

His task, say the diplomats, will be to ensure that the EU has a clearinghouse for all the information that its members' police and intelligence services pick up about potential terrorists.

The idea is that all EU countries should have access to information gleaned, for example, from preserving the record of mobile phone calls and Internet use by terrorist suspects. Member states are also expected to share information about the recruitment, financing and possible foreign connections of potential terrorist cells.

For years, EU countries have talked about taking such steps, but there has been resistance from security agencies, especially in big EU countries, to swapping information with their counterparts elsewhere in the bloc. Some countries, such as Britain and France, worry about intelligence leaks. There are also fears that the counter-terrorism coordinator's office will only increase bureaucracy.

But diplomats say the foreign ministers are determined to take steps toward closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism. The diplomats say that the Olympics in Greece, and the European Cup football championships in Portugal later this year, are targets for terrorists and that nobody wants to see a repeat of the deadly events in Madrid.

One thing the ministers have already done is to threaten to withdraw economic support for countries that the EU considers insufficiently cooperative in the fight against terrorism. An EU aid-and-trade deal with Syria, for example, has been postponed until Syria agrees to an anti-terrorism clause. And negotiations on an EU trade pact with Iran are on hold until Iran comes clean on its nuclear weapons program.