EU: EU police special forces network to become "more and more useful" and to receive increased financial support

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The European network of national police special forces units that goes under the name of Atlas is to receive an increase in funding from the European Commission and, according to the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, will "prove more and more useful" in the future.

The objectives of the Atlas network are to "ensure and develop cooperation between special intervention units, develop the European communication platform, develop operational procedural on European level in case of large scale crisis." Its motto is "all together to protect you". [1]

The group was set up after the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001 and later formalised by a 2008 Council Decision which envisaged the increased usage of "special intervention units" in "man-made crisis situations presenting a serious direct physical threat to persons, property, infrastructure or institutions, in particular hostage taking, hijacking and similar events." The legislation governing the Atlas network does not cover "mass gatherings, natural disasters or serious accidents". [2] A secure communications network for the group is maintained by Europol. [3]

Atlas has five internal working groups, dealing with ships, aircraft, buildings, transport and penetration, each one of which "works to make the intervention of the special units more effective." [4]

More money

A representative of the European Commission told the Terrorism Working Party on 30 July that "it was planning to increase the financial support", [5] although it is currently unknown by how much. In the last seven years Atlas has already seen its income from the Commission increas by around 500%.

In 2006 the group received €225,000 under the ISEC (Prevention of and Fight against Crime) funding programme, [6] an amount that had grown to over €1.1 million in 2012. Atlas receives money from funds dedicated to "monopoly" projects, along with other European law enforcement networks such as Aquapol (waterways police), Tispol (road police) and Railpol (railway police). The application for the 2012 Commission grant was made by a number of EU Member States' authorities:

  • Austria: the EKO Cobra (Einsatzkommando Cobra) unit, part of the interior ministry;
  • Belgium: the CGSU (Commissariaat-Generaal Special Units);
  • France: the RAID (Recherce Assistance Intervention Dissuasion) unit, part of the French national police and the Groupe d'intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN);
  • Germany: the GSG9 (Grenzschutzgruppe 9 der Bundespolizei, Border Protection Group 9) unit of the Federal Police;
  • The Netherlands: National Police Services Agency or KLPD (Korps landelijke politiediensten). [7]

    It is unclear when - if ever - the Atlas network has been deployed to deal with a real crisis situation, but it has undertaken numerous exercises. In some cases these seem surreal: the most recent joint exercise, undertaken in April and touted in a press release as "the most complex preparation and crises response simulation so far at European level" saw national special forces units deal with "simultaneous terrorist attacks in 9 different EU Member States" on three different modes of transport: trains, buses and ships.

    Terrorist attacks in recent years in Mumbai, Algeria and Boston were cited by the Commission as highlighting "the need to increase protection against attacks on both critical infrastructures and other public areas in a national and cross-border context," with EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström saying that "cooperation between police authorities in Europe is more necessary now than ever and I welcome the exercise of the Atlas network." [8]

    The Counter-Terrorism Coordinator (CTC), Gilles de Kerchove, was quoted in a separate press release as saying that:

    "I have supported the Atlas idea since I came into office in 2007. I have regularly stressed the importance of Atlas in my annual reporting to the Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs and to the European Council. I think this is a key area in which the EU can provide support for operational cooperation between the Member STates in facing and reacting to a large scale terrorist attack." [9]

    The promise of increased funding seems to tie in with plans for increased operational cooperation amongst Member States' special forces. As noted above, the CTC told the Terrorism Working Party that "Atlas was a valuable tool that would prove more and more useful also externally".

    However the legal framework currently only permits action on EU territory subject to the permission of the government of the Member State on whose territory there is a crisis situation - there is no EU legal framework for the group to take any form of external action.

    The solidarity clause

    The CTC also said at the July meeting that "the possible use of Atlas in the context of the solidarity clause should also be explored." The 'solidarity clause' is known more formally as Article 222 of the Lisbon Treaty and says that:

    "The Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster. The Union shall mobilise all the instruments at its disposal, including the military resources made available to Member States."

    A Council Decision is required to implement the clause, and with this aim in mind the European Commission and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign and Security Policy issued a joint legislative proposal in December 2012. [10] MEPs have raised concerns that the clause could be used to deal social unrest or strikes, [11], and it is also possible that the implementing legislation may lead to the reinforcement of the EU's security and intelligence bodies. [12]

    Recent developments have seen the Council call for Member States to "take into account cybersecurity issues in light of ongoing work on the solidarity clause", [13] but there is no clear information on how the Atlas network fits into the proposals. In June 2012 the Austrian delegation to the Council suggested that:

    "Upon request of the Member States concerned, the other Member State(s) could deploy support units on the legal basis of e.g. the 'Prüm Decisions' and/or the 'ATLAS Decision'. Where necessary, COSI [the Standing Committee on Operation Cooperation on Internal Security] could facilitate the operational cooperation." [14]

    Details of the forthcoming Decision are still being debated in the Council. [15] The European Parliament merely has to be kept "informed" and will have no binding say.

    [1] FTS Publication Preview - Grants awarded
    [2] Council Decision 2008/617/JHA
    [3] General Report on Europol's activities in 2012, p.28
    [4] Seminar of the ATLAS network of European special intervention units
    [5] Terrorism Working Party, Summary of discussions, 12650/13, 25 July 2013
    [6] Commission staff working paper: Taking stock of EU Counter-Terrorism Measures Accompanying document to the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: The EU Counter-Terrorism Policy: main achievements and future challenges
    [7] ISEC grants awarded 2012
    [8] European Commission press release: The ATLAS Network prepares for the biggest anti-terrorism exercise at EU level
    [9] Council press release: Atlas common challenge 2013: "All together to protect you!"
    [10] Joint proposal for a Council Decision on the arrangements for the implementation by the Union of the Solidarity Clause
    [11] EU: Solidarity or militarisation? Proposed 'solidarity clause' legislation criticised for lack of clarity and "encouraging armament"
    [12] EU: Implementing the "solidarity clause": EU secret service to be reinforced?
    [13] Council conclusions on the Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joint Communication on the Cybersecurity Strategy of the European Union: An Open, Safe and Secure Cyberspace
    [14] Implementation of Article 222 TFEU (Solidarity Clause) - Views of the Austrian Delegation
    [15] Outcome of proceedings of the Friends of the Presidency Group (on the CCA Review and on the Solidarity Clause Implementation) - Discussion on the
    Solidarity Clause Implementation - 20 March 2013
    , Presidency progress report on the handling within the Council of the Joint proposal for a Council Decision on the arrangements for the implementation by the Union of the Solidarity Clause

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