The ongoing march of the EU’s security-industrial complex

31 Agosto 2017

A new report, Market Forces, tracks the last decade of EU attempts to build a homeland security economy, using advanced technology as the ‘most promising solution’ to a multitude of ‘threats’.

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The EU has hit troubled waters in recent years, but divisions and tensions within the bloc have not halted significant advances in the development and implementation of new security measures aiming to counter terrorism, fight crime, ensure “border management” and protect critical infrastructure at the same time as constructing a European “homeland security” economy able to compete with states such as the USA, Israel and China.

Propelled by a healthy dose of corporate influence and assistance, measures already in place or on the way include the EU-wide border surveillance system Eurosur; a new network of ‘Passenger Information Units’ for police profiling of air and, in the future, rail and ferry passengers; biometric databases and recognition and identification systems for public and private use alike; and new data-mining and predictive analysis tools that foresee police forces wielding powers akin to those traditionally reserved for intelligence agencies.

Such proposals would be unsavoury at any time – but in the context of governments of all stripes normalising emergency powers, extending the scale and scope of state surveillance, introducing restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and cutting back on procedural rights in the criminal justice system – these give particular cause for concern.

Big ideas, big money

Market Forces, a new report published by Statewatch and the Transnational Institute (TNI), puts the EU’s security funds and strategies under the microscope, examining in detail the European Security Research Programme (ESRP, worth €1.7 billion) and the Internal Security Fund (ISF, worth €3.8 billion), which sit alongside a host of other budgets that together add up to some €11 billion.

It was in the early years of the twenty-first century that the EU first began providing significant funds for the development of new “homeland security” technologies, based on an all-encompassing vision of security seeking to combat a seemingly limitless number of “threats” – from graffiti and petty crime to terrorism and natural disasters – and displaying a marked tendency to treat the entire population (European but especially non-European) as potential objects of suspicion that must be constantly surveilled, monitored, checked and “neutralised” where necessary.

One instrumental budget in implementing this vision at the borders was the 2007-13 €1.8 billion External Borders Fund (EBF), which financed the purchase of thousands of vehicles, hundreds of surveillance systems (covering thousands of kilometres of the EU’s borders), thousands of gadgets such as night vision goggles and thermal imaging gear – all in the name of implementing the EU’s “border management” model, with increasingly deadly results for migrants and refugees.

The EBF has been followed up with the €2.5 billion Internal Security Fund – Borders and Visas, whose counterpart (Internal Security Fund – Police) is worth just over €1 billion. Under this fund, national programmes were agreed between Member States and the Commission before the legislation was even approved by the European Parliament.

It offers novelties such as “data analysis and phishing of web content and social network sites” (Hungary), the purchase of IMSI catchers and internet monitoring systems (Croatia), “gathering information using new IT capabilities” (Romania), and the development of detection and analysis tools with the aim of predicting future crimes (Greece and Malta). Further technologies for use by national and EU authorities are to be developed by the €1.7 billion ESRP.

Suspicious minds

This vision has been heavily influenced by military and security corporations whose profits depend on a world of suspicions, fears and threats – and who have not only been major beneficiaries of EU security spending, but have also been given an unprecedented role in designing the ESRP, from which they have acquired significant funds.

Major corporate recipients of EU security research funding between 2007 and December 2016 include:

  • French arms giants Thales (€33.1 million, 72 projects) and Airbus (€14.2 million, €3.6 million, 34 projects);
  • Spanish companies Indra (€12.3 million for 16 projects) and Atos (€7.6 million ,16 projects)
  • Selex, a former subsidiary of Italian weapons producer Finmeccanica (now renamed Leonardo) which received €23.2 million for 54 projects between 2007 and 2013.

Leading the way for the UK has been BAE Systems, which has pocketed some €6.2 million for its role in 11 projects. Private companies, large and small alike, have taken over €745.5 million from the security research budget between 2007 and December 2016, some 43% of the total.

Major research institutes have also benefited massively from EU security research funding – for example, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute (almost €66 million for its role in over 100 projects between 2007 and 2016), the Netherlands-based TNO (€33.6 million, 61 projects), the Swedish Defence Research Institute (€33.5 million, 56 projects) and France’s Commissariat à l'énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEAS, over €22 million, 46 projects).

Sowing and reaping

Both transnational corporations and major research institutes have, alongside representatives of EU and national security agencies, long played a prominent role in the Protection and Security Advisory Group (PASAG), a European Commission advisory group which helps set the priorities for the security research work programmes.

Although the group has long played host to representatives from the arms, security and technology industries (Thales, Morpho, Airbus, Finmeccanica, Selex) and research institutes (Fraunhofer, TNO), the Commission is currently working towards ““a slight overall increase of industry representation.” The most significant move so far has been to appoint Alberto de Benedictis, a former senior employee at Finmeccanica and chairman of arms industry lobby group ASD, as PASAG chair.

Other paths for corporate influence are also well-trodden. The European Organisation for Security (EOS), the chief lobby group for Europe’s “security industry” has a declared annual lobbying expenditure of hundreds of thousands of euros, and has in recent years ensured continued close contacts between public and private officials in high-level policy forums and through more discreet meetings.

Last summer, meanwhile, an EOS-led group, the European Cyber Security Organisation, was awarded significant influence over the design of the EU’s cybersecurity research agenda as part of a “public-private partnership” to which the EU has committed €450 million.

Under the industrial influence

The level of corporate influence over EU security policy-making is no accident: one of the core objectives of EU security policy is to ensure industry profits. As the Commission once put it: “A competitive EU security industry is the conditio sine qua non of any viable European security policy and for economic growth in general.”

And while there is frequent talk of the need to ensure a “true internal market for security” in the EU – amplifying the ability of transnational corporations to sell to multiple governments at once – it seems that a market in the traditional sense is not what is on offer. As a 2014 study for the European Parliament noted with regard to certain public-private collaboration schemes being established through the ESRP:

“In sharp contrast with the idea of shaping a security market… the underlying idea here seems to be the promotion of a non-market commercial relation between the 'security industry' and public sector customers.

As EOS itself has highlighted: “security is often in a position of market failure,” where “the allocation of goods and services by a free market is not efficient”. The industry’s dependence on public funds and political support is thus giving rise to some novel governance structures – a boon for the industry, which considers that it should have a far greater role in determining public policy.

One clear example of the development of new “governance” structures is in the efforts to ensure total surveillance of the EU’s sea borders. The European Maritime Safety Agency is currently renting drones and data analysis capacity from private companies through a series of multi-million euro contracts. This is precisely the kind of activity that has been advocated by the PASAG (in its previous guise as the Secure Societies Advisory Group, SAG), which called for:

“new governance models with varied stakeholders. This should help develop security capabilities that would otherwise be unaffordable or impractical… Other models should also be tested to alleviate the acquisition burdens [i.e. equipment, training and personnel costs] of the operators, by transferring the responsibility to acquire and operate capability to the private sector.”

From the militarisation of civil security to the militarisation of the EU

The EU’s security project is also deliberately blurring the line between civilian and military technologies. While legal obligations require projects to have “an exclusive focus on civil applications,” the Commission has rendered this meaningless with its intention to “evaluate how the results [of research projects] could benefit also defence and security industrial capabilities,” thus attempting to identify much sought-after “synergies” between civilian and military technologies.

These initiatives are being capped with moves towards a dedicated military research budget, with a €90 million “pilot project” currently under way – exactly as was recommended by a high-level ‘Group of Personalities’ convened by the Commission and drawn primarily from the arms industry.

The next steps are more ambitious. In June the European Commission proposed a ‘European Defence Fund’ that from 2020 onwards foresees €1.5 billion in annual funding from the EU and Member States for the research and development of new military technologies, in order to enhance Europe’s “strategic autonomy” so that it can “face tomorrow’s threats and… protect its citizens.”

This will come alongside a renewed security research programme, and arms industry lobby group ASD is hoping that both are well-financed – it has noted that “one of the main challenges” will be “to avoid that currently envisaged funding for defence research will come along with a reduction of funding for security research.”

Democratic deficit and the demand for new visions of security

Throughout the development of Europe’s security agenda, there has been a consistent pattern of democracy playing catch-up to money, corporate influence and a belief that we can never have too much high-tech “security”.

Consider, for example, the development of border surveillance system Eurosur, PNR passenger profiling systems, and the “smart borders” project that will require the fingerprinting of all non-EU citizens. All were helped along by EU funding long before legislation on them was approved or even proposed. Given the far-reaching nature of these projects and the need for a robust discussion on how to prevent human rights being superseded by security objectives, this lack of democratic accountability is deeply disturbing.

The need for compliance with fundamental rights, democratic values and ethical standards has long been noted in the multitude of EU documents on security research. Criticisms of the security research agenda that emerged in the early years of the ESRP have led to more stringent ethical checks, alongside increased funding for less technologically-determined, more socially-focused research.

Yet these modifications cannot overcome the political environment and objectives by which EU security policy is framed. As argued in a report for the ESRP-funded SURPRISE project:

“Security policies… have increasingly adopted a conceptual approach to security problems that is strongly solution-driven and tends to neglect the variety and complexity of social, economic, technical and political factors that may have caused those security problems in the first place.”

This “solution-driven” approach was perhaps best summed-up by a drone manufacturer at an EU conference some years ago: “’You’re quite right’, [they] acknowledged to Statewatch at a drone conference, ‘we don’t actually know what the problem is; we just know that the solution is UAVs’.”

However, despite the money invested so far by the EU, the sought-after “solutions” have not always been forthcoming. For example, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) reported in 2014 that the External Borders Fund had been ineffective, seriously deficient and misspent by national governments, while the formal evaluation of the 2007-2013 ESRP found that very few of the projects looked likely to result in concrete products (only 11% even reported a patent application).

At the same time, the ESRP evaluation declared that the most important results of the research programme were to be found in the development of a Europe-wide security research community bringing together state officials, researchers and corporate representatives. It remains to be seen whether the current incarnation of the ESRP (which runs from 2014 to 2020) will see greater deployment of new security “solutions” – but by the time a thorough evaluation has taken place, the next programme (2021-27) will likely be in full swing.

Need for a new approach

It is clear that Europe faces major challenges, from the increase in terrorist attacks to the growing impact of climate change, that require collective responses. The question is whether they require the responses offered so far: extraordinary legal and policy measures combined with the development and deployment of new surveillance and control technologies often based on ideas of hierarchical command-and-control.

The staggering advances in computing power, data storage, analytical systems and networked devices in the last two decades offer massive potential to liberate and empower individuals and to democratise societies. At the same time, the possibilities they offer for enhancing the repressive powers of states against those deemed unwanted or undesirable – through biometric identification, predictive policing systems, “less-lethal” weaponry, or the use of drones and other remote technologies – are truly frightening.

In July 2017 a wide variety of civil society organisations published an initial position paper on future EU research policy, noting that “the research that is prioritised and funded today will have a decisive impact on the future of our societies and our planet.” In relation to security research, it called for the Commission to ensure that the programme “institutes a meaningful balance between innovative security technologies on the one hand and research into fundamental rights, alternatives and root causes on the other.”

However, this is not something that will be achieved simply by asking politely. Billions of euros in research funding is at stake. Discussions on the next research budget (as well as all other EU budgetary proposals) will begin soon – the Commission is currently preparing its proposal for the 2021-27 security research programme, which will be sent to the Council of the EU (national governments) and the European Parliament to reach their positions before entering negotiations. The EU has long been committed to ensuring fundamental rights and civil liberties on paper – there is now a once-in-seven-years opportunity.

There is thus a significant opportunity for progressive political forces across Europe to demand a new approach to security research (not to mention other research themes) as well as new priorities in the funding of security policies. The EU has long been committed to ensuring fundamental rights and civil liberties on paper – there is now a once-in-seven-years opportunity to ensure that research and policy funds are used to put that commitment into practice.