Carmelo Abela says Brussels bombings are an attack on European values

Home affairs minister calls for unity amongst member states to fight the threat of terrorism both from within and without the EU

Home affairs minister Carmelo Abela said that the attacks in Brussels on Tuesday “are attacks against our European values and we need to stand together as Europeans with full solidarity between us.”

Terrorist attacks on Tuesday 22nd March, at Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station, in Brussels claimed some 35 lives and injured hundreds others, including one Maltese national.

Speaking at an extraordinary meeting of EU justice and security ministers held just up the road from the Maalbeek metro station (where one of the attacks took place), Abela joined his counterparts in condemning the despicable attacks on innocent civilians.

Calling the day a “black day for Europe,” Abela expressed the solidarity of the Maltese people with Belgium and all  those affected by the tragedy.

“The attack demonstrated the transnational nature of terrorism which in itself requires a holistic and unified approach amongst EU Member States and its allies,” he said.

"It also threatens to maim our spirit, change our way of life, limit the freedoms we take for granted, and imperil 60 years of European integration," he said, adding that it was one of the "darkest hours" for Europe.

"Our common values - respect for human dignity and rights, liberty, democracy, equality, and the rule of law – are under attack."

The ministers plainly expressed their commitment to speeding up the implementation of a number of measures aimed at making steady headway on the fight against international terrorism.

A statement listing a series of measures the EU will adopt is expected to be finalized soon, after it was unanimously adopted by ministers at the meeting.

Abela welcomed the text of the joint statement and added that Malta stands fully committed to do its utmost to cooperate with European and international partners in identifying and eliminating international terrorist cells and financing.

Among the measures, member states have pledged to further build upon the combined national efforts to investigate, as a matter of urgency, the networks involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks and other similar networks.

"We also stressed the need to adopt the Passenger Name Record Directive, that would oblige airlines to hand EU countries their passengers' data in order to help the authorities to fight terrorism and serious crime, starting from next month," Abela said in a statement.

The statement further explained that member states had decided to swiftly complete legislation on combating terrorism, systematic checks at external borders of the Schengen area, control of the acquisition and possession of firearms, and the extension of the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS) to third country nationals.

"The implementation of the action plan to fight terrorism financing, a fight against document fraud and the full implementation of existing EU rules on explosive precursors as well as further cooperation in the field of counter terrorism between the EU and Turkey and the countries of North Africa, the Middle East and the Western Balkans."

Member states further undertook to share information with transport authorities and operators as appropriate, so that risk assessments can be conducted in an effective and efficient manner, to mitigate measures that can be adapted as necessary, to potential threats to transport. 

"We will also increase, without further delay, the systematic feeding and consistent use and interoperability of European and international databases in the fields of security, travel, and migration by making full use of technological developments and including privacy safeguards."

Abela added that the Commission will present a communication on smart borders and interoperability, in the coming weeks.

"The EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, the Presidency, the Commission and experts will join forces to submit, by June, concrete deliverables particularly to improve the collection, checking and connecting of information in the field of counter terrorism," the statement reads.

Abela added that a priority will be securing and obtaining digital evidence more quickly and effectively by intensifying cooperation with third countries and with service providers that are active on European territory, in order to improve compliance with EU and member states legislation and direct contact with law enforcement authorities.

"When the Council meets in June, it will identify concrete measures to address this complex matter," he said, adding that the EU would continue to develop effective preventive measures, especially by improving early detection of signs of radicalisation at the local level, and intensifying work to counter terrorist propaganda and develop robust rehabilitation programmes.

"Since the establishment of Daesh, Islamist radicalisation has been observed not only in traditionally Muslim countries but perhaps more so in the Western world, particularly Europe. Thousands of radicals born and bred in Europe have gone to Syria to fight under the black flag, and many have returned in our midst," he said.

"The highly professional propaganda developed by Daesh and the increased ease of its dissemination over the internet have been major contributors to this problem which has, in many instances, been the trigger for lone-wolf attacks. They consider themselves warriors, and us Europeans, the “corrupt crusaders”, as their foes. In view of this, Malta is highly supportive of measures - through the Radicalisation Awareness Network - aimed at identifying, preventing and rehabilitating radicalised individuals."

Abela added that Malta had also agreed to fully support the work of the Counter Terrorism Group, a dedicated platform for real time, multilateral information exchange between the security services of European member states, Switzerland and Norway.

"We are also determined to use Joint Investigation Teams more regularly, to coordinate investigations as well as gather and exchange evidence."

"A joint liaison team of national counter-terrorism experts will also be set up at Europol's European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) to support the law enforecement authorities of various member states, in investigating the wider European and international dimensions of the current terrorist threat." 

He added that this team will draw on Europol’s law enforcement capabilities to monitor the threat from foreign fighters, the flows of terrorist financing and illegal firearms, and online propaganda among others.

“Europe needs to make a collective effort not to allow terrorists to remain one step ahead of us,” Abela said, adding that this not only means improving security at Europe’s external border, but also flushing out all terror groups already inside the bloc.

"All EU Member States must stand together in these challenging times to ensure that we guarantee our safety and security without giving up our freedoms," he said, stressing that this is not the time for nationalistic entrenchment, but that it is "a moment that, more than ever before, demands full solidarity amongst the 28-strong bloc."

Abela further stressed the need for Europe to team up with other allies outside the Union, and the need for a holistic and unified approach.

Recalling the context of Holy Week, Abela said that while Europe  is experiencing  its own Passion, it is important to overcome these dark days and rise again by acting together.

During his visit, Abela spoke on the phone with Lorenzo Vella, the Maltese national who was injured during the attack at Brussels airport.