Author: Alessandro Rosanò, University of Florence, Italy

On 15 September 2021, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, delivered the 2021 State of the European Union (SOTEU) address. As it is known, the SOTEU is the speech that the President of the European Commission addresses to the European Parliament every year in September. It was introduced by the Framework Agreement on relations between the European Parliament and the European Commission that was concluded by the two institutions in 2010. As provided for under Annex VI to the Framework Agreement, the SOTEU’s purpose is to ensure transparency in the European Union (EU)‘s decision-making process. By giving this speech, the President of the European Commission clarifies what has been done so far and what are the main challenges ahead.

In her 2021 speech, von der Leyen focused on some key issues for the EU and the world, such as the fight against COVID, climate change, and the ongoing Afghan crisis. However, there is another point that should be taken into careful consideration, as it may lead to a significant development in the European integration process.

According to von der Leyen, the EU Member States need a European Defence Union, which means that the EU should have its own military force. For this to happen, some solid foundations are required, and those foundations can be found in an improved form of intelligence cooperation between the national competent authorities. That means that those authorities should share their knowledge with each other in order for all of them to rely on a picture as much complete as possible when calling the shots. To this end, a Joint Situational Awareness Centre (JSAC) should be established, stressed von der Leyen, which would “fuse all the different pieces of information.“

Nothing else was said by the President of the European Commission in this regard but, should this project come to life, it would be an unprecedented step forward for the EU and its Member States.

In fact, at the time being, the EU has already established its own Intelligence and Situation Centre (EU INTCEN), which is a directorate of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and works as a civilian analytic structure. Thus, it provides intelligence analysis to the High Representative of the EU but it is not an intelligence service as it has no intelligence collection powers. As a matter of fact, the EU INTCEN relies on intelligence from the Member States‘ services.

On the military side, the EU can rely on the EU Military Staff (EUMS), which forms part of the EEAS too and performs similar tasks. Furthermore, one should remember the European Union Satellite Centre (SatCen), a body that works under the supervision of the EEAS as well and provides intelligence based on images made commercially available by satellites.

However, the project envisaged by von der Leyen seems to be far more ambitious, as it might lead to the creation of a body that would receive intelligence from national intelligence services, elaborate a complete picture, and share that information with the national agencies, which would prove very useful.

In recent years, in fact, intelligence services have been heavily criticised for some operational failures and deficiencies, such as not sharing intelligence with each other or sharing partial information only. In this respect, as confirmed in the 2020 Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU, the European Commission has already expressed its commitments towards an enhanced dialogue between intelligence services. An improved cooperation would make it possible not simply to counter terrorist and extremist violence, but also and most importantly to anticipate it. Then, intelligence sharing would prove key, as it would lead to better threat assessment procedures and a better working counter-terrorism policy.

Definitely, it is too soon to make an attempt at a thorough and comprehensive analysis, as the details provided so far are too few. Trying to draw some comparisons might prove difficult, too. Considering what we know, the von der Leyen’s proposal might be reminiscent of the Frontex Risk Analysis Network (FRAN), a cooperation framework that connects Frontex, the EU agency tasked with border management, and the Member States. The FRAN makes it possible for the Member State border-control authorities to share data on their activity and, based on that intelligence, it produces reports on irregular migration at the EU external borders.

Perhaps, the JSAC might work in a similar fashion. Only time will tell.

The path ahead does not seem free from obstacles, though. Intelligence-related activities have been seen as a typical expression of national sovereignty; thus, it is unlikely that the Member States are going to agree easily on the project.