Britain's failure to get its allies to join in tough action against Syria underscores once more how difficult it is for West Europe to act together decisively on terrorism. In the end, the only comfort for Britain at Monday's meeting of the European Community was an expression of support for London's decision to expel Syrian diplomats. But unanimity was not possible even on the minimal issue of refusing to accept the expelled Syrian diplomats anywhere else in Europe. Greece would not go along with such a measure.
Yet, experts on European terrorism say, while political consensus is vital to stamping out terrorism, lack of political cooperation should not obscure real benefits. These have come largely from greater intelligence sharing among the police and intelligence services in the EC. [See related analysis of hurdles to intelligence-sharing, Page 8.]
As part of a provision under the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, Britain and Ireland are working much more closely on combatting terrorism. And Spain and France are cooperating to deal more effectively with Basque separatists. Experts say joint efforts such as these have been instrumental in several important breakthroughs in recent months, including the interception in France of an arms shipment for Irish terrorists, and the arrest of members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Amsterdam.
But such successes are often dwarfed by reports of fresh terrorist outrages or by political failure to take stronger measures.
For the British, the Luxembourg meeting, if anything, represents a step backward in the diplomatic arena. ``[Monday's] meeting and the evidence of Syrian involvement was really a litmus test of what has been said and agreed not only within the Community, but also at the Tokyo [meeting this April] at which the Germans, the French, and the Italians were also present,'' says a British official.
He sees it as a retreat from the decision taken last April at The Hague when the EC, under United States prodding, was galvanized into adopting punitive sanctions against Libya. This followed the US raid on Libya in retaliation for what the US regarded was Libyan complicity in European terrorism.
But at Luxembourg, the Greeks, who had been prepared to go along with the 12 at The Hague and cut down the size of their Libyan embassy, were not prepared to make common cause and refused to go along with the ban on expelled Syrian diplomats.
Yet one European diplomat feels the British need to put the matter into perspective: ``It's not that we don't support the British moves, but what advantage can be [gained] when none of the EC partners can speak to Syria?'' he asked, hypothesizing on what would happen if all EC nations broke diplomatic relations with Syria. Syria is widely regarded as the cornerstone of any possible Middle East settlement.
According to Prof. William Gutteridge of the Centre for Security and Conflict Studies in London, the Luxembourg meeting ``neatly exposes the limits of the European concern to terrorism in the sense that where their self interests are involved -- that is to say hostages and trade -- apparent national interest overrides the obligation for international action. To some extent, the same is true of the United States, which might otherwise have severed diplomatic relations with Syria, but which valued the Syrian connection for diplomatic purposes.''
Europe's reluctance to tangle with Syria is likely to boomerang, according to Prof. Paul Wilkinson, a recognized international authority on terrorism, from Aberdeen University in Scotland.
He suggests that Europe may be sending the wrong signal to Syria by letting Syria believe it has a policy it can get away with by saying, in effect: ``We consider you too big and too important to be penalized.''
But later, at a panel discussion on terrorism at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Professor Wilkinson echoed the view that lack of commitment on the diplomatic level does not mean that Europe has failed to take effective action against terrorism.
The coordination among police and intelligence chiefs in Europe, Wilkinson said, had resulted in ``real achievements which are quite exceptional in the international situation.'' Practical cooperation in these areas is possible through the Trevi Group of EC interior and justice ministers, first set up in 1976 to provide Europe with a framework of coordination on legal and police measures.
And at an emergency meeting called by France in London last month, the group's ministers agreed on all European police forces sharing a new central communications hot line which would rapidly exchange information on the movement of terrorists. They also decided on broader extradition agreements, stricter visa regimes, and a review of airport security.
Wilkinson says international cooperation has delivered successes in terms of actually identifying terrorist cells and apprehending terrorists in foreign countries.
At the same time diplomats believe Europe's terrorism fight faces considerable legal and tecnhical difficulties. ``It's hard for technicians to sit down and reconcile computer [coding] with say Greece and London, The Hague and Bonn,'' a West German diplomat says.
But in the end, says a British official, the political commitment at the top in Europe has to be there. ``It is there, but it's very patchy.'' he says.