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EU states resist moves towards joint intelligence work

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU interior ministers agreed on Friday to share more information about European nationals who return after fighting in Iraq or Syria, but failed to commit to any wider co-ordination of intelligence services following the Paris attacks.

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir - RTX1TN36

The Nov. 13 shootings and bombings in the French capital, which killed 129 people, exposed gaps in Europe’s defences against militants. The suspected mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had mocked frontier controls and boasted of the ease with which he could move between Syria to his Belgian homeland and the rest of Europe.

Ahead of the extraordinary meeting of EU interior and justice ministers in Brussels, the bloc’s Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said the EU executive would propose a joint “European intelligence agency”.

But while ministers agreed to step up exchanges of information on so-called foreign fighters, they fell short of making clear commitments towards wider information-sharing or of co-ordinating the work of national intelligence services, let alone setting up a joint agency.

“We have not overcome yet the hurdle of the exchanges among intelligence services,” Luxembourg’s Interior Minister Etienne Schneider told a news conference at the end of the extraordinary meeting.

“We will go back to this issue in our next meeting in December,” said Schneider, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

The main parties of the European Parliament had called on ministers to agree on closer intelligence co-operation.

“The investigation into the Paris attacks has outlined some lack of cooperation by intelligence services in the member states. A national approach alone in the intelligence field is clearly not sufficient,” said Manfred Weber, head of the centre-right political group, the largest in the European Parliament.

The leader of the liberal party in the EU Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, has repeatedly urged EU states to set up a joint intelligence agency since the militant attacks on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the priority was to step up exchanges of information among national intelligence services, rather than setting up a joint agency.

“A European intelligence service is something that would take a lot of time, while the fight against terrorism is something to do immediately,” he told journalists after the meeting.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Pravin Char