Home / Our news and views / Do overlapping tasks between national police and military forces require an overhaul in how they deal with EU’s internal security?

Do overlapping tasks between national police and military forces require an overhaul in how they deal with EU’s internal security?


BRUSSELS – It is now a commonplace to see armed soldiers patrolling the streets alongside police detachments in Paris and Brussels since the terrorist attacks against them in November 2015 and March 2016, respectively.

This raises a number of questions about the future role of the military today in civil security. Should the military in each EU country do this? If so, how and under what circumstances? And how to work with police forces?

Conducting joint counter-terrorist training of national police and military units would be an effective response to terrorist threats, say Dutch, German and other officials. There has been little discussion of the subject by the EU28, and few lessons learnt shared among them because the roles of police versus the military diverge so sharply in Europe. However, a first priority would be to improve intelligence-sharing between military and police forces, said the officials.

These and other issues were debated during a small gathering of military officers, EU officials and policy experts hosted by the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI) and Euromil, (European Organisation of Military Associations) here on 27 September.

For example, the Netherlands’ police law of 2012 allows the police and public prosecutor to ask the military for help.

“In those cases, however, the military never operates autonomously; they always operate under civilian authority,” Col Erwin Hoogland of the Dutch Ministry of Defence told the meeting. “It will be a civilian operation where you assign military capabilities to it.”

The law also gives the country’s gendarmerie, the Royal Military Police the same rights and rules as civilian police, he said, noting that they report to the Ministry of Security and justice instead of the Ministry of Defence.

Belgium’s legislation differs slightly from that of its neighbour. The deployment of its military for homeland operations fall into two categories: those of a safety nature involving unintentional events or catastrophes, and those of a security nature involving intentional crimes or catastrophes.

Cpt. Lars Scraeyen of the Belgian Royal Higher Institute for Defence said the Belgian military can be deployed for homeland security operations, with certain capabilities such as bomb disposal reserved exclusively for the military to carry out. “Control of the military for homeland security purposes falls to the government authority using it,” he said. Thus, the country’s current deployment of troops in support of Belgium’s police forces means that the responsibility for their actions lies with the Minister of the Interior.

By comparison, Germany takes a different approach. According to Thomas Sohst of the German Armed Forces Association (DBwV), the German Constitution makes “a clear distinction” between internal and external security forces and their responsibilities. External security tasks are assigned to the military, while internal security is handled by the separate police force within each of Germany’s 16 Länder. But in cases involving two or more regions, the federal police and Ministry of the Interior take over responsibility.

Due to constitutional restraints, the German military can be deployed for internal security reasons “only in a very limited capacity and only in emergency cases”, said Sohst. However, he said the restriction does not apply regarding chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear threats or matters of air defence which are the military’s exclusive operational domain.

Joint high-level training of Germany’s military and police forces are scheduled for next year. “This training will then show us where the deficiencies are and where we have to adjust things”, he said.

     THE UPSHOT: With the increased threat of terrorism “at home” in Europe the line between the two is becoming increasingly blurred between military and police tasks. There appear to be two paths open to governments: either amend national legislation to give armed forces a wider remit to act domestically, or boost the financial and material support to police forces to carry out more military-style tactics in order to secure the area around a terrorist event.
     The first option would require far more joint military-police training and cooperation that is currently the case across Europe. This would have to be based on clear guidelines detailing how the two forces work together and how to share intelligence between them. Moreover, as the member states purchase more dual-use equipment, there probably would need to be a clear hierarchical order of who gets what under which circumstances.

About Chris Dalby

Chris Dalby is deputy editor and webmaster at SECURITY EUROPE. He can be reached at: cd@securityeurope.info

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