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Bernard Bot is the foreign minister of the Netherlands, which is taking over the rotating chair of the European Union in July.

By Bernard Bot

AMSTERDAM -- Will Madrid prove to be Europe's 9/11? The answer to this frequently asked question is "yes" and "no." We did not need Madrid to know that modern terrorism has a barbaric face, and we did not need the pictures of dead Spanish commuters to know that Al Qaeda considers Europe a "legitimate" target. Citizens of the European Union had already been among the victims of the attacks in New York, Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul and many other places. The European Union responded swiftly: terrorist assets were frozen, airline and maritime security were tightened, as were our immigration and visa policies. Terrorist cells were exposed all over Europe, and planned terrorist attacks were thwarted. A European arrest warrant enables European law enforcement agencies to pursue terrorists across national borders.

At the same time, Madrid destroys any lingering illusions some Europeans may have had that Europe would be safe from terrorism. It is one thing to be conscious of one's vulnerability. It is altogether different to have been actually targeted. We know that blowing up Spanish trains does not satisfy Al Qaeda's appetite. And we are aware that Al Qaeda cells are ready to commit other murderous acts. Not surprisingly, Al Qaeda considers even the deaths of fellow Muslims an acceptable price to pay in the struggle to destroy liberal democracy. Muslims in Europe disagree, as did the father of Sanae Ben Salah, a 13-year-old Moroccan girl killed on one of the Madrid trains. "It is a cardinal sin," he said. "You go to hell for that."

Some American commentators have described 11-M as a test of Europe's manliness, as an opportunity for Europeans to display the power of Mars, and not just the charm of Venus. They take coming decisions on a continued presence of European forces in Iraq as the measure of this.

But what does this mean? Does the test lie in whether or not our forces remain stationed in Iraq? I do not think so. Some European countries have forces in Iraq, some have forces in Afghanistan, while some, such as my own country, have forces in both. European forces are active in many other areas as well. European forces will stay in Iraq for as long as European governments and parliaments believe their soldiers can play a useful role in rebuilding Iraq as a sovereign and peaceful country, and, of course, for as long as the Iraqis want them to stay. The call for a stronger and more visible U.N. role as of June 30 -- when sovereignty is to be handed over to the Iraqi interim government -- is backed by the entire European Union. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende also made this case at his meeting with President Bush on March 16.

To know what the real test is, one has to ask oneself what goal Al Qaeda is trying to reach. Al Qaeda's program is ideological more than political, megalomaniac rather than concrete. But let us summarize it as the ambition to destroy a society based on liberal democracy, fundamental freedoms and human rights. In its place would come some sort of medieval caliphate that would be Islamic in name but totalitarian in essence. In Osama bin Laden's Utopia, there would be no place for freedom of speech, freedom of religion or equality between the sexes.

The real test for EU member states and their partners is therefore to combat terrorism in all its forms, by appropriate means, while protecting precisely those universal values and fundamental freedoms Al Qaeda seeks to destroy. The European Union is a community of values in which there is no place for discrimination on the basis of religious or ethnic backgrounds. The question of Turkish EU membership, for instance, will be decided not on the basis of religious criteria but on the basis of political criteria that reflect the values enshrined in the EU treaty.

At the European Council summit March 25-26, EU leaders adopted further antiterrorist measures. We have appointed a counter-terrorism coordinator, Gijs de Vries from the Netherlands, who is charged with the coordination of all the EU's counter-terrorism efforts. Cooperation between intelligence services is being further intensified, and Europol -- the EU's own Interpol -- will have greater responsibility for coordinating police activities. We will intensify our effort to disrupt terrorist organizations' financial flows and freeze their assets. Willingness to engage in the fight against terrorism will also be a litmus test for relations with third countries. The EU is prepared to assist those countries that are willing but unable to take action against terrorism and will reconsider relations with the unwilling.

Nevertheless, the threat that we face is multidimensional. We cannot win the fight against terrorism if we lose the battle for hearts and minds. We need to understand better what tempts some young Muslims to join Al Qaeda and develop an effective response. The European Union is promoting cross-cultural and interreligious understanding between Europe and the Islamic world. It is my firm belief that Europe's own Muslim communities have a crucial role to play in this dialogue. Clearly, this dialogue would benefit from an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which instead currently serves as a catalyst for hatred. That is why Europeans have been treating the Middle East peace process as a foreign policy priority and why we have been asking Washington to do likewise.

Europeans are not naive. We realize that our love of freedom makes us vulnerable. Terrorists use the freedom in our societies with the aim of destroying that same freedom. This is truly an asymmetrical war. But if a civilized society wants to remain civilized, it has no alternative but to try to uphold the rule of law, even in times of public emergency. People must be able to distinguish between the societies they belong to and the terrorist movements for whom the lives of human beings have no value.

We love life, unlike the terrorists, who say they love death. Life is precious and worth fighting for. We value the lives of all our citizens, regardless of their ethnic background, religious beliefs or sexual preferences. Europeans will not be passive in the face of a mortal threat against them and their children. We will be resolute in our counter-terrorist operations, but in combating terrorism we will preserve our inherent values. That should be our pledge to everybody in Europe who fears both terrorism itself and the potential backlash in European societies. Sticking to this pledge will be the real test for Europe.

(c) 2004, European Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 3/30/04)