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EU Commission seeks accelerated defence of critical infrastructure

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A Council Recommendation proposed by the European Commission on Tuesday (18 October) pushes for increased efforts to strengthen the resilience of the EU’s critical infrastructure. 

The draft recommendation covers three priority areas: preparedness, response and international cooperation. It proposes a more significant role for the Commission in tackling threats and enhancing interaction between the member states and third countries, particularly on infrastructure with cross-border relevance. 

The initiative comes amid increased threats towards critical infrastructure in the war in Ukraine and heightened attention to hybrid risks and infrastructural resilience in particular. 

On Monday, EU countries also endorsed conclusions focused on upping the security of the EU’s ICT supply chains, including a call for the creation of an ICT Supply Chain Toolbox to assist in reducing risk and implementing coordinated risk assessments under the revised Network and Information Security Directive (NIS2), a political agreement which was reached in May.

These actions follow recent high-profile assaults on critical infrastructure, including the September attacks on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and what were described as acts of “sabotage” against cable networks in north Germany earlier this month, resulting in prolonged train disruption. 

Ukraine also said on Tuesday that Moscow had begun a campaign of deliberately targeting its infrastructure ahead of the winter, with missile strikes taking out almost one-third of its power stations in the past week alone, highlighting the heightened vulnerability of such infrastructure in times of crisis.

“In view of fast-evolving threats, with Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the sabotage of Nord Stream and the German rail network – it’s clear we need to accelerate our work to protect our infrastructure”, said Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson.

“The European Parliament and the Council already agreed to deepen the legislative framework to strengthen the resilience of entities operating critical infrastructure. However, with the threats we see today, we need to accelerate the application of the new rules and intensify our work with additional measures and closer cooperation,” she said.

Work to update the EU’s 2008 critical infrastructure directive was underway before the Nord Stream attacks, but the law is not set to come into effect until 2024. 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has urged states to begin operating on its basis already, however, and has pledged to roll out a five-point plan on upping EU readiness to handle risks. 

The Commission’s proposed Council recommendation invites member states to conduct risk assessments of and accelerate work to enhance the resilience of critical infrastructure, including better defining which structures fall into this category. 

It also advocates for accelerated work by member states to transpose both the revised NIS2 and the Directive on the Resilience of Critical Entities (CER), which aims to strengthen the capacity of states to protect their critical infrastructure against and respond to a range of risks, from terrorist attacks to natural disasters.

Preparedness is the largest of the recommendation’s three focus areas, Johansson said at a press conference on Tuesday, and the EU executive is seeking to stress that states should implement both the CER and NIS2 directives much sooner than previously foreseen.

At the EU level, the Commission stresses the need to develop common tools to support member states in resilience-building activities and says it foresees a greater role for itself when it comes to supporting and coordinating member state efforts. 

A blueprint on critical infrastructure incidents and crises will be developed alongside stress test exercises undertaken by member states following guidelines by Brussels. 

In member states’ efforts, priority should be given, the Commission also says, to key sectors, including energy, digital infrastructure, transport and space.

The EU executive will also strengthen its cooperation with NATO and develop new expertise on emerging risk areas such as undersea cables on which the Commission will carry out a special study, Johansson said.

The proposal for the Council Recommendation will be presented to the member states at the European Council this week.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]

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