The recent terrorist attacks in Europe have increased the sense of insecurity among citizens. This understandable fear overshadows the fact that criminality in Europe has been decreasing over the past decades – and that’s true too of the most serious crimes. This downward trend has even been accelerating.
In many EU countries the number of crimes committed has gone down by close to 20% over the past five years. People killed in the tragic terrorist attacks in the last two years outnumber casualties over the past decade, but are a fraction of the number of victims that succumbed to bombs or other attacks perpetrated by the IRA, ETA, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof etc. in the 1970s and 1980s. Contrary to popular sentiment – in Europe we are living in a safer world today than ever before.
This is not a call for complacency, because behind the downward trend in the overall figures, several preoccupying trends are present: Crime has become increasingly cross-border and sophisticated. New types of crimes (in particular cybercrime) are exploding. And national police forces are ill equipped to deal with these challenges. They have been trained to combat home grown criminality and have little experience or tools that can help them confront the new challenges.
The 9/11 attacks in the USA gave a major boost to European police and criminal justice cooperation. In record time important instruments such as the European Search and Arrest Warrant saw the light of day and the newly created EUROPOL – the EU’s law enforcement Agency – was considerably reinforced.
It is only natural that the latest terrorist attacks also give rise to calls for increased EU cooperation on terrorism and crime.
EUROPOL has become an indispensable tool for national police forces in combatting trans-border crime. It was also quick to respond to the Paris and Brussels events. It has created two new centres on terrorism and immigration to combat organised human trafficking and minimise the risk of terrorists hiding within the flows of migrants heading for Europe. Its register on foreign fighters is becoming more complete. This is fully in line with the way EUROPOL has developed since its foundation. It has been a “demand driven” organisation, responding to the evolving needs of national police forces.
EUROPOL has turned into a centre of excellence on trans-border crime. More than 18,000 cross border investigations were carried out last year. It has also been active in creating synergy with the operations of other bodies like EUROJUST (the Agency dealing with judicial cooperation in criminal matters) and increasingly also with FRONTEX, the border agency.
EUROPOL is a hub for the exchange of information among member states law enforcement agencies. Member states police forces have direct access to EUROPOL’s database and exchange of information is increasing rapidly in the many areas covered by the agency, including on foreign fighters, drug trafficking, illicit immigration networks, trafficking in human beings, cybercrime and money laundering. Access to EUROPOL data is a much more important tool for combatting transfrontal crime today in Europe than holds true for INTERPOL, which covers a narrower field and is handicapped by the reluctance of many countries to share information in the global register, for fear of leaks. An important part of the information sharing in EUROPOL also takes place by daily contacts among the liaison officers from all member states present in the EUROPOL building. The location in the same building of 28 “national police stations” offers ample opportunities for cutting through national red tape and speeding up the flow of information. A number of third countries (like the US, Turkey and Norway) have also sent liaison officers to EUROPOL.
The new structures created inside EUROPOL after the Paris and the Brussels attacks need to be reinforced and it needs to be provided with all the necessary financial means and personnel to carry out its functions.
Some are even calling for a change in the nature of EUROPOL. Thus, the European Parliament this month postponed its vote on a long-overdue decision to transform the present body (which today works according to the old intergovernmental method) into an EU agency. In particular, the Liberal group (ALDE) is calling for an ambitious reinforcement of EUROPOL by turning it into a European FBI. According to ALDE President Guy Verhofstadt, EUROPOL needs to be provided with powers to start investigations on its own initiative and oblige national authorities, including their intelligence services, to cooperate fully as far as information sharing. Such a change of role for EUROPOL – from being an agency that supports national authorities to a force that can operate independently and compel national intelligence services to hand over even their most sensitive data – is probably more than the traffic can bear at present.
Verhofstadt may have been inspired by his experience as President of the European Council, when, as Belgian Prime Minister, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, the council pushed through major advances on home and justice affairs. But times have changed. Far-reaching transfer of power from member states to EU bodies is not universally popular, to put it mildly. There also seems to be ample scope for enhanced action within EUROPOL based on the current more voluntarist approach. EUROPOL’s clients – the national police forces – have shown great willingness to use the agency’s capacities to move forward and adapt its “modus operandi” to changed situations. The sense of ownership by member states authorities inside EUROPOL is greater than in many other EU-bodies. Trying to force national intelligence services to share all their information with all member states is likely to end in a pointless and unresolved deadlock. The last thing we need at present is to launch EU’s counter-terrorist policy in a direction that is likely to end in blockage and disappointment.