EU fall-out blights war on crime

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The Independent Online
A stone's throw from the coffee-shops where local youths are openly inhaling cannabis, the torch-bearers of Europe's struggle against drug barons, money launderers and bosses of organised crime are ensconced in their bomb-proof headquarters.

In a building used by the Gestapo during the Second World War, criminal intelligence analysts tap away at computers, and field queries from police or customs officers from Madrid to Copenhagen, occasionally adding some vital clue about a shipment of heroin via the Turkish route or a suspected money launderer to a wall chart.

Europol, the embryonic police intelligence agency, once billed as Europe's future FBI, is now, thanks to Britain's campaign to disrupt Europe, facing a protracted existence as a legal nonentity. British law-enforcement agencies will be among the biggest victims of the veto: along with the Germans they seek Europol's help more than any others in the European Union.

To the despair of the 98 staff in The Hague who have been waiting for the past two years to be taken out of legal limbo, Europol has been plunged into renewed uncertainty following Britain's decision that agreement on a legal convention to underpin the agency will be one of the casualties of the beef war.

Yesterday, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, wielded his veto at every possible opportunity when he met his European colleagues in Luxembourg; and he has promised to keep on doing it, unless there is a deal on beef.

Falling victim to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, according to the critics, merely puts the tin hat on an ignominious political episode during which crime rackets, drug smuggling, money laundering and illegal immigration in the EU have reached epidemic proportions. Endless arcane wrangles among the 15 governments have for five years dogged efforts to mount a confidential and efficient system of co-operating, each delay probably greeted by the Cali drug lords with the pop of another champagne cork. fforts to collaborate in the fight against terrorism came together with the formation of the Trevi Group of EU officials in 1975.

Alarmed, however, by the explosion of mafia-style gangs following the break-up of the Soviet Union and their spread into the West, plus the increasing sophistication of drug rings and their associate money launderers in exploiting the frontier-free single market, the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, began urging fellow leaders in 1990 to set up an FBI-style European police force with powers to operate in any of the member states.

The much more limited goal agreed in 1991 was a computerised intelligence- sharing agency with no executive or investigative powers and initially no home. It was not until 1994, after the Dutch emerged victors from a squabble over the location, that Europol's drugs unit opened in The Hague.

Bickering over the sensitivity of the information which would be pooled then delayed the convention for months, giving way to the row over the role of the EU court in overseeing Europol.

The British government, fearful of a Euro-sceptic backlash, is alone in refusing to recognise a role for the Luxembourg court, arguing that police co-operation is a strictly inter-governmental matter.

Although this apparently intractable dispute has been running for more than a year, Brussels-based negotiators were confident they had brokered a compromise involving an opt-out for Britain which Mr Howard would sign up to this week.

Europol's remit since last year extends to traffic in women and children for prostitution, stolen cars and radioactive material, but it is powerless to monitor terrorists until the convention is ratified.

It is further hamstrung without the convention by not being allowed to keep personal computerised records on criminals, and by having to observe circuitous procedures.

But against such odds the system is beginning to pay dividends. Police co-operation is not new but has often been undermined by mistrust and cultural differences.

Dutch police for example are believed to have allowed shipments of amphetamines and cannabis to flood into the United Kingdom over a period of months in 1993 because they feared that alerting the British police would blow their own surveillance operation on the same gang.

David Valls-Russel, a member of Europol's management team and a former chief superintendent with the Kent police force, says that cynicism is now giving way to the realisation that what national forces know about organised crime on their patch is rarely more than one part of a much bigger jigsaw. Demands for assistance filtered through The Hague multiplied from 300 in the first year to 1,500 in 1995.

Three-quarters of the inquiries from the British police were drug-related and a further 10 per cent linked to money laundering. One clear advantage of Europol over, say, Interpol is in speed of response. To take just one example from last year, Belgian police asked if Europol could find anything on an Italian-registered car spotted near the site of a planned drugs bust. Checks with Rome via the Italian liaison officer in The Hague established within minutes that the car had been traced to a mafia racket being monitored by police in Germany. The Belgians hung fire, and with Europol co-ordinating, pooled efforts to mount a much bigger operation which eventually blew the lid off a major drugs network spanning several countries.

Now Europol officials say what they need is an increase in staff and money - the budget is a modest pounds 3.2m a year. They are focusing remaining hopes on the Irish government. Dublin, facing one of the biggest drug problems in Europe, has taken on the almost impossible challenge of making the war on drugs the bloc's top priority when it take over the EU presidency next month.