The organisations, known as Kilowatt, the Vienna Group, the Berne Club and the Star Group, form 'a complicated interconnecting mesh of almost invisible channels,' according to experts from the Centre for the Study of Public Order at Leicester University who conducted the first comprehensive assessment of policing in the EU.
Hidden from public view and protected from all but the most cursory parliamentary scrutiny, the groups have developed in a haphazard and overlapping way. Even ardent supporters of cross-border police co-operation in Europe worry that issues of accountability, democracy and human rights protection are being overlooked as these groups multiply. 'Quite why they need so many secretive groups is beyond me,' John Benyon, a co-author of the report, said yesterday. 'I suspect that very few politicians, even government ministers, are aware of their existence.'
The police and intelligence networks, many of which extend beyond European co-operation, have been in existence since the early 1970s in most cases. The are largely involved in co-operation against terrorism, espionage, drug smuggling and other threats to national security.
Leading the EU fight against terrorism is the Police Working Group on Terrorism (PWGOT). It was established in 1979 after the IRA assassinated Sir Richard Sykes, the British ambassador to the Netherlands, in The Hague. The PWGOT meets formally every six months and has also developed close informal links with anti-terrorist specialists.
The present tasks of PWGOT include countering the threat posed by radicals in the European Islamic community as well as combating attacks against foreigners by neo-Nazi groups. PWGOT's value in promoting cross-border co-operation on terrorism was set out recently by a Metropolitan Police anti-terrorist officer: 'We know these people - they are our personal friends . . . It has become a very solid group of working colleagues. We trust each other implicitly and pass information to each other without question.'
The little that is known about the other anti-terrorist organisations like Kilowatt is that it is an information alliance of about 18 countries including the EU, Scandinavian states, Israel, Canada and the US. Israel's Mossad secret service is believed to play a dominant role.
The Vienna Group, which also has an anti-terrorist brief, was formed in 1978 and involves collaboration between the interior ministries of Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
The Berne Club appears to have the same function but involves all 12 EU states as well as Austria and Switzerland. The Star Group was founded by Germany's Bundeskriminalamt in 1972 to co-ordinate the fight against heroin trafficking through the Balkan pipeline that was the main conduit for drugs from Asia to Europe before the war in the former Yugoslavia.
The Star group meets secretly twice a year and now includes the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
Concerns expressed by the Leicester University report about these groups is that they have no in-built accountability mechanism. Their budgets are not known and even though they exchange information and are believed to plan and carry out operations against individuals and organisations, there appears to be no scrutiny by parliamentarians either at national or EU level.
The data they share may often have commercial value and no known mechanisms exist to prevent the improper use of shared intelligence and information.
With recent disclosures about the Italian secret services' involvement in corruption scandals sweeping the country, the concerns may be well-founded. 'Serious human rights issues are raised if these informal networks lead to action against European citizens,' Professor Benyon said in an interview.
'The lack of accountability means that there may be no possibility of redress . . . and these groups have the potential to leak information held by the police and security agencies.'
The report warns that 'there appear to be disturbingly low levels of legal, political and managerial accountability and control of these European networks'. The authors accept that in the fight against terrorism and organised crime secrecy is often essential but the report argues that, without some formal mechanism to ensure accountability, public trust and confidence will be eroded.
The collaborative efforts of EU police and intelligence agencies is overseen by the equally discreet K4 co-ordinating committee of senior home and interior ministry officials. The K4 committee has existed since 1 November, when the Maastricht treaty was finally ratified.
With a secretariat in Brussels, K4 is the centre of a bureaucratic web that oversees police and intelligence co-operation, immigration controls and the legal issues involved in extradition, terrorist funding and cross-border fraud.
It has taken over from the informal Trevi Group of interior ministries, which has done much to reduce national rivalries and promote respect and trust between police forces.
'Police Co-operation in Europe: an Investigation' pounds 47.50 from Centre for the Study of Public Order, University of Leicester, 6 Salisbury Rd, Leicester LE1 7QRReuse content