Policing seen as key to Europe's future

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Pan-European efforts to counter crime, illegal immigration and human trafficking have emerged as central to an inquiry into the future of Europe, as politicians battle to combat the rise of the far-right across the continent.

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, chairman of a 105-strong convention on the European Union's future, has identified a need for greater co-operation on justice and home affairs as one of three areas essential for the EU.

Mr Giscard's first clear indications of his priorities, made in a recent speech in Germany, coincide with the success of the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and the surge of support for the maverick far-right Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated last week.

Both men's election campaigns played on a growing sense of insecurity among Europeans, and linked this fear to immigration. During weekend talks Tony Blair and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, urged the EU to step up its efforts to combat the rise of the far right.

Their concerns seem to be reflected by the European Convention, which is designed to provide the first major rethink of the EU's objectives since its founding conference in Messina, Sicily, in 1955. With 15 member states the EU's decision-making processes are already severely strained, amid mounting evidence of a growing gap between Europe's leaders and its citizens. Confronted with the prospect of 10 mainly ex-Communist countries joining the EU as soon as 2004, the convention aims to draw up a plan for reform to be debated by EU leaders within two years.

Mr Giscard, a former French president, said early debate within the convention had already demonstrated the need for more work on justice and home affairs. Many contributions had, he argued "insisted on the need for increased European cross-border action in the sensitive areas of security policy and justice.

"They felt that the Union should be able to take more effective action, notably against terrorism, large-scale organised crime, illegal immigration, drug-trafficking and trafficking in human beings – women and children."

Mr Giscard also identified increased economic co- operation and the need for Europe to have a stronger external policy and to expand the "influence and authority of Europe at world level".

However, he said he had received "no requests for the Union to assume new competences in the national life of the member states". In general, the convention is expected to clarify EU procedures and make clearer the areas in which the EU has competence.

While most countries, including Britain, are committed to the idea of increasing co-operation on justice and home affairs, there may be more caution about moves to give the European Commission powers in an area in which it at present has a limited role.

Andrew Duff, a Liberal Democrat MEP who is part of the convention, argued that the present decision-making system (which rests on three "pillars": economic and social policy; a common foreign security policy; and justice and home affairs) is now doomed, meaning a greater role for the European Commission. That would give the European commissioner for justice and home affairs more ability to propose and drive through legislation. At present, an initiative can only be agreed by a unanimous decision of the 15 states.

Mr Duff said: "There is growing support for the idea that we ought to abolish the three-pillar system. People are reaching the conclusion by examining the inadequacies of the present system in justice and the interior. Giscard's speech implies this is an area where there has to be a sharpening of policy. I would be surprised if we end up with the present system."