Secret plans for brave new world of EU security: New intelligence networks will be well beyond the reach of elected officials

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TWO days after the Maastricht treaty went into effect, an anonymous and powerful group of national security officials - the K4 Committee - met in secret to inaugurate an era of unprecedented inter-governmental co-operation on security matters in the new European Union.

Outside the democratic control of the European Parliament and national parliaments, but with broad powers to co-ordinate the fight against drug-trafficking, money laundering, illegal immigration and asylum, the officials immediately began work on an 'action plan' to be rubber-stamped by justice ministers at the end of the month.

For all the fears whipped up in Britain about the 'democratic deficit' and the emergence of a federal superstate in Europe, it is precisely those areas that London lobbied hardest for that cannot be either initiated or vetoed by Westminster or Strasbourg.

At the head of the K4 Committee's list of concerns is illegal immigration to the Union. The process of erecting still higher barriers against refugees from Bosnia and elsewhere is already well advanced. Plans to co-ordinate policies on the forcible expulsions of unwanted immigrants and a new high-tech fingerprint exchange system for asylum-seekers are also under way.

Another task is the establishment of a vast police intelligence database containing millions of files on criminals and suspected illegal immigrants. The European Information Service (EIS), which will link the security services of the Twelve, will be based on an existing information system to be operated from 1 February by the nine countries which are opening their land, sea and air borders, known as the Shengen group.

The committee will also oversee the establishment of Europol, a European police network based in the Netherlands to focus initially on the illegal drugs trade. Europol, an embryonic FBI for Europe, may eventually take part in the fight against terrorism, and could become a Union-wide police force with operational powers, including the power of arrest. There is talk of a European Prosecutor's Office being established, and of the European Court of Justice gaining jurisdiction on some criminal matters.

The pan-European security system is established under the little debated Title IV of the Maastricht treaty. For all Britain's problems with the drive towards a federal Europe, and fears about the consequent loss of sovereignty over key areas of economic and monetary policy, London remains one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Third Pillar of the Union treaty.

Britain and other member states seem determined that matters such as policing, law, internal security, immigration, refugees and asylum- seekers should remain as far as possible outside the scrutiny of elected officials.

Under Maastricht, the European Parliament has to be 'consulted' on the new policies, but it is unable to veto or initiate legislation.

'There's a black hole when it comes to accountability,' said Amedee Turner (Conservative Suffolk) who chairs the European Parliament's Civil Liberties committee. Michael Elliot (Labour London), also on the committee, said: 'There is no democratic scrutiny either at national or European level, we just don't know what's happening. We do not even know the names of the members of the K4 Committee or its sub-committees.'

The EIS police, customs and immigration system will eventually take over from the Shengen Information System. This database is being brought on line by nine countries excluding Britain, Ireland and Denmark, who are not prepared to abandon border controls. Civil libertarians in the Netherlands, Germany and France have complained about inadequate data protection in the Shengen police system, and human rights groups worry that it will be used to target refugees.

The EIS will have an on-line 'black book' of undesirables to be kept out of the Union as well as a European finger-printing system (known as Eurodac) along with data on convicted criminals and 'intelligence' on suspects being kept under surveillance.