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Split on how to stop nuclear smugglers

DEEP DIVISIONS over Europol, the European Union's putative police agency, re-emerged yesterday as Germany pushed for nuclear smuggling to be brought under its control.

EU interior and justice ministers meeting in Berlin remained split over the functions and organisation of the body, forcing a further postponement of its birth. Germany favours promoting it as an embryonic police force for Europe, but Britain and France are deeply opposed.

Manfred Kanther, the German Interior Minister, yesterday suggested adding the problem of nuclear smuggling to the agency's tasks. Germany is concerned by seizures of radioactive materials apparently coming from Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries through Germany. There were 41 cases of nuclear smuggling in Germany in 1991, 158 in 1992 and 241 in 1993, even before the incidents this year.

But the idea received a lukewarm response from other states, especially Britain and France. Michael Forsyth, Home Office Minister, suggested that the best path would be to collect data to assess how serious the problem was. In Britain there was no evidence that nuclear smuggling was a problem, said Mr Forsyth.

Today EU ministers will discuss the topic with Central and Eastern European counterparts. Though British officials were at pains to point out that they supported general efforts to tackle the problem, there is clearly enormous reluctance to give the new police agency powers to tackle it. Both Britain and France, as nuclear powers, also opposed an earlier German scheme launched by Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, for multilateral control of nuclear weapons materials.

Germany favours the expansion of Europol's role to cover a wider range of activities than drug smuggling and money laundering, which is all that is envisaged now. It also wants to develop it as the embryo of a European police force, with operational capabilities, rather than as simply a mechanism for exchanging data, as is planned. Other states, in particular France and Britain, are radically opposed to this. Yesterday, ministers tentatively agreed that eventually Europol could cover terrorism as well, at Spanish insistence.

The creation of a European police agency was first agreed in 1991, an initiative pushed hard by Germany. However, the convention to set up Europol continues to be bogged down in disputes that appear small but in fact conceal huge differences of opinion about the future of European integration in the area of internal affairs. It was hoped this could be finalised by next month but officials said yesterday they had made little progress and this has now been pushed back to November.

France and Britain firmly oppose giving the European Court of Justice any role in Europol, fearing that this would lead to a loss of sovereignty. They are keen to keep the integration of European police issues at the level of co-operation between states. There is also a dispute over the role of the European Parliament in supervising the body, with the Netherlands insisting on a role for the assembly.