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Problems In Creating A European Police Force

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, March 25 (RFE/RL) - A surging increase in international crime, particularly drug smuggling, has led European police chiefs to demand the creation of a pan-european police force to fight criminals who operate across the frontiers. All governments in the European Union (EU) believe it is a good idea, but they are unable to agree on how it should operate.

The arguments over the police force are supplemented by others on a European-wide convention on the extradition of criminals. Again, all states agree, in principle, but in practise there are differences over the extradition of political offenders.

The pan-European police, frequently called the "Europol," was established as an embryo organisation in the Netherlands' capital, The Hague, in February 1994. It is associated with "Interpol," the global police organisation. "Europol's" main purpose is to cooperate with police forces in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe in tracking and seizing drug smugglers in Europe, although it may also deal with other crimes. Eventually it is supposed to develop into a general European police force with full executive powers - but that appears to be a long way off. The EU's 15 members did not sign the Convention formally establishing the present "Europol" until last year - more than a year late - and the Convention has still not been ratified by the national parliaments.

That same slow pace has marked the discussions on granting real powers to "Europol." At present, its duties are limited to gathering, analysing and exchanging data between national forces. It has no executive capacity. Last week, the senior officer running The Hague operation, Jurgen Storbeck, of Germany, told a conference in Berlin that it was time the organisation was given real powers to fight effectively against drug smugglers and other cross-border crime.

One reason for the delay is a dispute over what body should protect individual citizens, who believe their fundamental rights and freedoms are violated by "Europol" or its officers. Germany, which is among the strongest campaigners for "Europol," says the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg should be appointed to mediate between police and citizens. However, Britain, which strongly opposes granting too many powers to international institutions, refuses to accept this.

Britain believes that citizens challenging the pan-European police should have their cases heard in the courts of their own country. Its strong defence of this view prevented any progress being made at a meeting in Brussels last week of EU Interior and Justice ministers.

As a compromise, some countries proposed that national courts should have the option of referring a case to the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling. Britain also opposed this, even though recourse to the court would be voluntary. Britain argued that even non-binding rulings from Luxembourg might influence British courts. On the other hand, the Dutch say they can ratify the "Europol" convention only if national courts are allowed to seek guidance from the European Court of Justice.

Although the German government is one of the strongest campaigners for the "Europol" force, some German politicians and German newspapers have raised questions about present plans. The German environmental party, the "Greens," complained in Parliament that current regulations gave "Europol" too many powers without proper safeguards for citizens. The "Greens" said "Europol" was allowed to collect sensitive data, not only about criminals, but also about those who were not suspected of any crime. According to the "Greens," if it is considered necessary in the struggle against serious international crime, "Europol" is permitted to gather and store in its computers data about victims, witnesses and other citizens.

The "Greens" said this included information about the race, religion, political views, health and sexual life of the individual.

The leading Munich newspaper, the "Suddeutsche Zeitung" commented in a critical editorial: "is it seriously intended that the work of "Europol" should begin with the composition of intimate dossiers. Should "Europol" be allowed to do all that which the German constitutional court has forbidden the German police? 'Europol' cannot and may not be allowed to discredit itself in this way. Precisely those who believe Europol to be important should ensure that it acts correctly - in its practical work and in the democratic control of its activities."

Another commentator in the "Suddeutsche Zeitung" said last week: ""Europol" is being discussed as if a secret service was being created. The public should hear nothing, say nothing and know nothing. They should simply accept the final version of the convention with respect and satisfaction. "

Most commentators in Germany believe the issue will be a major theme at the inter-governmental conference which starts this week to review the EU's Maastricht treaty. It is part of what is often called the EU's "third pillar" - that is, cooperation on matters of justice and home affairs, which is to be debated at the conference.

The dispute over the EU's proposed Convention on Extradition will also be an issue at the inter-governmental review conference. This new Convention was basically intended to simplify the existing 1957 convention, but it immediately ran into problems about political offences.

The 1957 convention gives an exemption from extradition for political offences. Most EU members believes this exemption should end. But Belgium says its courts might allow the extradition of a terrorist bomber even if he claimed that he was acting for political reasons, but would not extradite someone who had given shelter to terrorists. And France points out that its constitution forbids it from handing-over its nationals to foreign justice. Some Scandinavian countries have raised other questions

The matter is current, because Belgium last month refused Spain's request to extradite a Spanish couple accused of aiding the Basque terrorist movement, ETA. An angry Spanish government recalled its ambassador from Brussels.

Commentators say these cases are examples of the difficulties of creating a common system of law and justice among countries with widely different cultures and practises. Central and East European countries, which eventually join the EU, will also have to comply with whatever is finally decided.

Just one more example. The Justice and Interior ministers, who met in Brussels last week, finally reached a compromise on a proposal for joint action in the EU against racism and xenophobia. Britain and Denmark had held up agreement, because they insisted safeguards were needed to create a balance between freedom of speech and protection against racial incitement. The example mentioned in most reports is that denying that the Holocaust took place is a criminal offence in Germany, Austria, France and Belgium, but not in Britain or Denmark. The measure calling for joint action within the EU was finally approved, after the other ministers accepted declarations on the British and Danish positions.