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EU: German Government In Dispute Over New Police Force

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 1 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - European Union (EU) hopes that a new police force to combat international crime can be approved at a June summit have run into an unexpected obstacle: Germany's government is engaged in an internal argument over the rights of the new force.

Interior Minister, Manfred Kanther and Justice Minister Edzard Schmidt-Jortzig are engaged in a public dispute on whether the international force should be given immunity from prosecution if it breaks local laws in certain areas. The Interior Minister says it should have immunity. The Justice Minister says granting immunity would violate the rights of a citizen to protection from illegal police action, and he has demanded measures to protect those rights.

Our correspondent cites commentators who point out the decision is not one that can be decided by Germany alone. The other 14 members of the EU are involved in similar discussions. But the debate in Germany reflects the questions being raised in several other countries. The final agreement requires ratification by all 15 member states and, as critics point out, this is likely only if national laws on the rights of citizens are protected.

The new police force is commonly known as "Europol." Currently, it exists only in an embryotic form, as a centre for fighting international drug smuggling. Based in the Raamweg in The Hague it is led by a former police officer from Germany, Juergen Storbeck. Despite limited resources, it has enjoyed some spectacular successes since it was created in 1994, including a coordinated raid this month on suspected drug smugglers in five European countries which led to the arrest of 69 people.

The EU wants the drug centre turned into a proper international police force at the European summit in Amsterdam in June. It is hoped it can be fully operational next year. The scope of its future activities are still being discussed but, among other things, it is expected to lead and coordinate international police efforts against organized crime, in general; the increasing number of Russian criminal gangs in Western Europe, money laundering, prostitution, and the hunt for international swindlers and tax evaders.

Currently, there is only agreement that Europol is necessary and could be useful. This is the framework. But there is no agreement in the EU on filling this framework with regulations on how the force would work.

The problem arises from the different laws in the 15 member states on the methods which can be used by the police in hunting criminals. Some are more protective than others of the rights of citizens. One of the most obvious examples is tapping the telephones of suspected criminals, or placing listening devices in their homes and offices. In some European countries, the police can do so with few restrictions; in others, a legal process is required before permission is granted. There are also differences in the 15 countries on the protection of personal data and on other matters.

Critics say international detectives who broke the law in any one of the 15 countries might find their cases being thrown out of court. Even worse, in some circumstances, they might find themselves being sued in a civil court, or even brought before a criminal court. The embarrassment might be the least of the problems for Europol.

In Germany, Interior Minister Kanther has proposed that Europol should be granted immunity from prosecution in most cases. He argues that the growth of international crime requires the rapid introduction of an operational international police force. In a letter, which was leaked to the press a few days ago, Kanther told the Justice Minister that he was delaying the rapid introduction of a European police force by his insistence on first introducing detailed legal protections. He argued that this could mean long delays, while the individual parliaments examined the provisions before ratifying the agreement on Europol.

Justice Minister Schmidt-Jortzig says he agrees on the necessity of an Europol to combat international crime in Europe, but he says the desire to make it effective quickly cannot take precedence over legal rights. In a letter to the Interior Minister this month (April 17), he argued that there is no precedent for giving members of a police authority immunity from the courts for actions committed while carrying out their duties. The Justice Minister said it could have "questionable consequences for the legal rights of citizens."

As a compromise, the Justice Minister has proposed that, if a broad-ranging immunity is granted to Europol, it must be matched by a right of appeal to an independent court. The Justice Minister also wants Germany to propose a control mechanism to oversee Europol, and ensure that its operations remain within legal boundaries.

The Munich newspaper, the "Suddeutsche Zeitung," suggested in a recent editorial that the Eu was tackling the problem from the wrong direction. It said that before creating Europol, the EU countries should first have agreed on a common set of regulations for its operations. The newspaper said "Europol requires a stable, legal basis if it is to be successful." It said the prerequisites incuded a mechanism which exercised legal control over Europol, the involvment of the European Court and parliamentary responsibility. It said none of these prequisites now exists.