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Europe: Analysis From Washington--The Downside To Open Borders

Washington, 19 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The dismantling of border controls in the European Union and elsewhere and the failure to establish reliable ones among many of the former Soviet republics -- all measures intended to promote trade and economic growth -- has had an ever more disturbing downside for all the countries concerned: the internationalization of organized crime.

This problem was highlighted at a Paris meeting this week of police chiefs from some 80 countries from around the world. At its sessions, French Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre spoke for many when he noted that the free movement of people and the growth of international data networks have allowed "foreign criminals" to penetrate his country.

Among the criminal groups who have thus "gone international" in the new, more open world market are the Italian mafia, the Columbian drug cartels, and criminal groups from the former Soviet bloc states. And because of their international character and because of the weakness of the authorities in some countries, these groups have sometimes overwhelmed the capacity of certain countries to cope.

But the threat posed by the internationalization of crime in the post-Cold War world is far greater than just the activities of the criminals against the populations involved.

In the first instance, the fact that governments routinely identify crime in their own countries as having a foreign origin inevitably feeds anti-foreign or even harsher xenophobic attitudes. These in turn make it more difficult for the countries to cooperate on fighting crime or on anything else.

Perhaps most importantly, such attitudes put at risk the very international cooperation on trade that has powered economic growth in many countries. Indeed, one of the most striking comments at the meeting was the willingness of French officials to criticize the neighboring country of Monaco, a principality that the French suggested was "often used as a rearguard base or a place of transit" for criminal groups.

In addition to the traditional areas that international criminal groups have been involved with, French officials told the meeting that these organizations now have succeeded in the new fields of "embezzling of international aid" and of "defrauding of European Union subsidies."

Such a finding -- both in the European Union and elsewhere -- will inevitably play into the hands of politicians who seek support at home by opposing often much needed or even internationally-mandated assistance to other nations.

But even more, the internationalization of crime is generating demands in many of the countries affected for tighter border controls and greater regulation of electronic data systems, particularly in the banking area, to keep crime out.

In a few countries -- such as the United States -- there is already extensive popular acceptance of the idea that the authorities should be allowed to restrict civil liberties as an acceptable price for combating the growth of international organized crime.

Such restrictions are inherently dangerous to democratic liberties even in long-established democracies; they are potentially fatal to freedom in countries that are only beginning to make the difficult transition to democracy.

Not surprisingly, the Paris meeting failed to go beyond past recommendations for greater sharing of police information as the first stage in the fight against international crime.

But the meeting did provide a useful wake-up call to governments throughout the world. As Marcel Leclerc, a leading French scholar on internal security told the conference, international organized crime now presents an "immediate danger" to the world and as such "demands a response from democratic states."