Europol Regulation: Towards a „European FBI“?

The police agency of the European Union is to be given more operational powers. A proposal to this effect from the Commission is expected in December, and the German Council Presidency wants to support the initiative with a conference in Berlin.

Normally, the European Union should not create structures that compete with the member states. This also applies to Europol: the police agency in The Hague is to coordinate investigations into cross-border crime and terrorism, but it does not have police powers. Investigations are the sole responsibility of the authorities of the Member States, which are also responsible for wiretapping, house raids and arrests.

For some years now, German politicians from different parties have been pushing for Europol to be expanded into a „European FBI“. This refers to the US agency which, as the federal police force, is responsible for criminal prosecution and intelligence. The German conservative parties even have included the „European FBI“ in their European election manifesto, and the German „police union“ is also open-minded.

Competence to be extended

Some of the demands will be reflected in the proposal to renew the four year old Europol regulation, which will be published by the European Commission on 6th December. The German Interior Ministry plans to organise a conference on the “ Future of Europol “ in Berlin on 21st and 22nd October. The annual meeting of European police chiefs on 1st and 2nd October in The Hague will also deal with the new regulation.

The main pillars of the proposal are already known. In a publication for a preliminary impact assessment, the Commission writes that Europol should be strengthened to „adress emerging threats“. The scope of criminal offences for which Europol is competent will therefore be extended. The agency would then be able to conduct its own searches in the Schengen Information System (SIS II) and use the Prüm framework for Europe-wide queries of biometric data.

Power to request investigations in Member States?

Europol is also to process more information from private companies. These include Internet providers, travel agencies, airlines and banks. Up to now, Europol receives such data only in exceptional cases and on request, in future this could be done in an automated procedure. The Finnish Presidency of the Council had already prepared this at the end of last year in conclusions on Europol’s cooperation with private bodies.

Probably the most controversial is the proposal that Europol should be able to request that investigations be initiated in a Member State. Their governments will probably see their sovereignty affected by this. The new competence could therefore be coordinated with the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), with which Europol would in any case be supposed to cooperate more closely. Under discussion is the possibility that, in addition to the prosecution of crimes against the Union’s financial interests, the new body could also conduct investigations into terrorism. The EPPO could then investigate together with „special advisers“ who are to be seconded to Europol for the new tasks from the Member States.

New staff for operations in the Member States

As befits a „European FBI“, Europol should also have more staff for cross-border investigations. To this end, the agency wants to set up a pool of „guest experts“ who, following the example of Frontex’s „Standing Corps“, can be sent there at the request of a member state. Europol published this proposal in a paper two weeks ago and it is also included in a planning paper for the next two years. There it mentions officials in the field of ’special tactics‘. They are explained as „covert human intelligence sources, covert surveillance, counter-kidnapping and -extortion, hostage negotiation, specialist intervention, witness protection and fugitive active search“.

According to the Commission’s proposal, Europol should also work more closely with third states. No such countries are mentioned, but they are likely to be of the Western Balkans and North Africa. This would also concern secret services: In a pilot project, the Commission is developing a new procedure whereby Europol receives lists of personal data from third countries and then enters them into SIS II. Those foreign secret services that have issued such an alert will later be informed of the results of the searches.

In this connection, the civil rights organisations EDRI and Statewatch warn against „data laundering“ if the information transferred to European systems comes from countries with a low level of data protection.

Supervisory body becomes a catalyst for surveillance and

The new initiatives build on measures which have strengthened Europol in recent years to coordinate cross-border investigations. Where two or more Member States are involved, Europol provides „mobile offices“ and supports with digital forensics or capacities for decoding data carriers.

In an “ Innovation Laboratory „, Europol seeks answers to challenges posed by new technologies, including access to tap-proof 5G communications, the use and combating of small drones or the tracking of crypto-currencies. The agency is also to become an „EU Innovation Hub“ and coordinate relevant research by companies, institutes and universities.

Among the enthusiasts for a „European FBI“ force is Boris Pistorius, German Minister of the Interior of Lower Saxony, who, together with Susanne Mittag, Member of the Bundestag, will chair the Joint Parliamentary Control Committee (JPSG) on Europol for six months as part of the German Council Presidency. Actually, Europol is supposed to be better controlled and contained by this toothless body of MEPs and parliaments of the Member States Europol. But the two social democrats are now using the JPSG as an accelerator for more surveillance and control from the European Union.

Image: Europol.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.