Access through Europol and databases: EU decides against control of Interpol

Authoritarian states use the international police organisation for the political persecution of opposition members. The EU Council or the Commission could coordinate the review of these misused alerts. However, the Parliament has agreed to a horse-trading deal.

Next year in May, the European Commission plans to launch the new Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). All visa-free travellers to the EU will then have to deposit personal data via an internet form before crossing the border. As things stand at present, this affects around 1.4 billion people from over 60 countries.

As part of the check, the personal data will be compared with other police databases. If there is a „hit“, the incident is processed manually and forwarded to the national ETIAS offices in the member states for checking. The border agency Frontex, which operates the ETIAS central office with around 250 officers, is responsible for this.

EU access to two databases

Within the framework of an ETIAS operation, Interpol databases are also to be queried. The international police organisation operates 19 different databases on wanted persons, objects and documents; among the best known are the so-called „red notices“ on the arrest of a person. Interpol uses „yellow notices“ to search for missing persons, and „blue notices“ to help police authorities determine the whereabouts of wanted persons.

However, according to the ETIAS Regulation adopted in 2018, the central system does not query Interpol for wanted persons. Instead, ETIAS accesses the Stolen and Lost Travel Documents Database (SLTD) and the Travel Documents Associated with a Wanted Person Database (TDAWN). In the „Interoperability“ project, in which the EU Commission is merging several databases, such access is also provided via a new „European Search Portal“.

Misuse of warrants

Time and again, states use Interpol’s alerts for the political persecution of opposition members. However, according to Article 3 of its statutes, the organisation is prohibited from supporting this. Requests for wanted persons often also concern persons (and their documents) who have been granted asylum in another state. This contradicts Article 2, which demands respect for human rights. The EU Parliament published a study a few days ago and presented many such cases in the annex, including the arrest of the writer Doğan Akhanlı, who lives in Germany, in Spain.

The National Central Offices of the 195 Interpol member states are supposed to check whether a wanted person distributed via Interpol is abusive at the latest after a wanted person has been arrested. The wanted persons are not always then deleted. The German Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt), for example, explicitly search for persons whose warrants Interpol itself has withdrawn.

If EU information systems access Interpol databases in the future, the EU Commission would also be obliged to carry out such a check. The ETIAS Regulation stipulates in this regard that queries, „shall be performed in such a way that no information shall be revealed to the owner of the Interpol alert“. Following a recommendation by the Commission and a decision by the Council, the implementation of this requirement is to be regulated in a cooperation agreement with Interpol.

Protracted negotiations for cooperation agreement

In the meantime, the start of negotiations for such a cooperation agreement has been delayed to such an extent that the launch of the ETIAS is also in question. Interpol is said to be to blame for this, according to people in Brussels. However, the Council had only given a mandate to start negotiations in July. The first round of negotiations took place in December, the next one is scheduled for 23 February.

If, as expected, an agreement is not reached until the end of this year, the treaty would then have to be ratified by the Interpol General Assembly, which does not take place until November 2023. Alternatively, the ETIAS and the „Interoperability“ Project could become operational, but without access to Interpol databases.

Commission could facilitate exchange among member states

Given the complexity of the planned agreement, it will probably take much longer to reach a consensus. This is because the EU Commission also wants to facilitate access to the Interpol databases for the agencies Europol, Frontex, Eurojust, eu-LISA and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office in opening clauses. Europol is to cooperate with Interpol in operational investigations under its new regulation, this too is to be regulated in the agreement.

The cooperation between Europol and Interpol almost also delayed the successful conclusion of negotiations on the new Europol regulation last week. On the proposal of Romanian MEP Dragoș Tudorache (Renew Group), Europol was to be instructed to check the „red notices“ for their misuse. Both the Council and the Commission rejected this stipulation.

The control of misused „red notices“ by the agency, as demanded by the Parliament in the Europol Regulation, finally disappeared into oblivion in a deal. MEPs agreed to withdraw the amendment. In return, the member states in the Council gave the green light for Europol to check „foreign direct investment“. The focus is on companies that develop and manufacture surveillance technologies for police forces and intelligence services. If Europol sees this as a threat to „security or public order“, the EU can decide on „restrictive measures“ against the foreign entities.

Commission and Council announce political statements

After being asked, Tudorache explained that Europol „might not be the best equipped for conducting thorough checks on the Interpol red notices“. For this reason, the group had finally abandoned the amendment to the planned Regulation. However, the issue is now on the agenda in Brussels. It would be possible, say the Romanian MEP, to set up a mechanism through which the member states could exchange information on politically motivated Interpol searches. Both the Commission and the Council had, according to Tudorache, announced political statements on this.

However, the Council had already asked the Commission five years ago to support the member states in detecting misused Interpol warrants. However, a workshop announced for this purpose to determine further steps has (to my knowledge) never taken place. Instead, the Commission sees Interpol as being primarily responsible for checking wanted persons for politically motivated abuse before they are distributed and thus effectively preventing it. In fact, such a control commission began its work at Interpol in 2019, but it only processes old cases and made little progress.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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