With the Atlas group, the EU has a powerful police network of 38 member states. On Germany’s initiative, a “surveillance group” has now been added.
Actually, the European Union is not supposed to take competences away from the member states. Therefore, in each of the 27 EU countries, the local police is responsible for law enforcement and prevention of danger. However, agencies such as Europol can take on a coordinating role in cross-border incidents. The EU police agency always comes into play when two or more member states are involved.
Due to the EU treaties, Europol itself should not have any police units with coercive powers or even armaments. However, the governments have decided in the Council that the agency may coordinate its special units. Since 2019, a “support office” for the so-called Atlas Group has been located at Europol’s Counter-Terrorism Centre in The Hague. It organises 38 special task forces from the Schengen states as well as Great Britain, which will be allowed to continue participating in police cooperation in Europe even after Brexit.
The Atlas Group was initially founded as an informal structure after the attacks of 11 September 2001, and has been part of the EU since 2008. Brussels wants to use it to prepare for large-scale police operations. This concerns operations in the event of terrorist attacks, serious and organised crime or “crises”. For such situations, treaties such as the so-called Solidarity Clause apply, according to which the member states and the Commission are to assist each other with their police units – but only at the request of the state in question.
From Germany, the GSG 9 of the Federal Police as well as special units from Baden-Württemberg participate in the Atlas network, from Austria the Cobra. Countries like France, Spain or the Netherlands also send their gendarmeries. These are military units that, after basic training, take on tasks in the area of internal security.
The support office for the Atlas network at Europol was not actually operational until 2021. It is to consist of a total of five officers with management functions, and member states also assign senior members of their police or gendarmerie to Europol. The network also has a secretariat, which is currently provided by the Slovak Lynx police corps. The political chairmanship of the Atlas network is held by the respective Council Presidency; for the current six months, it is therefore the responsibility of the Swedish government.
For the cooperation with Europol, the EU Commission provides additional funding, most of it from the Europol budget. For 2023, the support office will receive almost €4 million; with €2.6 million for a maritime training centre, most of the money will go to Germany. There, a hostage situation on a ship is to be simulated; among the more than 200 expected participants are also 30 role players.
Every year, the European special forces hold joint training exercises, some of which have a competitive character. Every five years, these exercises have been held simultaneously in different countries. The last such event took place a fortnight ago with about 300 personnel under the name “Firestorm”. It assumed a “terrorist plot” across 15 national borders. The scenario began in Ireland, from where two suspects with “nefarious plans” flew to Austria and then travelled to the Benelux countries. The “final attack” was then carried out in the Netherlands by the Atlas Group.
In addition to the operational capabilities of the armed special units, Europol now also coordinates observation units, such as those based in Germany as the Mobile Task Force at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). Previously, three different police networks existed for this purpose in the EU, the states of the Western Balkans, the Schengen members Norway and Switzerland as well as Great Britain. In 2020, the entities were merged into a “European Surveillance Group” and located at Europol. The initiative for this came largely from Germany, which had used its EU Presidency for this purpose. The leadership of the group, which consists of 16 states and Europol, is currently in the hands of Jan Köhler, an official of the BKA, the authority confirmed in response to a question from “nd”.
The surveillance group would standardise techniques and methods of covert surveillance throughout Europe and simplify cross-border observation, praises the German Ministry of the Interior. Joint training takes place, for example, on reacting to “counter-surveillance” and electronically disrupting police measures, or on observation in poor lighting conditions. Above all, however, the units practise tracking and taking over observed targets across several European borders. For this purpose, they can fall back on a server at Europol, with which tracking devices on vehicles can be traced across borders.
In a working group called “Innovations”, the Atlas network is testing new special technology, in which unnamed US authorities are also involved. Drones that can break through windows and walls with explosive charges are being tested as “tactical support weapons”. The special forces have also bought a robotic dog that is supposedly equipped with artificial intelligence. This four-legged machine is supposed to move to another member state every few months and should obviously generate interest there in acquiring one of its own.
With the coordination of armed special units and now also observation squads, the anti-terrorism centre at Europol is being strengthened. However, this does not give the police agency its own powers to exercise coercive measures. For this, the EU would have to be completely restructured, as EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson has confirmed. “The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union “does not provide for Europol to be developed into a kind of European FBI”The Treaty on the Functioning of the European
Union provides that Europol cannot be a European FBI, notably because Europol does not have coercive powers and that its main role is to support and strengthen national law enforcement”, she said. So in Germany, the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, the Liberal Democrats (FDP) and the Christian Democrats (CDU), whose representatives have repeatedly called for such a “European FBI”, will have to wait a little longer.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: Troops at “Firestorm 2023” (Europol).