European Affairs

The ten new members, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, will add their own varied traditions to the European Union's already complex mixture of cultures, legal and political systems and methods of law enforcement. The difficult task facing Europol is to play a major role in helping the enlarged European Union achieve its aim of becoming an area of freedom, security and justice.

Europol started limited operations in January 1994, focusing on the fight against drug trafficking, and became fully active in July 1999. Since then its mandate has been extended, and today covers all serious forms of organized crime and terrorism. Its aim is to handle criminal intelligence and to support international investigations by the member states' law enforcement authorities.

Unlike the FBI, Europol does not have executive powers, such as the authority to conduct independent investigations, seize criminal evidence or arrest criminals. Those powers belong exclusively to the national law enforcement agencies. Yet, Europol does offer valuable support and assistance to them in respect of a wide range of products and services.

One of the most important fields of Europol's activities is that of information and intelligence exchange. Law enforcement investigators need to obtain quick, reliable and comprehensive information on suspected persons, enterprises, bank accounts and suspicious activities. The presence at Europol's headquarters in The Hague of liaison officers from each member state (representing police, customs, gendarmerie, coast guards and security services) has made it possible to exchange information and intelligence far more speedily and completely than ever before.

This network, now consisting of more than 70 liaison officers, makes Europol a unique clearinghouse of data on offenders, addresses, telephone numbers and so on, for use in organized crime investigations. The services of the Europol Liaison Officers (ELOs) are available around the clock. The officers work in all EU official languages and communicate internally and externally using modern and secure electronic technology.

Each year the ELOs support investigations in more than 3,000 cases, mainly covering drugs, illegal immigration, trafficking in human beings, child pornography, stolen vehicles, terrorism, financial crime and counterfeiting of the new euro currency. Europol has already signed cooperation agreements with Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, which are due to enter the European Union in May, Bulgaria, which hopes to join in 2007, and with Norway, which is not currently a candidate for membership. These countries have also sent liaison officers to Europol Headquarters and made a significant contribution to international investigations.

An example of Europol's success was its role in smashing a major Internet-based pedophile network in July 2002, following police raids carried out simultaneously across seven countries including Canada and the United States. The operation was the result of a 12-month investigation, in which Europol played a central supporting and coordinating role.

Crime analysis is today considered to be one of the most sophisticated tools for law enforcement. Europol has invested a great deal of effort in setting up a state of the art analysis system, which has already gained a strong reputation in the international law enforcement community. Operational analysis aims at giving clear directions to law enforcement services by identifying criminal groups, individual criminals, contact points and methods of communication.

Europol's Analysis Unit is currently supporting more than 30 analytical projects that are leading to substantial operational results. At strategic level, Europol gathers information from various law enforcement authorities and other open sources and provides assessments of the main threats and trends of organized crime, such as those contained in the Annual European Union Organized Crime Report.

There is considerable political support, backed by law enforcement agencies, for strengthening the operational role of Europol in fighting organized crime. The EU Council of Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs, to which Europol is accountable, has agreed specific rules for setting up joint investigative teams with Europol's participation and has also decided to allow Europol to ask member states to initiate selected criminal investigations based on Europol's crime analysis results.

These are significant steps toward strengthening Europol's role and giving it more powers to act as a centralized, coordinating body at the heart of the EU law enforcement community. Europol is today able to identify opportunities for joint investigations, to be the main instrument in the creation of joint teams, and to play a critical role in supporting such investigations. International joint teams can be set up and based at Europol, where technical and support facilities can be guaranteed in a secure environment, or they may operate in the territories of the member states under the legal and political responsibility of the competent national authorities.

Apart from operational work, Europol also focuses on developing special training tools that can provide national law enforcement authorities with special knowledge and expertise in their criminal investigations. In the fight against drugs, for example, Europol offers significant training in combating illicit synthetic drugs laboratories, covering all aspects from safety to evidence collection.

During the past 18 months, police and judicial cooperation between the United States and the European Union has also been considerably strengthened, for example through new agreements on extradition and mutual legal assistance. In order to strengthen this cooperation still further, Europol set up a Liaison Office in Washington in August 2002.

The office is staffed with two experienced liaison officers whose main tasks are to explore and develop contacts with U.S. law enforcement authorities and to facilitate the exchange of information as requested by EU member states and Europol headquarters. The Europol Liaison Office is connected to Europol headquarters via sophisticated IT equipment and operates around the clock.

The Washington office has been already successful in establishing contacts and communications with various U.S. law enforcement agencies, and is currently expanding its role in the operational field by facilitating the exchange of information in support of international investigations. The Europol Liaison Office is also increasingly used as a channel for contacting U.S. law enforcement authorities by the countries that will join the European Union in May.

Europol Liaison Officers in Washington are already handling a rising number of criminal inquiries and information exchanges that are likely to increase when the new member states become fully fledged Europol members. The introduction of the euro has given a tremendous impetus to cooperation between Europol and the U.S. authorities in protecting the world's two biggest currencies. This cooperation has already had great success in fighting currency counterfeiting at global level.

The Europol Liaison Office in Washington has progressively improved law enforcement cooperation between Europol, the EU member states and U.S. law enforcement authorities. Its role and its activities are expected to grow continuously stronger in the future.

Evangelos Stergioulis is Head of the Europol Public Relations Unit in The Hague.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number I in the Winter of 2004.