Europol and Interpol

Europol, the European Police Office, is a European Union agency tasked with promoting cooperation between the police forces of member states. It dates from a proposal to create a European equivalent of Interpol, tabled by the German government in 1991, at a time when European activity in the field of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) was very limited. The initiative was confirmed by the European Council (of EU heads of government) in June that year, developed in detail by justice ministers, and embodied in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. The latter provided for ‘police cooperation for the purposes of preventing and combatting terrorism, unlawful drug trafficking and other serious forms of international crime’, backed up by ‘the organisation of a Union-wide system for exchanging police information within a European Police Office (Europol)’ (then Article K.1(9) TEU).

Focussed initially on the rapid and confidential exchange of information, Europol was launched in 1993, based inThe Hague. A Europol Convention was signed in 1995 (subsequently amended by three protocols), widening the agency’s remit to cover more serious crimes and enabling it to cooperate, in greater detail, with a broader range of law-enforcement bodies in the member states. Cooperation between such bodies has always been complicated by the sheer diversity of structures on the ground. Most member states have both national and local police forces, with an often complex division of responsibility between the various tiers. Conversely, theUnited Kingdomhas no national police force, with 52 separate geographic units.

The current operation of Europol is defined by a decision of the Council of Ministers in April 2009 and by the wording of Article 88 TFEU, introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009. The latter states that ‘Europol’s mission shall be to support and strengthen action by the Member States’ police authorities and other law enforcement services and their mutual cooperation in preventing and combatting organised crime affecting two or more Member States, terrorism and forms of crime which affect a common interest covered by a Union policy’. A more precise list of such crimes is given in an annex to the 2009 decision, with Europol involvement foreseen for those that ‘require a common approach … owing to the scale, significance and consequences’ of the offences committed.

Europol fulfils this role by collecting, analysing and exchanging information and intelligence with the member states, and notifying them of any relevant information or evident links between crimes. It may ask member states to initiate, conduct or coordinate investigations, often using Joint Investigation Teams (JITs) established for this purpose. It also prepares threat assessments and situation reports on certain types of crime, and provides support to member states in relation to important events of various kinds. Europol operates in close liaison with Eurojust, a parallel agency, also located inThe Hague, which promotes cooperation between the national authorities responsible for investigating and prosecuting serious crimes.

Engaged in Europol’s work are just under 500 staff, including around 100 criminal analysts. In addition, over 120 ‘European Liaison Officers’ (ELOs) are seconded to Europol from member-state police forces or other law-enforcement bodies at any time. The agency deals with some 9,000 cases a year. Operational agreements have been negotiated with seven non-EU countries: the United States, Canada, Australia, Croatia, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Nine other, mainly high-crime, countries have ‘strategic agreements’ with Europol.

Until the Lisbon Treaty came into force, decision-making in relation to Europol, like other aspects of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, was conducted on an intergovernmental basis, under the so-called ‘third pillar’ of the Union. It was not even an obligation on the part of the Council to consult the European Parliament on draft legislation, although the latter did receive an annual report on Europol’s activities. Now that the co-decision procedure applies to this policy field and Europol’s funding has been incorporated into the general Budget of theUnion, over the whole of which the Parliament has co-equal status with the Council, the degree of public accountability of Europol activities is likely to increase substantially.

The name ‘Europol’ deliberately echoes that of Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organisation, devoted to the gathering and exchange of information (and discussion of other matters of common interest) among police forces worldwide. Interpol grew out of the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), founded in Viennain 1923. By the end of the 1930s, 34 countries were members of the ICPC, but after the Anschluss in 1938, the organisation fell into the hands of the Nazis and was effectively disbanded. When it was refounded in 1946, the ICPC’s statute pre­vented it from becoming involved in cases of a political, religious, racial or mil­itary character. Known as Interpol since 1956, the body’s headquarters and general secretariat are inLyon, and are supplemented by ‘national central bureaux’ within the police forces of each participating state. Interpol is wholly dependent upon the voluntary cooperation of its member states, of which there are 188. It is governed by an executive committee and general assembly and has four working languages: English, French, Spanish and Arabic.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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