European police agency bugged by new delays

Author (Person)
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Series Details Vol.4, No.7, 19.2.98, p1
Publication Date 19/02/1998
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Date: 19/02/1998

By Simon Coss

THE EU police agency Europol will not be fully operational before the end of the century even if the political obstacles now hampering its work are removed.

The agency's chief Juergen Storbeck admitted this week that the vast computer database which will form the centrepiece of the agency's crime-fighting capacity would not be fully online before the year 2000 because of technical problems.

Storbeck said law enforcement agencies would therefore not be able to gain instant and automatic access to personal information held in the system's archives before the turn of the century. Until then, they will have to retrieve the information they need through personnel at the organisation's headquarters in The Hague.

"The database will be a semi-automatic system until the year 2000,"

Storbeck told European Voice, adding: "We will have everything ready after then."

Europol should have been up and running almost a year ago, but national parliaments have taken far longer than anticipated to ratify the convention which will allow the agency to carry out all the tasks allotted to it.

The latest delay is a major setback for Europol as this rapid access to data is precisely what EU member states want to enable them to tackle cross-border crime more effectively.

The news is also sure to come as a particular disappointment to the UK, which would like ratification of the convention completed before the end of its Union presidency on 30 June.

At a recent meeting of EU law and order ministers in Birmingham, British Home Secretary Jack Straw said he hoped that all 15 EU parliaments would finish scrutinising the agreement by the end of May, paving the way for Europol to start work three months later.

The fact that the agency which will begin work, if the May deadline is met, will only be a prototype of the fully functioning Europol envisaged by its supporters is sure to take some of the shine off London's victory.

Computer hitches are not the only problems plaguing the fledging police agency.

Trouble is also looming in the shape of a Spanish request for terrorist activities to be included in the organisation's remit as soon as it gets under way.

In making the request, Madrid risks reigniting the dispute which blew up when the Europol convention was first being drafted. The controversy centred on the fact that, in many member states, it is military rather than police authorities who are responsible for anti-terrorist measures.

A compromise was eventually reached under which Europol's range of activities will be extended to cover such crimes two years after it begins operations.

Spain now argues that in view of the delays in ratifying the Europol Convention, the organisation should be allowed to investigate terrorist activities from 1 January next year.

However, other governments point out that widening Europol's remit from the outset would require an increase in the agency's budget, a move which they are not prepared to sanction.

One way out of the problem, suggested by diplomats, would be to ask Europol itself whether it could take on the extra duties from day one without additional resources.

But EU officials are sceptical. "They have already said unofficially that they won't be ready," explained one.

Storbeck himself was more diplomatic, but his analysis of the situation is much the same.

"Once we have been officially asked we will make a feasibility study. I imagine that if member states agree to second an extra 20 experts to us, at their cost, then it might be possible even without dramatically expanding the budget," he said.

In other words, if governments want the agency to do more, they will have to pay more.

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