Europol-wide surveillance system?

Member States discuss broader powers for Europol in cracking down on illegal drug traffic

European Member States are currently discussing changes to the Europol Convention. One point on the table is the extent to which Europol should provide assistance to the Member States in the form of technical surveillance of cross-border drug traffic, according to Europol senior deputy director Willy Bruggeman in an interview I held with him last Friday. The amendments are being discussed under the heading, "technical support of Europol to the Member States."

"Every single Member State has to run systems for the technical surveillance of controlled deliveries," Mr. Bruggeman states. "These systems are very expensive. The question is whether the Member States will continue to do this by themselves, or if Europol can [have a part] in this."

Bruggeman believes this would be a huge step forward. But isn’t it unlikely that Member States would want to take this step?? "I don’t know," replies Mr. Bruggeman. "Member States like Germany and France will prefer to keep their own systems. The Netherlands also has a high potential surveillance system. But countries like Finland, Luxembourg and Portugal are very eager for a European surveillance system. It certainly would benefit the taxpayers. Of course this is a very difficult discussion. If you built a European surveillance capability, the service to the national police squads must be at the same level they now enjoy under their national systems. That will be the fear: if you built one large surveillance system, you may end up at the end of the line with your surveillance request. Besides that, there are big differences in the laws of the Member States. So it’s a tough discussion."

According to Mr. Bruggeman, the Member States are facing technical problems in cross border surveillance operations. "This is also a problematic point," Mr. Bruggeman says. "There is a problem with the compatibility of radio frequencies in Europe. If a Dutch team succeeds in hiding a radio device in a suspected drug transport, the risk is that it will lose the signal as soon as they cross the Belgian border. Also, communication between the different national observation teams is difficult. So it would be a step forward to built a European infrastructure for these kinds of things."

Bruggeman can imagine there will be some kind of European surveillance capability for Europol for emergencies. "The Member States can run their own basic surveillance infrastructure. Europol could run an extra facility, for emergency events or specialized techniques. It is also possible that Europol will offer a surveillance infrastructure for large cross border operations. For instance, if you have an illegal drugs delivery from Portugal to the Netherlands."

There are many unresolved questions, according to Mr. Bruggeman. "Would Europol be restricted to only delivering the technical infrastructure with national operators using them in practice? Or should Europol officials operate the technical devices? If you decide in favor of the last option, you also have to start a discussion on immunities for Europol staff. It cannot be the case that Europol officials are actively engaging in operational actions without any accountability to the court."

The amendments for the Europol Convention are scheduled for next year. Bruggeman expects that only a modest step will be taken. "A lot of water will flow through the sea before these matters will be totally decided. So I only expect a few modest and careful decisions on these matters next year. But I find it an interesting discussion, one that will be continued."

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