Exploring Europol – the agency’s reaction to its own limitations (Part 2)

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A country’s location at the EU’s Southern and South-Eastern border is an important factor when it comes to smuggling. Naturally, migrant smuggling is much more common in these areas adjacent to non-EU states than in landlocked states and/or countries in Europe’s North.

The importance of cooperation for information sharing

Europol is reliant on information from non-EU states. For that, international agreements are needed. Such cooperation is already in place with most European countries, but not yet with Turkey, where negotiations are taking place. In the case of most North African and Middle Eastern states, despite miscellaneous efforts, there are neither any operational agreements in place with Europol, nor are there serious talks with these countries to reach such agreements (p.19). Again, this is insofar problematic, as these latter states are both the countries of origin of many migrants as well as those that people have to pass through in order to reach EU territory. At the same time, this state of affairs, i.e.: the lack of cooperation, is undoubtedly a major factor that contributed to the appearance of the migration routes at Europe’s South(-Eastern) borders.

A limit to the agency is that it cannot, and does not, use all possible external sources of information. While Europol has access to the databases of Interpol, SIRENE and SIS II, it is constrained with regards to EURODAC, PNR&API and has no access at all to VIS and the Prüm system (p.23). To improve interconnectivity, Europol launched the QUEST+ project in 2020. The system enables member states to search EAS databases for the desired information. EU states can see if there is a hit, however without being able to access it immediately. It requires further authorisation by Europol. This is a promising approach and shows the agency’s value for its partners. Nevertheless, its procedures are not fully structured and therefore its results cannot be assessed (p.26).

Strategic and operational support

At the same time, this does not diminish Europol’s usefulness for its partners, who can count on operational as well as strategic support and reports of varying complexity. ‘Operational’ means help such as the extraction of data from specific individuals under investigation. ‘Strategic’ stands for overarching, long-term information about developments and thematic areas. On the spot help can take the form of so-called ‘action days’ during which Europol supports local law enforcement in crime hotspots. An example for that was the undertaking at the English Channel on 28th and 29th September 2020, where Europol helped to arrest 12 migrant smugglers (p.30).

Overall, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) has praised Europol as a valued partner for member states in migrant smuggling. Its information exchange mechanisms are an important element in the EU’s crime prevention and investigation architecture. At the same time, the ECA’s report recommends Europol to use all relevant information sources and to further increase data exchange between the agency and its partners. Also, Europol should increase efforts to monitor the performance of its European Migrant Smuggling Centre as well as make the process for case selection more transparent (pp.39-40).

Europol’s potential to help Poland in the border crisis

Europol has already been a help to Poland and other states at the EU’s Eastern flank. In December 2021, together with specialists from Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Germany, Europol managed to block 455 social media accounts connected to illegal immigration from Belarus. The accounts featured advertisements for forged identification documents, VISAs as well as illegal transport services. Another major success occurred in January 2022, when with the help of Europol, Polish officers succeeded in localising and arresting a group of nine people involved in the illegal smuggling of people from Belarus to the EU. Active in Eastern Poland and major Polish cities, the gang organised illegal border crossings. It also recruited additional people as couriers, who used their cars to transport refugees within Poland to Germany. Authorities established that the group earned €8.7 million in total this way.

While such news speak strongly in favour of involving Europol into the current  EU-Belarus border crisis as much as possible, this is not so simple. Asking the EU in the form of Frontex or Europol for help is risky for Poland’s government to an extent. That way, it can make itself vulnerable in the eyes of the Polish opposition, who can then accuse Warsaw of ‘not having been able to solve that crisis on its own’, which could be extended to that it ‘has failed miserably’. This carries with itself implications for the Polish government in terms of whether, within the wake of the current border crisis, Warsaw should involve Europol (more) or not.

Thomas Ewert