Based on the new legal framework, Europol can initiate, conduct or coordinate a criminal investigation in the EU Member State from May 1, 2017.
By Emilija Davidović (BCSP Intern) / Photo: Europol
In the wake of terrorist attacks that took place last year in Paris and Brussels, it has been seen that Europol’s powers must be boosted to improve its ability to respond immediately. It was necessary to equip Europol to better support Member States in prevention, analyses, and investigations of crime and terrorism throughout EU.
“Given that terrorism is one of the most significant threats to the security of the Union, Europol should also be in a position to assist the Member States in facing this challenge. Europol is in the best position to act as an information hub, and through the powers conveyed to it through this new regulation, it will truly come into its own in this area”, stated Maltese Minister for Home Affairs and National Security Carmelo Abela at the Europol Management Board meeting on May 1, 2017.
The new Europol regulation came into force exactly on May 1, 2017. The new legal framework establishes Europol as the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation with a view to supporting cooperation among law enforcement authorities in the EU.
“The new powers will improve Europol’s ability to support the EU Member States in the fight against terrorism and organized crime at a time when Europe faces many challenging security threats”, highlighted Director of Europol Rob Wainwright at the Europol Management Board meeting.
Europol’s main goal stays unchanged.
The Agency shall support and strengthen action by the competent authorities of the Member States and their mutual cooperation in preventing and combating serious crime affecting two or more Member States, terrorism, and forms of crime which affect a common interest covered by a Union policy.
However, many changes have been introduced to the work of the Agency.
Europol’s staff may participate in the activities of joint investigation teams dealing with crime falling within Europol’s objectives. Europol was given the right to request the competent authorities of the Member States to initiate, conduct or coordinate a criminal investigation. The new regulation called for the establishment of national units in each Member State as liaison bodies aim to improve the cooperation between the Agency and States.
For Europol, it is necessary to have the fullest and most up-to-date information possible and to ensure a high level of data protection. In that context, the new regulation gives the Member States, EU bodies, third countries and international organizations ability to determine the purpose or purposes for which Europol can process the data they provide and to restrict data access.
It also lays down the rules on different degrees of the right of access to data, with the aim to ensure that only those needing access to perform their tasks can get them. In order to avoid information gaps in the fight against organized crime and terrorism, the new rules make it a duty of Member States to provide Europol with all needed data.
The regulation includes the whole package of data protection safeguards. It calls for the appointment of an independent Data Protection Officer, who will perform given duties in cooperation with the European Data Protection Supervisor and the designation of a national supervisory authority in each Member State.
The progress has been made regarding parliamentary accountability for Europol’s actions. The European Parliament will now scrutiny the Agency’s activities together with national parliaments through the establishment of a Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group. The Group will consist of Members of the European Parliament as well as of the national parliaments. The Group shall politically monitor Europol’s activities in fulfilling its mission, including their impact on the fundamental rights and freedoms.
Some questions have come up concerning to the new Europol’s regulation.
First on the Internet Referral Unit which has been operative since July 2015 and is part of the newly-established European Counter-Terrorism Centre. Its purpose is to help to monitor the internet and gathering data on terrorism financing, arms trafficking and the surveillance of foreign fighters. The Unit monitors the internet looking for content that is “incompatible” with the terms of service of online service providers, like Facebook and Twitter.
Working with those social media providers, the Unit can remove material that is seen as “incompatible”, whether it is legal or illegal. Europol can also receive personal data, which is publicly available, from private parties like those social media providers directly, which was not possible before new regulation. The problem can be seen in the fact that there are no transparency requirements to inform the public about any type of information exchange between Europol and other parties.
This regulation has lead Denmark to holding a referendum in 2015, concerning the country’s membership in Europol. The result showed that Danish people don’t want to change their opt-out on justice and home affair matters, thus Denmark left Europol on the day the new regulation took effect.
However, a Joint Declaration by the Presidents of the European Council and the Commission and the Danish Prime Minister was signed on April 29, 2017. This agreement allows Denmark to share and exchange important operational data with Europol, as long as it remains in Schengen. Denmark now holds the status of observer state and is permitted to participate in high-level meetings, but does not have a right to vote.