In Europe, crime defies national borders Copyright 1998 Nando.net Copyright 1998 Scripps Howard BRUSSELS (February 6, 1998 00:08 a.m. EST http://www.nando.net) -- Europe's power brokers have been talking for years about the need to tackle organized crime in the European Union, but their minds have been focused recently by a spate of incidents in their own back yard. Since December, there have been more than 180 carjackings in Brussels, home to hundreds of wealthy officials and diplomats whose taste for big, fancy cars has attracted the attention of criminals. By the time the victims have alerted Belgian police, the Mercedes, Audis, Golfs and Saabs are usually well on their way to the Polish border in the east or Spanish ports in the south. According to one Belgian policeman, cars sporting the stickers of local Brussels garages are now a common sight in Poland. The increase in the number of carjackings is symptomatic of a Europe-wide rise in the activities of organized gangs and mafias that specialize in drug trafficking, prostitution, money laundering, arms and radioactive materials. Experts say the explosion in criminal activity corresponds with the lowering of border controls between most EU member states and the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. "In Russia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mafia gangs were one of the few groups that remained organized," said an official from Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS). He added that the groups were given an extra edge by the frequent presence of former military personnel. The mafias first made inroads into the Benelux countries and Germany via prostitution. They have since spread their tentacles into other countries and other crimes. The EU response has been slow and heavy-handed. Though European ministers have been meeting since 1975 to exchange information and experience, progress has been hampered by their reluctance to pool sovereignty in the sensitive areas of law enforcement and justice. There's also been a lack of trust among police forces in different European countries. "Criminal networks benefit from the differences between different justice systems, ensuring almost total impunity," says a European Commission paper. "An international criminal fraternity has been able to develop and prosper thanks to the inconsistencies between systems in each member state." So even if the German police capture a criminal driving a car stolen in Belgium, legal obstacles will hinder efforts not only to return the car but also to bring the thief to justice. The need to do more was highlighted at a recent meeting of justice and home affairs ministers in Birmingham, England. "There is no question about the need to improve the mutual arrangements between member states," said British Home Secretary Jack Straw, who chaired the informal council. Britain has picked organized crime as a priority for its six-month presidency of the EU. It used the Birmingham meeting to pressure on Belgium, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg to complete ratification of the Europol convention -- a move that would allow the so far highly constrained European police intelligence agency to do more to fight organized crime. Once ratification is complete, the agency, based in The Hague, will assume the power to work alongside domestic police forces investigating cross-border crime. The ministers also looked at the recommendations of an action plan against organized crime. Points picked out for special attention include work on combating high-tech crime and the swift adoption of a raft of conventions aimed at improving cooperation in legal and justice fields. The plan also raises the pressing need to help the countries of Eastern Europe that are preparing for EU membership to get their legal and justice systems in order. The task is formidable, especially given the extent to which many of the countries bordering the EU have become home to criminal gangs. "We have to be sure that they follow the rule of law, that their judiciaries are independent, that they are not subject to highly organized crime and that they will be able to police their external borders effectively," said Straw. Nevertheless, there's a strong conviction that the EU has done too little for the Eastern European applicants. "Do you really think the French or German police will be ready to share confidential information with the Polish or Estonian police in five years' time?" asked one official. By EMMA TUCKER, The Financial Times. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
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