EU debating armed police to operate with impunity across borders
Germany presses reluctant European partners to allow armed police and undercover agents to operate with impunity outside their own country
London Observer | January 21, 2007
The EU faces a damaging split over moves led by Germany to impose a radical law and order package. If enacted into European legislation, it would allow armed police to operate with impunity outside their home countries, privatised armed 'sky marshals' on civilian flights and a wide range of joint operations against alleged illegal migrants.
The Observer has obtained confidential documents showing that Germany also wants to permit undercover officers working with criminal gangs to roam unrestricted across European borders.
The plans are provoking opposition in Whitehall and among senior British police officers. Many of them recall how, in 1996, a Dutch parliamentary inquiry revealed that tonnes of illegal drugs had been exported from the Netherlands to Britain with the assistance of Dutch undercover agents, who had allowed informants to run amok.
'We have learnt the hard way how difficult it is to regulate undercover operations,' one source said, citing a series of high-profile Customs and Excise cases that collapsed in the Court of Appeal after irregularities came to light. 'We need to be extremely wary.'
Germany's plans - which first came to light at a meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers in Dresden last week - threaten to derail or delay other measures allowing European police forces to share data, such as DNA and fingerprints. These have provoked criticism from civil libertarians, but have found broad agreement among governments.
Sources who attended the meeting say the Germans - present holders of the EU presidency - appeared to expect unanimous endorsement. Instead, they encountered 'solid opposition' in key areas from Britain, Sweden and the Czech Republic. Further talks will be held in Brussels next month.
The German package began as the Treaty of Prum, an agreement signed in the German town of that name between Germany, France, Austria and four other countries in 2005 but never negotiated by EU policy-making bodies. There was no consultation with the European Parliament - which scrutinises law and order measures.
Germany, with Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble in the fore, wants all 27 member states to ratify the treaty and so adopt it as European law. But going about it in this way means members must swallow it whole, and even if it is discussed by national parliaments, they would have no power to amend it. A British spokeswoman said the UK was not prepared to do this. 'Though the Germans want it all, we think we can take some but not all of Prum into EU law,' she said. That would amount to a very different process, in which the European Parliament would be involved.
The treaty's relaxed approach to armed police arouses deep concern in Britain. Sky marshals - who can be private contractors as long as they are 'suitably trained' - would be allowed to carry guns on any flight, provided destination states are informed. In 'urgent situations', armed police could cross from one country to another without notice, and 'take any provisional measures necessary to avert imminent danger'. An urgent situation is defined as any circumstance where there is 'a risk [that] danger will materialise in the event of waiting for the host state's officers to act'.
'I don't have to tell you how sensitive this is here,' a senior Metropolitan Police source said. 'We may have shot Jean Charles de Menezes in error, but overall, armed officers are still deployed here much less than anywhere in else in Europe, and we have by far the best record in armed incidents.'
Even the Prum measures on sharing data are controversial. 'Of course, police forces can already get access to each other's information,' said Tony Bunyan of the civil liberties monitoring group Statewatch. 'The idea that they can't get what they need when they're looking for a rapist or paedophile is nonsense. But at the moment, they have to go through justice ministries, which leaves a paper trail and takes time. Prum speeds this up, and instead of needing a target suspect before they make a request for data, they will be able to go on what amount to Europe-wide fishing expeditions.'
The treaty also requires police to make inquiries in response to requests from colleagues abroad if a person is not already in their database, and to obtain samples of his or her DNA.
A memo seen by The Observer from the German presidency suggests its long-term agenda is more radical. The aim, it states, is to 'simplify the cross-border deployment of undercover officers in order to step up member states' co-operation in the fight against serious cross-border crime'. Germany argues that one member state should be able to 'lend' its undercover police to another to make their operations more effective.
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