Germany, France, Belgium and Spain have agreed to drastically improve the exchange of information on convicted criminals. By late 2005, criminal records in the four EU countries will be easily accessible on request.
Digital files rather than hardcopies will likely be exchanged
German justice minister Brigitte Zypries said no new laws were required to make this feasible. The four-nation project as presented in Paris is meant to be open for other EU countries too, but a joint solution for all 25 member countries is not in sight.
EU justice ministers have long regarded improving the exchange of data on convicted criminals between member countries as a top priority.
The issue was highlighted recently by the case of convicted child rapist Michel Fourniret. He was a French forest warden who eventually confessed to nine murders on both sides of the Franco-Belgian border. Fourniret was jailed in France in 1983 for raping minors, but moved to Belgium after his release in 1987.
He got a job as a school supervisor. No checks were made to see if he had a criminal record in France. Had it been available, a cross-border computerized information exchange system for criminal convictions would have allowed Belgium to access data about Fourniret.
EU-wide system unlikely
From the end of this year, such a system will be in use, shared between Germany, France, Belgium and Spain. A single EU-wide criminal records exchange system is unlikely to come about, because several member countries believe that the logistics would pose too great a problem. They are also unsure whether the electronic exchange of criminal records data would be compatible with national data protection laws.
However, German interior minister Otto Schily believes that member countries should take a more robust stance on crime prevention.
Europol has been the agency for EU police cooperation so far
"You can't always say something might violate data protection regulations and then do nothing," he said. "That's a very dangerous approach. We always tend to jump into action once something has already happened, rather than trying to prevent crimes from being committed in the first place."
Be that as it may, information will soon be flowing more freely -- at least between four EU member countries.
Open to other countries
German justice minister Brigitte Zypries who presented the project in Paris spoke of a promising beginning and mentioned that the system would also be open to other EU member countries as well. The Czech Republic and Malta are just two who have already having voiced an interest in joining at a later date.
Zypries told DW-RADIO that criminal investigators and justice authorities would soon be able to receive information immediately on request.
"We’re not talking about completely new regulations," she said. "But the electronic transfer of information on convicted criminals will enable us to act much faster. At the moment, it takes up to half a year to process a request. With a computer system in place, we'll be able to provide the required information on the day it was requested."
The system may be useful, but it is not a cure-all. In the case of Fourniret, it is highly unlikely that the Belgian authorities would have sought information on a school supervisor. It is not the sort of post that they would feel obliged to check up on. In Germany, however, he would have been checked automatically before being given the job.