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Europe

EU should use anti-terror methods against mafia, says German interior minister

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere says coordination is key to combating everything from human trafficking to money laundering. But his Italian counterpart Marco Minniti thinks the EU should go much further.

Interoperability - that was the buzzword German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere stressed during a conference on organized crime at the Italian embassy in Berlin on Wednesday. To illustrate his point, de Maiziere cited the example of one European anti-crime data base collecting fingerprints but no names while another gathered names but no fingerprints.

De Maiziere called on Europe to standardize and link such information sources and said that anti-terrorism measures could serve as a model.

"The fight against terrorism got the ball rolling," de Maiziere said. "We want to further develop and systematically network our existing information silos (insular management system)."

While terrorism grabs many more headlines, organized crime is arguably the bigger the problem. According to the NGO Mafia, Nein Danke (Mafia, No Thanks), which organized the conference, and the German Finance Ministry, some 100 billion euros ($115 billion) is laundered annually in Germany alone by everything from massive real estate companies to mafia-owned pizzerias. Germany, usually considered a pillar of European stability, is a veritable El Dorado for people looking to feed ill-gotten gains into the mainstream economy.

"If I was given a choice between an ["Islamic State"] terrorist and an organized crime boss, I couldn't say who was worse," said Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti, whose country has made dramatic progress combating the mafia.

And Italy is the place in Europe where the human toll of organized crime on the continent is perhaps most immediately apparent at the moment.

Overfilled boat full of migrants on the Mediterranean

One form of organized crime is potentially deadly human trafficking

'Blood-stained profits'

The illegal drug trade remains organized crime's biggest source of income, but the various mafias operating in Europe are branching out into other activities, including the human trafficking of people across the Mediterranean. De Maiziere said that more than 100,000 migrants had arrived in Europe this year, with most landing in Italy. He added that over 2,000 had died, falling victim to traffickers' utter lack of scruples.

"Human traffickers send people wishing to migrate or forced to flee out on overcrowded and unseaworthy boats over the Mediterranean," de Maiziere said. "Some of these boats don't even have the capability, technically, of reaching the Italian coastline. These are blood-stained profits that are being earned."

De Maiziere also said traffickers hoped that public shock at such deaths would encourage the EU to accept more migrants, thereby motivating more people to risk the voyage over the Mediterranean and increasing profits. Minniti called upon the European Union to help Italy deal with this influx of people.

"It would be a gigantic mistake to abandon Italy," Minniti said.

Thomas de Maiziere and Marco Minniti

De Maiziere (left) and Minniti have different approaches

Italian-German disagreements

Human trafficking may attract a lot of media attention, but the vast majority of the money earned by organized crime comes from a spectrum of less spectacularly tragic activities such as brand piracy, tax evasion and smuggling. Experts agree that curtailing criminals' ability to launder money is just as important as arresting people for the crimes themselves - and perhaps more effective as a deterrent.

Analysts such as the government consultant Andreas Frank, himself a former Goldman Sachs banker, say that Germany has had almost no success implementing its anti-money-laundering laws. De Maiziere was at pains to suggest that recent measures, including the automatic international comparison of bank account details, would change that.

But although Germany and Italy both seek EU-wide solutions to the challenge of organized crime, they disagreed somewhat about how to proceed. Italy wants to see the creation of an EU prosecutor general and perhaps even a European version of the FBI.

"If we want to do something concrete on the European level to combat money laundering, then we need a single authority to coordinate this work," Minniti said. "The exchange of information isn't enough."

De Maiziere said that Germany's constitution would not allow the formation of a European FBI and said that better monitoring and surveillance and data sharing represented the only practical way forward. Anti-money-laundering rules have been tightened in Germany, and de Maiziere thinks that this and other legislation will improve the situation.

"The automatic comparison of bank accounts is complicated, but if we succeed in implementing it, we'll have an unprecedented level of clarity about financial transactions," said de Maiziere. "And that's the worst sort of news for tax cheats and money launderers."

Infographic about sources of illegal revenue in Germany

Drugs remain the mafia's cash cow, but syndicates are diversifying

The future will tell

Italy passed legislation making it easier for the government to seize assets earned by organized crime, and Germany has just recently followed suit, albeit with less stringent legislation. Critics have long suspected that in the past European countries have dragged their feet on the implementation of laws combating organized crime and money laundering in order to avoid damaging powerful economic interests in mainstream society.

Experts attending the conference said that they would have to wait and see whether the initiatives and priorities sketched out by de Maiziere and Minniti would actually change anything.

"I agree with Minister de Maiziere that we have to improve the legal instruments we have, before we do anything new," Arndt Sinn, Professor of European Law at Osnabrück University, told DW. "As far as the new anti-money-laundering and asset-seizure legislation is concerned, only the future will tell. Obviously Germany's old laws had serious deficiencies."

Sinn added that both the EU and Germany would have to be willing to devote additional funds to research, prevention and enforcement if they were truly serious about trying to stop the flow of money to and from organized crime.

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