As the list of terrorist attacks on Europe's soil gets longer, Europol is under pressure for a perceived lack of cooperation on security matters between EU member states. Is the EU's security in the wrong hands?
"[The attack in] Berlin unfortunately is a sad reminder that we are dealing with thousands of potentially radicalized individuals who could carry out those kind of attacks," the director of the EU’s law enforcement agency Rob Wainwright told Deutsche Welle's Conflict Zone.
Wainwright said Europol "can't reduce that threat to zero" as it is facing a "very determined and well-resourced terrorist group in 'IS' that [is] intent on carrying the fight into our backdoor in Europe as we have seen from Paris through Brussels and now in Berlin as well."
The Tunisian Anis Amri is accused of having killed 12 people by running them over with a truck at a Christmas market on December 19, 2016. Amri was denied asylum in May 2016. Yet German authorities couldn't deport him as the necessary papers hadn't yet arrived from Tunisia. In September, Moroccan intelligence authorities warned Germany's foreign intelligence service (BND) about Amri. A few weeks later, they warned the BND again. He was also on a US watch list and had been imprisoned in Italy.
Will Europol prevent further attacks?
"So he did everything except put an ad in the paper and announce what he was going to do, didn't he?", DW host Tim Sebastian asked. Wainwright denied that his organization was to blame for the attack: "Across Europe we are dealing with a pool, a very large community of people. many of which are surveilled, many of which are on the radar of law enforcement but it's a very large community and its not always easy to predict who the next attack might come from."
On Conflict Zone, Wainwright admitted that "more should have been done to exchange the intelligence, to use the instruments of security corporation" in Europe but added that the public should be confident that "most terrorist attacks are stopped in Europe".
In 2015, European security forces arrested 667 people for suspected terrorist activities.
However, as combating terrorism has become a growing concern within Europol after terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris, the European Parliament approved new powers to fight terrorism in May 2016. The reforms push EU countries to provide the agency with more relevant information, and make it easier for Europol to set up specialized counter-terrorism units. But although its main purpose is to handle criminal intelligence and combat international organized crime, Europol is not entitled to conduct investigations in the EU member states or arrest suspects. As a result, the EU's law enforcement agency largely remains a data sharing tool and has failed to initiate effective action against terrorism.
Activists have warned about Europol becoming a data "super authority". Danish MEP, Rina Ronja Kari, said: "With the reform of Europol we would move from police cooperation on equal footing to a more centralized version. This could be effective in terms of working to combat crime, but we will be collecting more information about citizens. This parliament has forgotten to protect the private data of citizens, [e.g.] on Facebook."
A serious security breach was revealed in November 2016. A Dutch radio program said it found more than 700 pages containing the details of people involved in terrorism investigations going back ten years. Europol said the dossiers weren't seen by anyone apart from the journalists, however a leakage couldn't be ruled out. Wainwright came under fire for not having informed MEPs despite having known about the incident since September. He told Conflict Zone: "That was an embarrassing episode, absolutely. Thankfully, it was about data from ten years ago, none of which compromises any current investigation. But we didn’t take it lightly."
The European Parliament is expected to set up a new Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group in May 2017 to watch over the agency.
'Nobody talks about abandoning the internet'
"The Internet is by far a more significant facilitator of crime and terrorism than the Schengen borderless zone will ever be," Wainwright said when asked whether the Schengen area was still a realistic security concept in the era of terrorism.
"And no one talks about abandoning the internet," he said on former Interpol head Ron Noble's argument that Schengen was like "hanging out a welcome sign for terrorists" and asked whether it shouldn't be abandoned. Wainwright has previously worked for Britain’s MI5 security service as an intelligence analyst specializing in organized crime and counter-terrorism.
"[The Internet] is an instrument of freedom that is enjoyed by a citizen but of course capable of being exploited by criminals and terrorists. (…) It's our job in law enforcement not to whinge about political decisions that are made but actually not take the benefits and the freedom from our public." Wainwright has therefore pushed for renewed efforts in combating and dismantling cyber crime.
Will Europol be the same after Brexit?
In 2016, UK authorities initiated 2,500 cases for cross-border investigation and operational support at Europol, according to POLITICO. Britain is estimated to be involved in around 40 percent of all Europol cases. It has one of the highest rates of engagement in the EU. Brexit will undoubtedly affect Europol's infrastructure.
"It's the subject of negotiations, (…) we cannot predict how the negotiations around Brexit will eventually transpire. I hope and indeed perhaps expect that Britain will get a good deal on security but it's not for me to second-guess what that might be," Wainwright said.
Once Article 50 is triggered, the UK will no longer recognize the European Parliament's authority over its legislation and national policy, and will have no say in further Europol reforms.
'Best possible deal for Britain'
The UK will push for a central role in the agency but outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice following Brexit, according to a senior source. A government spokesman told the British Telegraph: "The UK is leaving the EU but the reality of cross-border crime remains. The priority as we enter into our negotiations to leave the EU will be to secure the best possible deal for Britain, including cooperation on law enforcement and counter-terrorism work."
Wainwright responded to questions about the future of Europol and after Brexit by saying "Britain is a leading player of course in the EU in security matters. And I hope it continues to be after Britain leaves the European Union." He went on to note that Prime Minister Theresa May has recently spoken in favour of retaining membership of Europol. "I hope it will continue to be a member," he said, "I expect it will be."