Whist the UK is permitted to opt-out of any European legislation on freedom, security and justice matters, in the UK’s first major opt-in/out decision since the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, the Home Office decided to opt-in to a new regulation on Europol, thereby continuing its membership of the agency after 1 May 2017, when the regulation comes into force, and most likely until Brexit.
Europol was established in 1998 in order to bring together criminal intelligence and share this between police and security forces across EU member states, as well as non-EU partners including Australia, Canada and the US. The agency deals with terrorism and international crime such as cybercrime, drug smuggling and people trafficking. Europol’s officers however have no executive powers, for example to conduct investigations or make arrests.
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris last year and reports suggesting that there were 211 failed, foiled or completed terrorist attacks last year in the EU, there have been calls for the agency’s powers to be increased.
A new regulation on the agency was therefore passed on 11 May 2016 to enhance Europol’s mandate. In particular, the regulation makes it easier for Europol to set up specialised units to respond immediately to emerging terrorist threats and other forms of serious and organised crime. Europol will also be able to exchange information on online terrorist propaganda with private entities, for instance Facebook, directly to speed up the process of removing such propaganda. Additionally, EU member states will be required to provide Europol with any data it needs and Europol will report annually to the Council, Commission and the European and national parliaments on the information provided by individual member states.
The UK has been a member of Europol since its creation however, fearing it would reduce the operational independence of UK policing and increase the obligation to share intelligence data, the UK initially did not sign up to the new regulation, meaning that the country’s collaboration in Europol would have expired in May 2017.
Despite these concerns and the UK’s proposed exit from the EU however,Policing Minister Brandon Lewis notified the UK Parliament on 14 November that the government intends to opt-in to the new regulation, stating that Europol “provides a valuable service to the UK and opting in would enable us to maintain our current access to the agency, until we leave the EU, helping keep the people of Britain safe”.
The move follows calls by the UK’s National Crime Agency to ensure that cross-border crime prevention measures are not jeopardised by the UK’s proposed exit from the EU and warnings from, Rob Wainwright, the Director of Europol and a British national, that Brexit “has the potential to harm the UK’s ability to fight terrorism and crime”, if it means that the UK can no longer cooperate in Europol and other European resources.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that Lewis stated that “the government is exploring options for cooperation with Europol once the UK has left the EU”.
The intention to opt-in will now be scrutinised by Parliament and, if it agrees to this, the government will then notify the Commission of its position.