Europol exit threatens Danish policing

Denmark’s opt-outs on EU co-operation could force Denmark to leave the EU’s law enforcement agency that its police force replies upon to fight serious and organised crime

Money laundering, drug trafficking and cyber crime do not respect national borders, a fact that presents challenges to European police forces that have to try and solve crimes that can span the continent.

Their job is made easier thanks to the EU law enforcement agency Europol where liaison officers from each of the national police forces share and analyse information related to cross-border crime at its headquarters in the Hague, Netherlands.

But in a major blow to Denmark, the Danish national police, Rigspolitiet, may have to withdraw its liaison officers because of a European Commission (EC) proposal designed to strengthen Europol’s role as a hub for fighting serious and organised crime in Europe.

The reason can be traced back to 1993 when Denmark signed the Treaty of Edinburgh that kept it within the EU but on the condition that it would not participate in four areas of co-operation: defence, the euro, EU citizenship, and justice and home affairs (JHA).

Forced retreat

The EC’s proposal will transform Europol from an intergovernmental organisation to a supranational co-operation within the EU’s joint judicial and policing policies. This area of co-operation falls under the JHA opt-out, meaning that Denmark will no longer have a mandate to remain in Europol.

This may mean that Rigspolitiet will have to clear its desks in the Hague as soon as the changes are agreed – a scenario that could have severe consequences for Danish policing.

According to Europol, its 800 staff, who co-operate with all 27 EU national police forces, are involved in around 13,500 cross-border investigations every year.

EU national police forces use Europol’s secure communication network to exchange over 220,000 messages between each other every year. They use Europol to consult another national police force in around a quarter of all domestic cases.

Jan Jarlbæk, a Rigspolitiet liaison officer between 2006 and 2010, explained that Europol’s 145 liaison officers perform a vital role in helping their national police forces build cases.

“I had the entire EU in the same building and I only had to walk a few steps to be in another country,” Jarlbæk told The Copenhagen Post. “It was a major benefit because I could build a network and liaise on issues that, at first glance, didn’t necessarily seem to be that interesting. We could share and give information on the go to a network of 27 countries plus the non-party states. We had very quick access to information.”

Liaison officers also carry out their own analysis and investigative work to try and find connections between cases in different member countries.

“If I read about a case in a Danish newspaper or in the daily reports that I found interesting, I would then contact the local police district to find out more information before contacting countries in Europe who I thought might be affected,” Jarlbæk said. “So I was proactively trying to determine how other countries were involved. For example, the Netherlands is almost always involved in cases involving the cannabis resin hash.”

Trine Thygesen Vendius, a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen, is working on research projects together with Rigspolitiet that look at the relationship between Denmark and Europol. 

“Europol has lived a quiet life as far as the public is concerned, but the police have actively used it as a tool to fight terror and keep track of immigration,” Vendius said

She added that while the police are concerned about Denmark pulling out of Europol, they expect that they will continue to be able to co-operate with other national police forces.

“On a practical level, the police will continue to work within the Europol structures, but they won’t be allowed to participate in any development of the co-operation. It will be a blow for Denmark’s involvement.”

Rigspolitiet’s chief of police, Jens Henrik Højbjerg, agrees. 

“We have been part of Europol since it was established in the 1990s,” Højbjerg told The Copenhagen Post, adding that the Danish police actively use Europol to obtain and share vital information with other police forces. “We are now facing a challenge because of the Danish opt-outs, but it’s very important for us that a solution is found.”

Between a plebiscite and a hard place

The potential impact on Danish policing has placed the justice minister, Morten Bødskov (Socialdemokraterne), under pressure to find a solution.

In a press release last week, he acknowledged that the fight against cross-border crime and terrorism required a close co-operation between countries, which was why he had signalled to the EU that the Danish government wanted to remain a member of Europol.

To make this happen, Denmark has two options. The first is to change its JHA opt-out to an opt-in protocol whereby Denmark can choose which aspects of JHA co-operation, such as Europol, to participate in.

The other is to send a request to the European Commission to join Europol under a parallel agreement that would first need to be approved by all the EU members.

But this scenario, which would require the EU to write up a special agreement just to involve Denmark, is unlikely to find support in the EU according to Marlene Wind, the head of the Centre for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen.

“The commission has already asked why the EU should spend thousands of man hours drawing up a parallel agreement when Denmark was given the option of changing the opt-out to an opt-in under the Lisbon Treaty,” Wind explained, adding that Denmark has already had two out of its six requests for parallel agreements rejected by the EU.

The government has yet to follow through with an election promise to hold referendums on abolishing the JHA and defence opt-outs. But despite widespread political support for changing them to opt-ins, the Danish population does not share their enthusiasm for increasing European co-operation.

According to Wind, this is why the previous government hesitated to put the question to the people.

“There’s a complete disconnection between voters and politicians, but I’m not sure why it is not possible to make the connection?” Wind asked, adding that much of Danish euroscepticism can be explained by a lack of understanding about the functioning of the EU.

“How can they expect attitudes to change if they stay silent? Instead of taking up the debate, they are hiding and waiting for the opinion polls to indicate rising EU support. But the issues are so complicated that people need to be explained what an opt-in involves. I don’t think most people understand the basics.”

Vendius agrees that Denmark has ended up in this mess because of a lack of political courage.

“In 1992 we had concerns that large databases of information could be a threat to democracy and human rights,” Vendius said. “But the picture has since changed. At the time we feared the prospect of foreign police forces crossing borders and arresting Danish citizens. But Rigspolitiet are still the only ones entitled to carry out surveillance in Denmark. And because of the internet, crime has changed. The effects of crime are no longer as contained within borders.”