Proposals are on the table for the extension of the role of Europol to be a European investigative authority. The suggested goal is to give Europol its own investigative staff with police powers. This raises clear problems, however, of how judicial control over the exercise of such powers could be ensured. Ministers agreed that a full debate on these issues is needed and that at present work should proceed only on:
- extending the work of joint investigative groups, i.e. the collaboration of national investigation units across borders;
- strengthening co-operation between Europol, Eurojust, Frontex (the Europen border agency) and the task force of European police chiefs.
Europol was set up under the Treaty of Maastrict in 1992 but only came fully into operation in 1999 after the ratification of the Europol Convention. At present its role is limited to supporting national law enforcement operations through exchange of information, co-ordinating cross-border police activity and providing expert and technical support.
The suggestion that a European Public Prosecutors Office should be set up was also discussed but no agreement was reached.
A further related move towards European policing has already been made. A proposal was put forward at Council level in November 2005 that 'Special Task Forces' should be created, consisting of law enforcement personnel who would be available to assist any member state in a 'crisis situation' such as hostage taking, hijacking or other comparable incident. The proposal will be further discussed in the Council's police co-operation working party.
At present, the likelihood of being granted asylum in different European states differs widely. This raises the problem of "asylum shopping" (applying in numerous jurisdictions to find the best one) and creates hardship for genuine asylum seekers.
The EU’s aim is to set common standards for the granting of asylum (see Immigration LinksDossier) and ministers decided to set a date of 2010 for the achievement of this goal. To this end work will continue on three further issues:
- enhanced exchange of information on asylum applications;
- greater assistance for EU member states and for neighbouring non-EU countries which find themselves under particular pressure from large numbers of refugees;
- common policy on the humane return of asylum seekers and agreement on countries deemed ‘safe’ for return.
Agreement was reached that the rights of criminal suspects should be guaranteed at European level. The Austrian Presidency will continue work on common standards for the conduct of criminal proceedings concerning rules on access to a lawyer, special protection for vulnerable suspects, translation and interpretation services and legal aid.
Calls for some harmonisation of basic criminal law at EU level, especially in relation to terrorist offences, have met with considerable opposition. Ministers agreed generally that the issue should be looked into but many states maintain that criminal law should remain exclusively a national matter.