A single market in crime

A single market in crime

Bulletin article
Ben Hall
02 August 1999

Crime is becoming increasingly international, and it is a big business. A recent United Nations report estimates that the global turnover of criminal organisations amounts to some £1,000 billion a year, considerably larger than the gross domestic product of Britain. Narcotics account for eight per cent of world trade, worth around £250 billion, as much as the global automotive industry.

The latest advances in transport, telecommunications and information technology have greatly facilitated commerce, and illegal business is no exception. Criminals are becoming more sophisticated, using advanced technology to organise their activities and to stash away the profits. The internal collapse of some states, the criminal collusion of others, and the opening up of the former Communist bloc countries in the early 1990s have provided criminal organisations with a new and greater variety of products (narcotics; components for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; conventional arms; counterfeit goods; pornography; women and children), new sources and routes of supply and new markets.

It is, of course, difficult to evaluate accurately the impact of international crime in each country. It may be that only five per cent of crime is truly international. But a much greater proportion of crime will have an international origin or connection. Think of the violent rivalry between gangs of drug-pushers, or the number of burglaries caused by heroin addicts desperate to raise cash for the next fix of a drug which is imported from Asia or the Caribbean. The distinction between international and domestic delinquency is increasingly blurred.

This is particularly true in the European Union, where the abolition of customs and passport controls at internal borders has given new freedom to those engaged in organised crime. They now have a true single market. But the 15 member-states of the EU have over 120 distinct police forces, dozens of separate legal jurisdictions, and different judicial and policing traditions. The system of law enforcement in the EU is highly fragmented, a situation which criminals are only too happy to exploit.

When it comes to investigating and prosecuting crimes committed in more than one country, law enforcement authorities are faced with a range of obstacles, legal as well as practical. The newly-established Europol will help national police forces co-ordinate their investigations. But it is difficult and sometimes impossible to ask national judicial authorities in other countries to issue orders for the seizure of evidence, the freezing of assets, or the arrest of suspects.

Where arrangements for international co-operation are in place, as with extradition, they are often slow and unwieldy. This is because in some countries the judicial authorities do not give them much priority. But there are also rules which limit international co-operation. For example, one authority may not be able to agree to another's request for extradition unless the offence concerned is the same in both countries. This has led Elisabeth Guigou, France's justice minister, to complain that Europe is trying to combat 21st century crime with 19th century legal instruments.

When EU leaders meet in Finland on 15th October for their special summit on justice and home affairs, one of the issues they will discuss is how to remove these obstacles. All seem to agree on the need to create some kind of a "European judicial space". But some countries would like to see the harmonisation of law and procedure culminating, eventually, in a single criminal justice system. Most governments know that this would take decades. At present the EU treaties do not allow for such full-scale harmonisation. But a study commissioned by the European Parliament, recommending the creation of a uniform body of law and the appointment of an EU public prosecutor to combat fraud against the EU budget, is a reminder that this Cartesian approach still has its proponents.

The alternative is mutual recognition of Europe's judical systems. This is based on the premise that in a union of modern democracies that is founded on fundamental principles of human rights, there must be greater acceptance of other member-states' judicial systems, even though they will remain quite different. It is an approach which is strongly favoured by the government of the United Kingdom.

Mutual recognition would allow for the prompt execution of court orders and judgements issued in other member-states. An arrest warrant, for example, could be issued by a court in Britain and transmitted to Spain where it would be immediately enforceable by the Spanish police. The Spanish courts would have no role in questioning its validity. Cross-border investigations and prosecutions would thus become easier. Extradition procedures could be streamlined. Over time, extradition from one EU country to another could become almost automatic.

But, as with the single market, the principle of mutual recognition would need some harmonisation if it was to work. There would have to be some minimum rules on the collection and admissibility of evidence, for example. Cross-border prosecutions could be made much easier if there was some standardisation of what constitutes a crime and how it should be punished. The 15 member-states have already agreed to put an identical offence, that of belonging to a mafia-style organisation, onto their law books.

If the EU is to strengthen the power of prosecutors, it must also make sure that there are decent standards of legal defence throughout the Union. EU citizens who are facing charges outside their home country are twice as likely to be held on remand as locals. An EU-wide system of bail will be needed to end this discrimination. In some countries the quality of interpretation during court procedures and of legal aid for foreigners is inadequate.

Harmonisation of judicial systems would be both unpopular and impractical, a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But this does not mean that member-states should not learn from each other. While ministers and officials must begin to appreciate different legal traditions, they must also be ready to adopt best practice. There needs to be a comprehensive (and public) process of peer review of judicial systems in the council of ministers, not only to help combat international crime, but also to improve the quality of justice for everyone within the European Union.

Copyright is held by the Centre for European Reform. You may not copy, reproduce, republish or circulate in any way the content from this publication except for your own personal and non-commercial use. Any other use requires the prior written permission of the Centre for European Reform.