European citizens are entitled to live in freedom, without fear of persecution or violence, anywhere in the European Union. Yet international crime and terrorism are among the main concerns of Europeans today.
Clearly, freedom of movement must mean giving everyone, everywhere in the EU, the same protection and the same access to justice. So, through successive amendments to the Treaties, the European Union is gradually being made into a single ‘area of freedom, security and justice’.
Moving freely within the EU and protecting its external borders
The free movement of people within the EU raises security issues for the member states, since they no longer control internal EU borders. To compensate for this, extra security measures have to be put in place at the EU’s external borders. Moreover, since criminals can also exploit freedom of movement within the EU, national police forces and judicial authorities have to work together to combat cross-border crime.
One of the most important moves to make life easier for travellers in the European Union took place in 1985, when an agreement was signed in a small Luxembourg border town called Schengen. They agreed to abolish all checks on people, regardless of nationality, at their shared borders, to harmonise controls at their borders with non-EU countries and to introduce a common policy on visas. They thus formed an area without internal frontiers known as the Schengen area. In 2010, the Schengen rules are fully implemented by all EU countries except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom. Three non-EU countries — Iceland, Norway and Switzerland — are also in the Schengen area.
Tightening up checks at the EU’s external borders became a priority when the EU expanded in 2004 and 2007. An EU agency known as Frontex, based in Warsaw, is responsible for managing EU cooperation on external border security. The member states can lend it boats, helicopters and planes for carrying out joint patrols — for example in sensitive areas of the Mediterranean.
Asylum and immigration policy
Europe is proud of its humanitarian tradition of welcoming foreigners and offering asylum to refugees fleeing danger and persecution. Today, however, EU governments face the pressing question of how to deal with rising numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, in an area without internal frontiers.
In recent years, large numbers of illegal immigrants have been arriving on Europe’s shores, and one of the EU’s top priorities is to deal with this problem. Member governments are working together to tackle people smuggling and to agree common arrangements for repatriating illegal immigrants. At the same time, legal immigration is being better coordinated under EU rules on family reunification, on the status of long-term residents and on admitting non-EU nationals who wish to come to Europe to study or to undertake research.
Fighting international crime
A coordinated effort is needed to combat criminal gangs who run people-trafficking networks and who exploit vulnerable human beings, particularly women and children.
Organised crime is becoming ever more sophisticated and regularly uses European or international networks for its activities. Terrorism has clearly shown that it can strike, with great brutality, anywhere in the world.
This is why the Schengen information system (SIS) was set up. This is a complex database which enables police forces and judicial authorities to exchange information on people for whom an arrest warrant or extradition request has been issued, and on stolen property such as vehicles or works of art.
One of the best ways of catching criminals is to track their ill-gotten gains. For this reason, and to cut off the funding of criminal and terrorist organisations, the EU has brought in legislation to prevent money-laundering.
The greatest advance made in recent years in the field of cooperation between law enforcement authorities was the creation of Europol. It tackles a wide range of international crime: drug trafficking, trade in stolen vehicles, people trafficking and illegal immigration networks, the sexual exploitation of women and children, child pornography, forgery, the trafficking of radioactive and nuclear material, terrorism, money-laundering and counterfeiting the euro.
Towards a ‘European judicial area’
International crime and terrorism have no respect for national boundaries. This is why the EU needs a common framework to guarantee its citizens a high level of protection and to improve international cooperation in this area. The EU also needs a common criminal justice policy, to ensure that cooperation between the courts in different countries is not hampered by their differing definitions of certain criminal acts.
The main example of practical cooperation in this field is Eurojust, a central coordinating structure that enables the national investigating and prosecuting authorities to work together on criminal investigations involving several EU countries. Another tool for practical cross-border cooperation is the European arrest warrant, operational since January 2004. It is intended to replace lengthy extradition procedures.
In the area of civil law, the EU has adopted legislation to help apply court rulings in cross-border cases involving divorce, separation, child custody and maintenance claims. The aim is to ensure that judgments in one country are applicable in another. The EU has established common procedures to simplify and speed up the settlement of cross-border cases in small and uncontested civil claims like debt recovery and bankruptcy.