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Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group on Europol: combating right-wing extremism, an underfunded budget and data-protection problems

Boris Pistorius, Minister for Internal Affairs and Sport of Lower Saxony and Co-Chair of the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group on the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), had a sense of déja vu. At the seventh meeting of the JPSG, held on Monday, 28 September 2020, he said that he had often encountered reflexive statements to the effect that right-wing extremism should not be addressed in isolation but that discussions should also focus on left-wing extremism and Islamist terrorism. No one had suggested not discussing these things, Mr Pistorius emphasised, “but today’s main subject is right-wing extremism and terrorism”. In view of developments in recent years, that focus was “more than warranted”, he added. Right-wing extremism and right-wing terrorism, he said, were the most dangerous of all developments at the present time, and the threat they posed was incomparably greater than that from the Left. Their exponents operated across borders, which was why the whole issue was also a matter for Europol.

Pistorius bemoans the “shift in the canon of values hitherto held to be set in stone”

The Lower Saxon Interior Minister described right-wing extremism as a bridge leading to right-wing terrorism as well as to right-wing populism. The evidence for this, he said, was that statements were made today “from the centre of society” that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. “We are experiencing a shift in the canon of values that was hitherto held to be set in stone.” Mr Pistorius, who heads the Bundesrat delegation to the JPSG, said that it made him gasp when, in the discussion on right-wing extremism and right-wing terrorism, he heard talk of an “invasion of illegal immigrants”. That, he said, led to relativisation – the same thing that occurred “when diverse extremist phenomena are compared with each other”.

Calls for a universally valid definition of right-wing extremism

During the preceding discussion with representatives of national parliaments and Members of the European Parliament, there had indeed been interventions warning against a concentration on right-wing extremism and calling for the same treatment of left-wing extremism. The question was also asked how Europol could help member states to recognise terrorists among migrants. At the same time there were clear statements to the effect that it was right and proper to devote a debate specifically to right-wing extremism. Several speakers also saw a need for a universally valid definition of what exactly right-wing extremism is. The problem of right-wing extremist tendencies in security forces was also raised.

‘Overview’ of right-wing extremist tendencies in security forces

Bernhard Witthaut, President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution of Lower Saxony, who was invited to address the conference as a guest speaker, announced that this autumn the conference of interior ministers of the German Länder would be drawing up an overview for the purpose of presenting a “proper picture of the situation” and also warned against prejudging the issue. In addition, Mr Witthaut referred to the fact that right-wing extremists were often radicalised through the Internet. It therefore made good sense, he said, to have a framework that applied throughout Europe and established a legal obligation for providers and platform hosts to erase right-wing extremist content and to ensure that individuals could no longer operate undisturbed in the digital sphere by communicating under nicknames in dedicated chat rooms.

Right-wing radicals inciting each other on the Web

The problem of online radicalisation and internationalisation had also been addressed earlier by Wil van Gemert, Deputy Executive Director of Europol and Head of its Operations Directorate. It had often been observable, he said, that the perpetrators had been inciting each other on the Web. In so doing, the Europol representative said, they had drawn inspiration from Jihadists.

Mr van Gemert said that traditional methods were no longer sufficient to combat the right-wing radical scene and that there was a need for new approaches involving all member states. The security strategy announced by the EU could enhance cooperation, he stressed, but there was also a need for a consistent information exchange between all member states so that more incisive action could be taken. As far as online terrorism was concerned, Mr van Gemert believed that Europol could respond very fast if the appropriate resources were available. That, however, was not the case at the present time.

Susanne Mittag: The underfunded Europol budget must be improved

At the start of Monday’s session, the second German Co-Chair, Bundestag Member Susanne Mittag (SPD), lamented the underfunding of Europol, given its wide range of responsibilities, which included fighting crimes such as human smuggling, child pornography, money laundering, terrorism and violent extremism. For the “sphere of competence we wanted it to have, which should be further widened”, she said, its budget must be topped up.

Europol chief Catherine De Bolle: Information analysis is the “DNA of Europol”

Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europol, then made it clear that the coronavirus pandemic had also had implications for the internal security of Europe. Criminals, said Ms De Bolle, had used the pandemic as an opportunity to set up new illegal activities. It was in the nature of organised criminal groups to adapt quickly to new situations. As a result, there had been more cybercrime, and trade in counterfeit and substandard products had also increased. Europol, she said, had assisted member states in all their investigations in these areas and had produced reports and analyses on how criminals were adapting to COVID-19.

A propos analyses, in the view of the Europol chief analysing information was “the DNA of Europol”. Analysis, she said, enhanced the value of intelligence. To that end, large data sets had to be processed. In that way better insight into criminal activity could be obtained, said Ms De Bolle.

Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski criticises “continuous storage of large data sets”

Current data storage practice, however, was a matter of concern, according to the European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski. The continuous storage of large data sets that took place was “not in line with the obligations” imposed by the Europol Regulation, he charged, adding that the rules applying to Europol were more restrictive than those applying to the authorities of the member states. Dr Wiewiórowski stressed that he was not contesting the use of the instrument of artificial intelligence or of any other modern analytical resources. However, the volumes of data that were sent to Europol by member states outstripped the agency’s processing capacity. Europol had a prescribed time frame for processing data, but the sheer volume of data made it impossible to adhere to that time frame. For that reason, said the Data Processing Supervisor, at the present time data that had been legitimately transferred had to be stored for longer than the Europol mandate prescribed.

Boris Pistorius: The European Commission must clarify whether the present Europol mandate is adequate

In the view of Boris Pistorius, action was needed in the light of “disagreement in the interpretation of the Europol mandate”. He called on the European Commission to clarify as quickly as possible whether the present mandate was still adequate for the work of Europol. (hau/29 September 2020)

The summary report on the video conference of the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group on Europol on The summary report on the video conference of the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group on Europol on 29.09.2020 can be found here.

Videos relating to the Europol video conference on 28 and 29 September 2020


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Susanne Mittag at the Europol conference


Boris Pistorius at the Europol conference

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