Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 April 2021

European Union Regulation: Motion


1:45 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent) | Oireachtas source

This regulation relates to Europol, its cooperation with other parties, its data processing as part of criminal investigations and its role in innovation and research.

These regulations and directives are technical, convoluted and designed to ostracize citizens around Europe. How inaccessible are the European Parliament and the Council in the business they conduct? There must be a better way of doing this.

Europol is located in The Hague, the Netherlands, and states that it supports “the 27 EU Member States in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime and other serious and organised forms of crime”. There are over 1,000 staff; 220 liaison officers and approximately 100 crime analysts that reportedly support over 40,000 international investigations per year.

Earlier this week, in the Committee on Justice, we heard from the Data Protection Commissioner and other experts on GDPR. There was a great amount of criticism of the Data Protection Commissioner. Interestingly, in researching for today, this regulation is cited on the Data Protection Commissioner’s website. It says that since 1 May 2017: “In line with Europol Regulation (EU) 2016/794, the European Data Protection Supervisor is designated as the supervisor of personal data processing”.

There are national supervisory authorities through a Europol Cooperation Board, ECB, for which the European data protection supervisors provides the secretariat. The website states that:

the EDPS acts as an independent supervisory authority with full-fledged enforcement powers, whose decisions can be challenged before the European Court of Justice. The EDPS is also accountable for his or her supervision activity before the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group, JPSG, composed of representatives of the European and of national Parliament, established under the Europol Regulation.

Will there be any changes to this aspect of data protection through the amendments of this regulation?

Last June, Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend, TE-SAT, report showed that right-wing extremism was growing in Ireland. The report showed that in 2019 there was an increase in violent right-wing activities. Europol reported that there is a “strong international network involving right-wing extremists from Ireland, other European countries and the USA”. I would think that it is fair to say that since the emergence of Covid-19 globally the far right have gained stronger footholds in communities. They are preying on people’s fears, the anti-Government, anti-lockdown and anti-mask sentiment in trying to build their movements. So much of this recruitment and grooming is happening online. Europol and all other relevant agencies, civil society groups and others are going to have to step up their game to combat the spread of disinformation, lies and dangerous scapegoating. In this regard I would like to commend the Far Right Observatory and similar groups which have been working diligently to gather information on the tactics, personalities and plans of the far right in Ireland. I wonder what our State has in mind in this regard also because it is vitally important.

Europol has also reported that the Covid-19 pandemic has opened up opportunities for criminal gangs. There are gangs offering fake vaccines and bogus home testing kits. Europol’s Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, SOCTAS, report has said that the threat has never been greater. The SOCTAS review is conducted every four years into the impact of high-level crime on the EU. Media reports said that Europol “previously identified the Rathkeale Rovers, an Irish-based crime gang, as forging Covid-19 test results and selling the false documents across Europe.”

Another arm of Europol is its European Financial and Economic Crime Centre, EFECC. The EFECC is said to have played a part in working on the intelligence provided by different countries on an Irish criminal network. This led to the Criminal Asset Bureau of An Garda Síochána taking action against a criminal gang. There were fund transfers in excess of €4 million identified from other jurisdictions into Irish bank accounts linked to members of this criminal network. This is an example of agencies working well together to go after serious criminals.

The explanatory memorandum provided on the regulation speaks to the digital transformation of the landscape. It tells us that the European Counter Terrorism Centre of Europol has increased fivefold. In 2016, there were 127 operational cases supported and this had risen to 632 cases in 2019. A resolution by the European Parliament in July last year called for cross-border investigations into “serious attacks against whistleblowers and investigative journalists” and it would be interesting to see that developed.

As always, the Commission plans to strengthen Europol’s mandate. We are told that the legislation “takes full account of the relevant EU data protection legislation”. I have noticed that this is a one-sentence-fits-all statement but as we heard in the Committee on Justice earlier this week there are questions around the application and enforcement of data protection legislation in Ireland, so I would imagine that it is similar in other member states. I also wonder how that will be impacted by this proposal.


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