THE HAGUE - As the European Union's enlargement approaches, crime experts are seeking ways to prevent organized crime networks operating out of the former Soviet bloc from exploiting the expansion process. Organized crime networks from Eastern Europe have been active inside the EU since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and are already solidly implanted in the member states.
Dutch criminal law expert Ciriel Fijnout argues that the inclusion of 10 mostly ex-communist states on May 1 will not fundamentally change the crime situation inside the EU.
"I do not foresee a transformation but rather an intensification of organized crime," said Fijnout, a professor of international criminal law at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands.
Many expect Eastern Europe to remain a hub for a range of criminal activities that target the whole of the EU: prostitution, drug trafficking, stolen cars, arms trade, counterfeit currency and money laundering. (See story on Page 13.)
"We will be forced to adapt, because organized crime will be more efficient," foresees Jurgen Storbeck, director of Europol, created in 1994 to coordinate crime fighting in the European Union.
According to Storbeck, the EU will need to pay particular attention to the increased traffic in counterfeit euro notes as well as the emergence of new production areas for synthetic drugs.
The Baltic states, notably, are fast becoming major drug suppliers to the Nordic states, he said.
Although the 10 new states will technically belong to the Schengen agreement, designed to do away with borders within the European Union, border controls between current EU members and the newcomers are to remain in place at least until 2007.
Even once the border rules are relaxed, large-scale organized crime is not expected to benefit greatly, Storbeck said, explaining that border checks mostly snare small-scale criminals.
The Europol chief believes that organized crime needs to be tackled at both national and European levels, and favors the creation of mixed teams comprising national police officers and Europol officials.
Concerning the ability of national police forces to cooperate in the fight against crime, Storbeck said he foresaw few problems - although some national forces would need to adapt to the new international environment.
Fijnout agreed that several East European police forces had introduced "impressive" reforms ahead of accession, particularly compared with some of their West European counterparts that were often bowed down by inefficient structures.