History of Europol

The European Police Office, or Europol for short, was established in the Maastricht Treaty on European Union  of 7 February 1992, as a response to problems of European trans-national crime. Europol was the first attempt at establishing a transnational policing organisation to handle cross-border policing[1].  The first manifestation of the Europol project, the Europol Drugs Unit (EDU) started operation on 3 January 1994. The EDU initially focused solely on the fight against drugs within the European Union. This mandate was later extended after the Essen summit meeting in December 1994 to “prevent and combat unlawful drug trafficking in nuclear and radioactive substances, illegal money laundering, immigrant smuggling, trade in human beings and motor vehicle theft” [2].

The Europol Convention, that established Europol was signed by all Member States on 26 July 1996, and was finally ratified by all fifteen member states of the European Union in mid 1998 coming into force on 1 October of the same year. According to the preamble to the Convention, the objective of Europol was “to improve police co-operation between the Member States to combat terrorism, illicit traffic in drugs and other serious forms of international crime[3].   After some initial legal difficulties were resolved and a number of legal acts added to the convention Europol commenced its full activities from its headquarters in the Hague, on 1 July 1999.

It is the purpose of this section to review the development of Europol from TREVI, and the early manifestations of the European Drugs Unit to the creation of Europol in July 1999. 


The acknowledged forerunner of Europol was TREVI. Named after the fountain upon which the first meeting looked out upon, this body was a meeting of top police officers from European countries. Initially little more than a drinking club, it developed from its humble social origins into a body where experience and good practice could be exchanged between police forces.  


The Trevi Fountain - www.freefoto.com

Police co-operation before Europol was mainly structured with and around TREVI[1]. Named after the famous fountain upon which the first meeting looked out upon (above), TREVI was formed as part of a Dutch initiative in 1975 to enhance “mutual assistance in combating terrorism within member states”[2]. This mandate was later expanded to cover issues relating to organised crime. Similar to many of the early efforts to tackle cross-border crime, TREVI was initially entirely separate from the mechanisms of the then European Economic Community. Peek notes that unlike its Schengen successor, TREVI was not an institution with a headquarters, budget, secretariat and permanent staff, instead it operated around a system of confidential meetings where good practice, experiences and initiatives could be debated and disseminated.

TREVI’s objectives can be summarised as the following:

  •     To exchange information

  •    To exchange experience

  •     To exchange methods and techniques

  •     To build upon good personal relations for further co-operation.

Although TREVI succeeded in enhancing the co-operation between the law enforcement elites of Europe, its semi-annual structure lacked the necessary flexibility to fully engage profitably in the fight against transnational criminality. Peek notes the structure of TREVI left little room for an expansion of the areas of competence nor could it permit intensification of co-operation. 

In order to further enhance European co-operation in the fight against cross-border crime and increasingly against organised crime, Chancellor Kohl of Germany proposed that a new European Criminal Investigation Unit be formed. As a consequence TREVI established an Ad Hoc Working Group on Europol in early 1992[3], in addition to the other working groups relating to terrorism, training and techniques, organised crime and issues raised by the EC 1992 document (see figure 1).


 Figure 1, taken from Peek p206

TREVI ceased to exist when the Treaty on European Union entered force. The Ad Hoc Working Group on Europol being transferred to the K4 Committee. The formation of Europol did not occur immediately after the dissolution of TREVI. The process of forming the European Police Office was, however, fully set in motion. The development of Europol would take a further eight years, and would pass through a number of successive stages.

The European Drugs Unit (EDU)

The first major stage in the creation of Europol was the formation of a European Drugs Unit (EDU) to be based in the Hague.  It was agreed at the Brussels European Council of 29 October 1993 that the EDU should be created and based in the Netherlands. Until this point police co-operation within Europe represented more of a ‘travelling circus’ than an institution. TREVI, for example, had rotated across Europe with the six month presidency by member states that coincided with that of the presidency of the EEC. By basing the EDU in one place, it was felt that closer co-operation between police forces could be achieved, on a year round basis in a more structured and institutionalized manner than under TREVI.

The European Council meeting in Brussels established the aim of the EDU simply as “to assist national police forces with regards to criminal investigations[5]. Importantly, the EDU would have no powers of arrest, as at this stage the EDU would only be a coordinating body between member states. Tupman asserts that the initial guise of Europol represented little more than a “computer and a post box”[6]. Indeed, the EDU was chronically understaffed and had little opportunity to carry out the same level of analysis as the Dutch CRI or the British NCIS, upon which it was based upon. Moreover, its very title,   the ‘Europol Drugs Unit’ helps add to the illusion that it was a real force to be reckoned with, masking its actual size. The original ministerial agreement envisaged that the EDU would be composed of a small team of liaison officers composed of only one or two per country[7].

The foundations for Europol’s international network of national central authorities were laid in the early stages of the European Drugs Unit’s formation. In order to maximise police co-operation across Europe it was felt by TREVI and the European Council that there should be a single point of contact responsible for transmitting and receiving data to and from the unit in each state. This logic has been continued throughout the successive stages of Europol’s development and is the basis upon which Europol conducts its cross-border data transfers.. For example, in the United Kingdom, the sole authority in contact with Europol is the National Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS). A full list of agencies in each member state responsible for communicating with Europol can be accessed through this link.

EDU Operations

Although the EDU does not enjoy powers of arrest, it has been able to participate in a number of “operations”. Procedural difficulties mean that the EDU is not directly responsible for conducting these operations, but rather it is the national liaison officers seconded to the EDU that carry out such activities. Official publications of the European Union show that in 1994 30 such ‘operations’ were mounted. In 1996, the EDU mounted 123 cross-border operations rising to 158 in 1997[8].  Subhan notes that these figures also included what operations known as ‘delivery operations’ in which drugs are allowed to be trafficked across Europe either in order to protect networks of informants[9], to uncover the entire operation, or until a suitable opportunity for intervention by law enforcement agencies can be found[10]. The 1996 figure includes 33 controlled delivery operations and 67 in 1997.

Concern has been expressed, however, as to the use and legitimacy of allowing massive drug shipments to proceed without unfettered by law enforcement agencies.  An exert from the website of Eco-action.org draws on the example of a Dutch blunder, which brings into doubt the credibility of such operations:

“ An interesting indication of where such powers might is provided by the behaviour of the Dutch police in a similar situation. Their policy on “controlled deliveries” allowed £1.5 billion worth of drugs into Western Europe, and resulted in a hilarious incident in which Dutch police had to explain that 1.5 million E’s seized by British Customs at Sheerness were nominally their responsibility[11]. An enquiry into the whole scandal concluded that it was hard to tell whether the police were “fighting organised crime or a part of organised crime[12].


The expansion of the mandate of the European Drugs Unit from drugs to terrorism, motor vehicle crime and organised crime clearly illustrates the success of cross-border police co-operation. By 1999, the European Drugs Unit had massively expanded its mandates to cover a vast array of cross-border criminal activity and had established links with every national police force or central authority, further enhancing the chances of success for the second stage of European Police co-operation, the creation of Europol proper.

Creation of Europol

As mentioned above, Europol was officially created in July 1999 with the mandate to assists Member States in the fight against Trans-national Crime.  Based in the Hague, the Netherlands, Europol's base is in a red-bricked building on the outskirts of the city, that was, somewhat ironically, used as the Headquarters of the Gestapo in the City during the Second World War.



Security around Europol is so tight that the Europol's Director will reportedly not pose for photographs outside the building unless accompanied by security guards, which is understandable when one considers that Europol is at the vanguard of efforts to combat organised crime and terrorism.

[1] The majority of sources used in this section I owe to Peek J 'International Police Cooperation Within Justified Political and Judicial Frameworks: Five Thesis on TREVI' in Monar J & Morgan R (eds.) 'The Third Pillar of the European Union' (Brussels, European Interuniversity Press, 1994)pp201-207

[2]  Ibid. p202

[3] Orlandini FB 'Europol and the Europol Drugs Unit: A Cooperative Structure in the Making' in Monar J & Morgan R 'The Third Pillar of the European Union' (Brussels, European Interuniversity Press, 1994) p210

[4] Ibid. p211

[5] Ibid. p213

[6] Tupman B, 'Policing in Europe, Uniform in Diversity' (Exeter, Intellect, 1999)  p84

[7] Orlandini FB 'Europol and the Europol Drugs Unit: A Cooperative Structure in the Making' in Monar J & Morgan R 'The Third Pillar of the European Union' (Brussels, European Interuniversity Press, 1994) p213

[8] Subhan A (ed.) 'Impact of the Treaty of Amsterdam on Justice and Home Affairs Issues' (Brussels, European Parliament, 2000) p98

[10] Rupprecht R ‘Europol’ in Weidenfeld W, Wessels W ‘Europe from A to Z: Guide to European Integration’ (Brussels, Institut fur Europaische Politik, 1997) p143

[12] The Observer, 14/12/97 quoted Ibid.

[1] Tupman B, 'Policing in Europe, Uniform in Diversity' (Exeter, Intellect, 1999) p83

[2] Subhan A (ed.) 'Impact of the Treaty of Amsterdam on Justice and Home Affairs Issues' (Brussels, European Parliament, 2000)  p48-49