A common misunderstanding about the European Union is that the free movement of goods and people also allows criminals and illicit goods to move unchecked across state borders.
It has been suggested during the EU referendum campaign that organised crime groups in the country are run by foreigners from Eastern Europe who get in as a result of the EU’s relaxed policies.
So it follows that greater border control is the only way to stop the problem. And of course, a pro-Brexit campaigner would argue that the only way to achieve that control is to leave the EU.
But they would be wrong. British isolation is more likely to present criminals with an opportunity.
To deal with organised crime, such as drug trafficking or other kinds of smuggling, national police forces need to work together. They need to share databases of information and intelligence. Law enforcement needs to move fast to follow international criminals across borders. Policing needs to be simultaneous.
Leaving the European Union will not prevent cross-border organised crime. It would be like building a two-metre-wide wall in a 200-metre-wide river – it would displace the flow but certainly not reduce it.
Take, for example, one of the most internationalised criminal groups operating today – the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta. While originally from Italy, the main interests of these criminal clans are now split across various countries. They operate globally, including in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the US, Australia and Canada. There were also signs of operations in the UK in the form of a complex case involving a former IRA member and a London-based law firm.
What is most important for the ‘ndrangheta is not the porosity of borders but the legal asymmetries that exist between states.
This can be seen, for example, in the different regulations currently operating for the European Arrest Warrant in the UK, when compared to the rest of Europe. The UK has introduced a new “proportionality test”, which essentially makes it more difficult to extradite a person from the UK for some less serious offences. However, organised criminals do not always commit serious offences; more often than not minor offences could be the red flags for criminals and criminal activities abroad and across borders.
If Britain were to leave the EU, it might be able to impose tougher terms on immigration but it would drift further into legal asymmetries like this.
Australian law enforcement faces just such a problem, struggling to share information about the ‘ndrangheta with their counterparts in Italy because there isn’t enough co-operation.
Increasing border controls only creates more asymmetry. The UK would be out of step with the rest of Europe. In fact, it would eventually become a more desirable location for criminal activities.
After leaving the EU, Britain would need to negotiate multiple bilateral agreements with other countries, not to mention the EU institutions that work with agencies such as Europol or Eurojust. Britain would be left with a complex and unwieldy network of agreements to manage.
And while the authorities waste time and energy navigating these agreements, criminals would be left to trade into an even more isolated island. Criminal groups have the means, the know how and the money to cross any type of border and they would continue to do so while the authorities waste time and energy navigating Britain’s various international agreements.
Britain’s new found isolation could be game changing for criminal gangs – and in the worst way. Leaving the EU would not, for example, stop illegal drugs from being imported into the UK but the increased cost and risk of doing so would push up street prices and reduce the quality of the product – which is dangerous for the general public.
The same can be seen in Australia, where the challenge of getting through customs and the high expense of importing drugs leads to just such a problem.
When it comes to policing and fighting organised crime at the global level, Brexit would only make for a weaker and more isolated Britain. That’s an appealing prospect for certain criminal networks – and a nightmare for law enforcement agencies.