International security organisations against transnational organised crime: Europol’s Operation Venetic

International security organisations against transnational organised crime: Europol’s Operation Venetic


Over the past two decades transnational organised crime (TOC) has proliferated worldwide, and now represents a significant challenge to national and international security organisations. Surpassing borders, organised crime does not only undermine the economic development of societies but it also puts at risk peace, health, security and human rights. TOC groups operating in different countries have been known to engage in an array of unlawful acts, including drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, intellectual property theft, extortion, corruption, firearms trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, wildlife smuggling, illegal gambling, counterfeit goods, and cybercrime (FBI, 2021). Certainly, cross-border alliances and strategic collaborations between criminals operating in different parts of the world are not in itself new phenomena. Nonetheless, economic growth, increasingly liberal nature of international trade, technological advancements in communication, transportation and distribution as well as the easing of cross-border restrictions have all given an unprecedented opportunity to organised crime groups (OCGs) to increase the magnitude and sophistication of their crimes (Albanese and Reichel, 2013). In the process, these changes also strengthened the capacity of TOC groups to challenge and cause damage to the interests of nation-states. In response to the illicit consequences of globalisation, a multitude of regional and international organisations, such as Europol, Ameripol or Afripol, were established across the globe to coordinate actions taken against cross-border crimes. Even though these organisations have at their disposal considerable financial resources, cutting-edge technology, and access to intelligence from their member countries, TOC groups continue to adapt their activities and structures to new conditions (e.g., as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic), posing a constant challenge to the functioning of economic, political, and social systems.

Grounded in empirical data, this paper will aim to explore why contemporary international security organisations struggle a great deal with preventing TOC. Firstly, a review of literature, key concepts and definitions will be conducted. This will mainly consist in analysis of notions developed by the

English School scholars (i.e., international society and institutions) and examination of the role of international organisations. Subsequently, there will be an overview of Europol’s activities and a unique operation that the agency has been recently involved in. Then, the main part will focus specifically on demonstrating why combating TOC is such a major challenge to international organisations. In fact, the issue will be looked at from three different perspectives, namely: 1) the significance of shared norms among actors involved in tackling TOC, 2) barriers to cooperation among member states and their impact on the effectiveness of international organisations in combating cross-border crimes, and 3) constant evolvement of TOC calls into question the relevance of security agencies. Finally, there will be a conclusion with the key points developed throughout the text.

Literature review

International Society

The idea of international society is broadly attributed to the English School scholars who despite formal anarchy of the system of international politics identified some level of predictability stemming from states’ common interests. As concisely put by Bull (2002, p. 13), international society ”exists when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions”. In other words, international society consists in creation and maintenance of shared norms, standards, and practices. Despite being critiqued by some scholars for its alleged Eurocentric nature and for presenting the diffusion international society institutions as a necessarily positive process (Suzuki, 2009), the concept has also been applied to different regions across the globe, e.g., Africa (Tan Shek Yan, 2013), or Southeast Asia (Quayle, 2013).

In his comprehensive work, Buzan (2015) demonstrates how the theoretical approaches developed by the English School enrich the analysis of international security. He shows, for instance, how different combinations of institutions of international society (e.g., sovereignty, international law, democracy, and territoriality) contribute to shaping and influencing the agenda of contemporary

international security (Buzan, 2015, p. 7-8). It seems crucial to point out that there is a distinction, according to which there exist primary and secondary institutions. Primary institutions, as explained by Buzan, are fundamental ”patterns of shared practices rooted in values held commonly by members of interstate societies, and embodying a mix of norms, rules, and principles”, whereas secondary institutions are specifically and deliberately designed by states to achieve shared goals (Buzan, 2004, pp. 164-170). In fact, the deeper and more rooted principles and practices of primary institutions are reflected, supported, and reproduced by secondary institutions. Nonetheless, while primary institutions are durable, they are certainly not permanent and are subjects to constant evolution (Holsti, 2004). Examples of contemporary international primary and secondary institutions can be seen in table 1.

Table 1. Examples of contemporary international institutions

Primary institutionsSecondary institutions
SovereigntyUN General Assembly, ICJ, ICC
Balance of powerNATO, UN Security Council
Environmental stewardshipCITES, the Kyoto treaty

Source: Buzan, B. (2002) The Primary Institutions of International Society, BISA Conference, London.

Since TOC is an international phenomenon, it negatively affects both domestic and international security, in the process, it can endanger various principles of primary institutions, such as democracy, accountability, international law, and states’ sovereignty. Hence, secondary institutions grounded in the primary ones are established to attempt to oppose destabilising effects of cross- border crimes and to maintain common norms, values, and rules.

The role of international organisations

Several scholars have highlighted that while secondary institutions, such as regimes and international organisations, constitute a particularly noteworthy area of research, the English School has to a large extent neglected the phenomenon of secondary institutions, devoting them scant attention and ”seeing them as mere materialisations of primary institutions” (Spandler, 2015). As concluded by Buzan (2009, pp. 43-44):

”academic division of labour […] between primary and secondary institutional study has been clear. But this division of labour has gone too far, with neither English school writers nor liberal institutionalists and regime theorists bothering to think about how the level of institutions that they study related to the other. Secondary institutions do not define international societies, but they do matter, not least as expression of, and possibly benchmarks for, primary institutions.”

Indeed, secondary institutions are essential for international society since they express, specify, or at times even change, ”constitutive principles and practices of primary institutions”. Thus, they contribute to fulfilling the common interests of nation-states (Ibrahim, 2018). Archer (2001, p. 33) defined an international organisation as:

”a formal, continuous structure established by agreement between members (governmental and/or non-governmental) from two or more sovereign states with the aim of pursuing the common interest of the membership”.

According to Reinecke (1998), international organisations have been central players in developing ‘global public policy’. They are instrumental in pushing forward certain items on the agenda, moblising members to set common objectives, and coordinating and monitoring actions taken by member states (Rittberger and Zangl 2006; Karns, Mingst and Stiles 2015). Furthermore, they serve as platforms and communication channels, giving state representatives opportunity to discuss policies and spread their views and ideas (Jakobi, 2009). Consequently, by bringing

different actors together, international organisations contribute to increasing interaction between member states. Importantly, Jakobi (2009, p. 4-5) noted that international organisations have at their disposal certain governance instruments that allow them to influence policy making and states’ behaviour, such as standard setting, discursive dissemination, coordinative functions, financial means, and technical assistance. It must be noted, however, that international organisations may have different means at hand (e.g., OECD does not have financing capacities), or that distinct instruments may be applied depending on context (Jakobi, 2009).

A considerable body of scholarship has focused on the efficiency of international organisations involved in the security sector, such as the UN Security Council, the EU and NATO. Some scholars looked at their design or institutional constraints that can limit international organisations’ potential to fulfill assigned functions (e.g., Coglianese, 2000; Andersen, 2010), whereas others concentrated on analysing the concept of legitimacy and legitimation strategies in relation to international organisations (e.g., Wheeler, 2000; Tallberg and Zürn, 2019; Binder and Heupel, 2021). Cooperation among member states and its impact on the functioning of international security organisations has also drawn attention of some scholars (e.g., Brady, 2008). Upon providing necessary context, this paper will explore some of the above mentioned concepts in relation to the case study.

Operation Venetic

Headquartered in The Hague, Europol, the ’European Police Office’, is crucial to EU’s efforts to defeat threats such as TOC, terrorism, and other organised and serious forms of crime (Europol, 2021a). Since its establishment in 1999, Europol has been engaged in intelligence gathering and analysis, facilitating information exchange, coordination of member states’ operational activities, and participating in the Joint Investigation Teams (JITs) (OJEU, 2002; Bureš, 2016; European Parliament, 2021). Broadly speaking, Europol serves to provide assistance, tools, guidance and information to member states in order to strengthen the EU’s cooperation in detecting and prevent ing different forms of major criminal threats. In addition, there are several strategic and bilateral cooperation agreements in place between Europol and third parties, e.g., with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Interpol, and several non-EU states (Kaunert, 2010, p. 655).

It is worth mentioning that Europol has no direct power to launch independent investigations, nor does it have the authority to make arrests, hence, it should not be regarded as an executive police force. According to Stergioulis (2020), it is the prevailing principle of national sovereignty accompanied by lack of trust that have impacted Europol’s establishment and the scope of its operational capacities, in fact, reducing them mainly to the supporting functions. Nonetheless, Europol has been highly active in supporting the EU’s member states in combating TOC and, on numerous occasions, its efforts were rewarded.

One of the most renowned joint investigations in which Europol has been recently involved was code named Operation Venetic (OV) in the UK (or Emma 95 in France and 26Lemont in the Netherlands). OV was a Europe-wide law enforcement operation that took place between March and June 2020 with the aim of decoding encrypted messages sent between users through EncroChat phones suspected of facilitating criminal activities (Shaw, 2020). Equipped with several special functions that were supposed to guarantee the absence of traceability and perfect anonymity (e.g., automatic deletion of messages or erasure of all data in the event of consecutive entries of a wrong password), cryptophones became a widely used communication mean between criminals operating in different parts of Europe following their launch in 2016 (NCA, 2020).

Eventually, EncroChat servers, which were located in France, were infiltrated by French and Dutch police agencies and, subsequently, the harvested data was distributed by Europol to the UK, Sweden, and Norway, among many other states (Europol, 2020a). Then, a series of large-scale law enforcement actions were executed across sixteen European states. Europol was also responsible for coordinating and timing police raids as well as distributing evidence to the right units and task forces (Casciani, 2020). The interception and decoding of messages sent via EncroChat platform resulted in hundreds of property searches and over 1000 Europe-wide arrests. Law enforcement agencies in he UK delivered a particularly huge blow to organised crime groups by seizing:

”over £54 million in cash; 77 firearms (including an AK47 assault rifle, machine guns, handguns, four grenades); over 1,800 rounds of ammunition; more than two tons of Class A and B drugs; over 28 million Etizolam pills (street Valium) from an

illicit laboratory; 55 high-value cars; 73 luxury watches; and 106 EncroChat handsets” (National Crime Agency, 2020).

While the activities on EncroChat were stopped and OV can be regarded as a shared success of European police and crime agencies, the operation shows the considerable scope of TOC and the advanced connectivity of criminal groups that collaborate at the national and international level. Undoubtedly, this complex investigation suggests that Europol has the ability to perform its tasks. However, the case study can be analysed in terms of threats posed by cross-border crime and elements that are essential for the agency to act effectively in its efforts to combat TOC. Firstly, preventing cross-border crime requires adequate and universal regulations and norms within the EU so that the agency can function properly. Secondly, without the alignment of objectives and cooperation of states in sharing intelligence, collaborative actions would not be feasible. Thirdly, constantly adapting criminal groups call into question international organisations’ ability to keep up with the innovations, trends, and changes in criminal world. All of the above challenges will be dealt with in subsequent sections.

Common norms

The very first problem when combating cross-border crime is to decide and agree on what is actually understood by the term. Interestingly, explanation of issues such as organised crime or TOC may vary among scholars, governments, and international organisations aimed specifically at fighting them (Fickenauer, 2005). As shown by Jakobi (2018) there is no precise and universal way of defining TOC since it is such a ’flexible threat’. As a result, certain inadequacies and overlaps between different international conventions may arise (Jakobi, 2018). For the purpose of this paper transnational crimes are conceptualised as:

”behaviours and activities that have a negative impact on the interests of more than one nation-state, implying that these types of crimes always take place across borders and should, consequently, be dealt with at an international level” (Marmo and Chazal, 2016).

The problem with understanding TOC lies in the fact that different activities present distinct threat potentials. Thus, ”differentiated analysis on the conditions, the effects, and the threats of each activity of transnational crime” are essential to be able to understand the dynamics and impact of cross-border crimes (Jakobi, 2018). The multiplicity of criminal actors in Europe and the diversity of operations they engage in makes it even more difficult to define and tackle TOC (Savona and Riccardi, 2015).

Furthermore, the complexity is amplified owing to variances in legal definitions and frameworks between member states – what is illegal in one country may be legal in another. Forsaith et al. (2012) highlights that the key issue of combating organised crime in Europe are, in fact, the wide differences in terms of legislative measures and regulatory frameworks that exist among European states. In his insightful paper, Brady (2018) shows that policing in Europe is especially difficult since ”Europe’s 1.2 million police officers operate in very different, and at times, incompatible ways”. Apart from distinct systems and structures (e.g., in Denmark there is solely one national police agency, whereas UK’s police is decentralised), police agencies in Europe have different norms and rules for gathering evidence, launching and conducting investigations, and sharing information, which at times can make collaboration difficult (Brady, 2018). Interestingly, phone taps, which are illegal in Great Britain, are fully legitimate when used by French police (France24, 2015).

Bureaucracies and certain procedures of member states or their inability to provide sufficient information and support to Europol in a timely manner may incur setbacks and barriers for the agency to act efficiently (Eurojust, 2005). As it was shown in the case of OV, Europol is reliant on intelligence received from the member states in order to coordinate and facilitate transnational investigations. Members of criminal groups who were arrested during the operation have been engaged in multiple criminal activities in various parts of Europe, taking advantage of different illicit markets (e.g., drug trafficking and car theft in the Netherlands, and financial crimes and drug distribution in the UK) (NCA, 2020). Swiftness and efficiency were crucial since EncroChat warned its users and urged them to get rid of the cryptophones immediately as soon as its employees learnt that the platform was being infiltrated by a public authority (Europol, 2020a). Therefore, the unity of norms and processes is crucial for ensuring close and neat exchange of data among actors involved in investigations. This is especially important because TOC groups substantially

benefit from and exploit variances in policing practices, regulations, and capacities of law enforcement agencies operating in different states and regions.

Cooperation and alignment of goals

According to SOCTA (Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment), over 5,000 transnationally operating organised crime groups are being investigated in the EU (Europol, 2017). Estimating the magnitude of the revenues produced by TOC is not simple, mainly, due to lack of empirical data. Nonetheless, all Illicit activities in the European Union generate approximately 1% of the EU’s GDP (or 110 billion euro) year-on-year (Savona and Riccardi, 2015). Interestingly, the illicit markets in Europe are not monopolised, instead, there is a plurality of criminal actors (e.g., large and structured groups, free-lance criminals, motorcycle gangs, loose networks, street gangs, and many others) involved in various operations, such as counterfeiting, illicit tobacco, fraud, illicit drugs, human trafficking and organised property crime (Savona and Riccardi, 2015). In geographical terms, there are five primary hubs in Europe which constitute concentrations of specific criminal activities (for example, the South East hub where illicit commodities and illegal immigration proliferate) (Europol, 2011). Due to highly heterogeneous and evolving nature of TOC in Europe, adequate cooperation between member states of intelligence and law enforcement agencies is required to contain cross-border crimes. Nonetheless, there exist significant barriers that shape Europol’s operational capacities and may prevent the agency from appropriately fulfilling its tasks (Safjański, 2013).

Institutional and organisational constraints are factors that can limit Europol’s ‘added value’ to national police forces. Europol’s efficiency is sometimes negatively affected by bureaucratic standstills and complex administrative procedures within member states. As previously mentioned, Europol primarily concentrates on developing and providing supporting mechanisms to the police authorities in Europe. Nonetheless, the amount and quality of data shared with the agency may significantly vary depending on priorities and resources of different member states (Rozée, Kaunert and Léonard, 2013). Countries may refrain from sharing intelligence with Europol since it may not be in their best interest, e.g., in case when the analysis of costs incurred and associated danger

indicates that the risks outweigh the potential benefits (Fägersten, 2010). Interestingly, the evidence suggests that the institutional design of Europol as well as its legal framework may, similarly, cause setbacks and hamper the combat against TOC (Brady, 2008; Stergioulis, 2020). For instance, unanimous approval of all members of the Europol’s management board (including representatives of all 26 member states) is required to implement even a minor administrative change (Brady 2008; Europol, 2020b).

This highlights how varying objectives among member states and their resistance or inability to cooperate may contribute to disruption of Europol’s activities. Most notably, events related to Brexit call into question whether Europol is capable of tackling TOC groups after the membership termination of one of the Europol’s strongest partners. Operation Venetic highlighted the significance of the UK’s market for cross-border criminals involved in illicit drugs and fraud among other crimes. As a consequence of leaving the EU, police forces in the UK ceased to have full access to the Schengen Information System (SIS) (StateWatch, 2021). Comprising of details of 34,962 individuals wanted under the European Arrest Warrant as well as many other valuable data and instruments, the SIS used to be accessed approximately 500 million times yearly by intelligence officials in the UK (Casciani, 2020; European Commission, 2021). Currently, the UK is unable to issue alerts on refusal of entry and stay across the whole Schengen Area, making it more complicated for both Europol and UK’s law enforcement to share information (ETIAS, 2022). Reduced availability and exchange of vital data and intelligence puts the European security operations at considerable risk.

Relevance and efficacy

Technological progress enables criminals to develop new ways of committing crimes and provides them with tools to operate more swiftly and effectively. As seen above, cryptophones can be used to facilitate discreet communication and decrease the possibility of detection by law enforcement agencies. The EncroChat communication network had been serving its 60.000 subscribers (vast majority of which were criminals) for almost four years before it was eventually infiltrated in 2020 (Wright, 2020). During that period, OCGs could coordinate their activities, strengthen cooperation

with domestic partners, and build transnational alliances thanks to the messaging service. Indeed, transnationally operating criminals take advantage of technological advancements and innovations. To provide other examples, weaponised drones assist Mexican criminal groups in attacks against police authorities (BBC News, 2021); easily accessible consumer drones support human traffickers in monitoring routes (Jones, 2020); whereas 3D printers allow arm traffickers to produce illicit firearms that are difficult to detect during cross-border checks (Daly et al., 2021).

The internet also helps to facilitate criminal activity on a number of different levels. Social media, for example, allow criminals to advertise products, spread disinformation, recruit new members communicate and send instructions. Unsurprisingly, misinformation, fraud schemes, ransomware, and phishing campaigns have all increased during the COVID-19 pandemic due to growing reliance on the internet, computer systems, and mobile devices caused by social distancing (Council of Europe, 2021). According to Interpol (2021), cybercrime has recently become one of the central challenges for contemporary international security organisations since there are no borders at all in virtual space, thus, ”threats and attacks can come from any location at any time, posing challenges for police because incidents may involve suspects, victims and crimes spanning multiple countries”. Nowadays, practically all criminal operations feature some online component, whereas some criminal activities have completely moved into the digital realm (Europol, 2022).

The proliferation of online crime resulted in the establishment of the Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) in 2013. The unit is aimed specifically at disrupting and dismantling cybercrime networks in Europe (Europol, 2021b). Security agencies seem to understand that the usage of new technologies by TOC groups requires reevaluation of existing practices and introduction of new, comprehensive legal frameworks. However, the question remains whether international security organisations in their contemporary form and institutional structure are actually capable of acting swiftly, flexibly, and cooperatively when combating such a heterogeneous and constantly adopting phenomenon as cross-border crime. According to a report published by Europol (Europol, 2019), which focused on the role of innovations and their impact on the future of crime and law enforcement, emerging technologies (e.g., quantum computing, 5G, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, and molecular biology) are identified as both the challenges and opportunities for proactive law enforcement. While they have disruptive and destabilising

effects when exploited by criminals, technological developments can benefit international security organisations when understood, invested in and, then, implemented (Europol, 2019). As evidenced, however, changes and adjustments occur more rapidly among transnational crime groups than at the international level, which does not bode well for agencies such as Europol which has been previously criticised for being largely reactive, rather than proactive.


Even though contemporary international security organisations possess significant financial and technical resources, and have access to extensive databases, transnational organised crime continuously represents a pressing challenge to these agencies and our societies. Tackling TOC has become a highly difficult task owing to the increased mobility of persons, goods and capital as well as technological advancements, which accelerate innovation across the whole spectrum of criminality and make it more difficult to detect and infiltrate criminals. Nonetheless, technology ought to be regarded as a double-edge sword since it can facilitate the fight against crime through supporting the efforts of security agencies, as in the case of Operation Venetic. Thus, in order to remain a relevant actor, it is necessary for Europol to invest in, understand and actively employ those powerful tools into operations.

As it was pointed out, misaligned objectives among members of international security organisations may negatively influence their collective effort to combat cross-border crime. Similarly as other institutions aimed at containing TOC, Europol is simply unable to function properly without swift exchange of information and prioritisation of cooperation among states and partners. Moreover, significant variances within regulatory frameworks and practices of member states can undermine Europol’s effectiveness. Thus, Europol ought to work with governments and national agencies to adjust certain procedures and attempt to homogenise legal differences as they may inhibit intelligence gathering and transnational investigations. Simultaneously, the security organisation should constantly assess its vulnerabilities, potential risks and barriers to be able to strengthen the EU’s capacity to combat transnational criminal threats and oppose destabilising effects of cross-border crimes.


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