Brussels, Belgium – In the context of the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union, Belgium’s Justice Minister Paul Van Tigchelt will get together today with the Ministers of Justice from the 27 EU Member States. High on the agenda will be the fight against organised crime, more specifically the creation of a network of specialist magistrates and the pooling of diplomatic forces vis-à-vis third countries. In addition, Minister Van Tigchelt will also discuss the approaches being adopted towards sex work in the various Member States. Finally, many countries have shown interest in Belgium’s approach towards small-scale detention and Minister Van Tigchelt intends to highlight the outcomes of that approach to his counterparts.
For Minister Van Tigchelt, closer cross-European cooperation is now crucial in the fight against organised crime. Not only because Member States can act more forcefully en bloc, but also as a means of avoiding waterbed effects. If a supply line is cut off in Antwerp, international criminal organisations will undoubtedly route more of their operations via other locations. An anti-narcotics coalition has already been set up as a means of enhancing cooperation between the six countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Italy) that encounter international drug trafficking most extensively. The European Port Alliance is also an important body, whose role it is to coordinate the security in Europe’s ports. Europol was also asked to map criminal networks in Europe so they can be combated more effectively.
But even further steps now need to be taken. Minister Van Tigchelt will therefore advocate that EU Member States should pool their forces in the diplomatic domain, not only in relations with countries from which drugs are shipped, but also with the states in which drug criminals take refuge. By speaking with a unified voice and by forming a diplomatic bloc, increased pressure can be brought to bear upon countries that do not wish to cooperate in extraditing criminals, for example.
Minister Van Tigchelt will also work to establish a European network of magistrates specialising in the combating of criminal organisations. In the Sky ECC investigation, for example, Belgium successfully gathered a wealth of information that also resulted in more than 6,000 arrests being made in other countries. But collaborations of this type need to be embedded more deeply and should ultimately take place as a matter of course. Establishing a specialist network of magistrates will enable crucial information to be shared more rapidly in the early stages of an investigation, so that simultaneous investigations can be carried out immediately in other relevant countries. More importantly, this would enable investigations to be coordinated more effectively, thereby leading to more satisfactory outcomes and the gathering of larger quantities of cross-border evidence. That way, criminal gangs can be dismantled more efficiently on a European level, rather than merely closing down one branch of a criminal gang that is situated in a specific country. Eurojust, the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, is ideally placed to undertake a significant, supporting role within that network.
Minister Van Tigchelt will also address the issue of sex work, in the firm belief that efforts must be made within the European Union to improve the rights and working conditions of sex workers. Because sex work is illegal in many countries, sex workers often lack social rights and social protection and do not have easy access to services such as healthcare and justice. Using the Belgian experience as a starting point, Minister Van Tigchelt will open the debate about the ways in which the rights of sex workers can be better protected. Belgium was the second country in the world in which sex work was removed from the Criminal Code. Human trafficking and the abuse of prostitution nevertheless remain punishable offences, of course. That very fact already enables sex workers to go about their jobs independently. Here in Belgium, meanwhile, a legal framework for employment contracts for sex workers is now being drawn up.
Finally, many countries have expressed interest in our approach towards small-scale detention. Minister Van Tigchelt intends to highlight the outcomes of this approach to his counterparts from the 27 Member States. Small-scale detention is a way of ensuring that inmates are rehabilitated more effectively and are reintegrated into society, one of the intentions of this being to reduce recidivism. After all, small-scale approaches enable detention to be tailored to the convict, make it possible to give them more responsibility and enable the level of security to be matched more closely to the target population. As Minister Van Tigchelt himself will explain, Belgium’s Ministry of Justice is committed to expanding the system of houses of detention. In those settings, residents are actively prepared for release in small groups, with assistance from detention counsellors. Amongst other things, residents are allowed to work outside the home and follow courses of training. They must also be self-reliant indoors and take responsibility for cooking, cleaning and other daily routines. This actually encourages them to take control of their lives without reverting to a life of crime.