UK/Europe politics: Gangster's paradise
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- Economist Intelligence Unit
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- Politics, News Analysis
- Political Geography
- United Kingdom
Organised crime and Brexit: Gangsters' paradise
New barriers between Britain and Europe mean new opportunities for crooks
AN OFT-QUOTED story in Italy tells of a wiretapped conversation between two criminals a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. An enterprising boss of the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, was heard telling a subordinate in West Germany to head east and "buy all you find. Everything! Everything!" The story may be apocryphal. But according to Antonio Nicaso, the author of several books on the 'Ndrangheta, the careful monitoring and exploitation of international events by mobsters is not. Four years after the Berlin Wall came down, an 'Ndrangheta agent was caught in eastern Europe laundering vast sums of dirty money: the equivalent today of $2.8bn.
For organised criminals, Brexit is perhaps the most promising rearrangement of the European scene since the fall of communism. "I would guess they are saying, 'Happy days are here again'," says John Spencer, the president of the European Criminal Law Association, a group of academics, officials and lawyers.
Much will depend on the outcome of the exit negotiations between Britain and the European Union that are under way in Brussels. If the talks were to fail and passport controls were re-imposed at the Irish border, for example, it could stymie a scam whereby people-smugglers give Ukrainians false Polish identities and elude British border controls by flying them to the Republic of Ireland, via Spain, and then shipping them from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain.
If, on the other hand, the British government managed to achieve its apparent aim of maintaining an open border while leaving the EU's customs union, there could be an increase in the already substantial traffic in contraband run by republican paramilitaries along the country roads of south Armagh and north Louth. Goods smuggled include cigarettes and alcohol (both genuine and counterfeit), as well as diesel. Leaving the customs union would also bring opportunities for shipping contraband through British ports and quiet coastal spots, as tariffs on easily transportable goods diverged. One senior EU official predicts that Britain would see "an explosion of smuggling".
Another business opportunity that organised criminals will be eyeing with interest is people-smuggling. Lower limits on legal immigration, and the resulting squeeze on the labour market, could lead to a rise in the number of migrants working in the country illegally, both of their own free will and under duress. On the basis of existing cases, the gangs most likely to exploit those possibilities would be Vietnamese, British and Albanian. "Labour laws are crucial in this context," adds Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International, a human-rights organisation. "The weaker they are, the more vulnerable people are to slavery. A lot of labour protection in the UK comes from EU law, and there is a risk it may not be translated into UK law," he warns.
Taking back control
The expected parliamentary logjam as Britain replaces EU laws with its own could bring another fillip for crooks. Despite its relatively strict anti-money-laundering regulations, London is a favoured financial launderette for European gangsters. So far, the burden of compliance has been placed on banks, with much less oversight of accountants, company-formation agents, trust providers and estate agents (one of the easiest ways for hoodlums to launder their cash is by investing in the London property market).
Plans have been drawn up to close some of these loopholes. But Robert Barrington of Transparency International, an anti-corruption organisation, fears that the legislative burden of Brexit may crowd out other initiatives, including these. "Even a government that wants to do it might find it hard," he says.
Brexit's biggest bonus for the underworld, however, may be weaker police oversight. If, as seems likely, Britain leaves Europol, a law-enforcement organisation whose membership is restricted to EU members, it could sign a co-operation agreement to allow British police to receive intelligence and take part in joint operations. But even a deal as extensive as any currently in force with another country would mean forfeiting real-time access to the organisation's database. British officers would also lose the right to lead cross-border operations.
Europol officials say crooks stand to benefit even more from two other likely changes after Brexit. One is Britain's loss of access to a database maintained by the Schengen group of countries that allow passport-free travel. The database includes information on everything from missing persons to stolen cars, allowing police to piece together bits of evidence from around the continent. The other is Britain's likely exit from the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which enables EU member countries to arrest and speedily extradite each other's suspects.
For many years the "Costa del Crime", a stretch of the southern Spanish shoreline, was a favourite destination for British crooks to enjoy (and reinvest) other people's money while cultivating deep tans. Thanks in part to the EAW, the nickname has became less apt as, one by one, fugitives have been caught and sent back home. In 2010-16 almost 250 people were extradited from Spain to Britain. But the coast may become a criminal haunt again if the two countries have to go back to using a Council of Europe convention that Mr Spencer, of the European Criminal Law Association, says is "nothing like as effective". More sangría, lads?
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