Europol first emerged out of the Maastricht Treaty as the European Drugs Unit back in 1994. But, typical of the way the EU quietly builds its powers, Europol has progressively had its mandate expanded.
The body is currently tasked with targetting "organised crime and terrorism, with an emphasis on targeting criminal organisations".
But today's agreement is set to subtly expand that mandate once again, to a very vague "all serious forms of cross-border crime" - the need for the involvement of "criminal organisations" having been dropped.
Another key change will be that Europol's funding will no longer come from national governments directly but instead out of the EU's budget, marking a significant effective shift in accountability.
Treaty blank cheque for Europol
The announcement comes on top of changes within the re-named EU Constitution (aka 'Lisbon') Treaty, which broadens Europol's scope to encompass the 'implementation' of operational action and, crucially, to allow its functions to be expanded limitlessly without any future treaty changes or the consequent approval of national parliaments.
Article 69G(2) of the Lisbon Treaty says "The European Parliament and the Council, by means of regulations adopted in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure [ie. majority voting] shall determine Europol's structure, operation, field of action and tasks."
On the expansion of Europol's activities, paragraph (b) of that article says these tasks may include "co-ordination, organisation and implementation of investigative and operational action carried out jointly with the Member States' competent authorities or in the context of joint investigation teams, where appropriate in liaison with Eurojust."
Compare this with the current treaty, Article 30(2)(a) of which says that Europol's role should be to "facilitate and support the preparation, and to encourage the co-ordination and carrying out of specific investigative actions by the competent authorities of the Member States, including operational actions of joint teams comprising representatives of Europol in a support capacity."
Both sound broadly the same. But closer study reveals that Europol's task will no longer be just to "support" or "encourage" but to "implement" operational actions, carried out "jointly with" rather than solely by competent national authorities.
And the proviso that Europol's officers can only be present on such actions "in a support capacity" has been completely dropped.
Step-by-step and little noticed, this is how the EU's power grows.Immunity from prosecution
All the while it's worth remembering that Europol's 'officers' have long had broad immunity from criminal prosecution for acts performed in the course of their "official functions" (with the bizarre lone exception of civil liability in the event of a road traffic accident).
This is given effect in UK law by Statutory Instrument 1997 No. 2973 (para 15) and quite possibly was never even debated by Parliament.
Confirming that today's announcement is a major change, a spokesman for Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot said, "This is a veritable transformation, not merely a cosmetic one."
Don't we know it Jacques!