By Tomáš Zdechovský
The flow of illegal cigarettes into the EU continues to flourish. According to a recent study conducted by the Royal United Services Institute, France is the most affected member state with the highest volumes of illicit cigarettes present on its territory.
Around 30% of the total originates from a single country: Algeria. According to the report, the flow of legally manufactured cigarettes in Algeria smuggled to France increased by 300% between 2012 and 2016, raising concerns in Brussels over the billions of euros lost from the French and European budgets.
So far, successive French governments have refused the help of the EU authorities, without really providing reassurances that they will address the issue. While combating illegal trade is principally a matter of the French authorities, the EU’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) could be a useful ally considering its experience in complex cross-border cases.
The OLAF has a unique investigative mandate to fight tobacco smuggling into the EU, as smuggling is a cross-border issue that affects multiple member states at the same time. In complex cross-border cases, the OLAF can bring significant added value by helping to coordinate anti-smuggling operations carried out by law-enforcement agencies across Europe. The OLAF works to ensure that evaded duties are recovered, criminal smuggling networks are dismantled and perpetrators are brought to justice.
The rejection of the EU’s help and the increased flow of contraband coming from Algeria have a direct consequence for neighbouring countries, especially Italy and Spain. They are used as secondary routes for smuggling cigarettes produced in Algeria into France. It has also a much bigger impact; by fuelling terrorist and criminal networks in the Maghreb region where these cigarettes are smuggled from.
It has already been heavily documented that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - under the direction of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the so-called “Mister Marlboro” - has used the illegal smuggling of cigarettes to finance its terrorist operations. These groups are not only destabilising governments in the region, but directly threatening the security of millions of Europeans.
This is why the French authorities cannot face the situation alone.
If we want to be serious about tackling the illegal trade of cigarettes, we need more effective cooperation between the member states, the OLAF, Europol and Eurojust to stop these criminals operating all over Europe. Member states have already seized between 3.1 and 3.8 billion cigarettes a year and the OLAF has helped seize more than 1.5 billion cigarettes over the last three years. But this is not enough when one considers the magnitude of the consequences of this illegal trade.
It is now time for France to match the European ambitions of President Macron with EU collaboration. Seeking assistance, exchanging information, and coordinating operations in order to tackle cross-border cases are the essence of the European dream. It has worked on food safety, VAT fraud and intra-European air transport - and there is no doubt it will work in the fight against the illegal trade of cigarettes.
Tomáš Zdechovský is a KDU-ČSL Member of the European Parliament for the Czech Republic and a member of the EU’s Budgetary Control Committee.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.