By Charlotte Van Campenhout
ANTWERP (Reuters) - The European Union together with European port authorities on Thursday launched a new public-private alliance to boost expertise and information sharing to help tackle drug smuggling and organised crime in the bloc.
The alliance comes as seizures of cocaine in the EU are at record levels, with more than 300 metric tons seized annually, the EU said in a statement.
"Europe has a huge problem of organised crime, and we know its source of income is drugs," Home Affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters at Belgium's Antwerp port, where police last year seized 116 tons of cocaine, beating record-year 2022 by six extra tons.
Johansson said the increase in drug seizures at the Antwerp port, the highest in the EU, was due to having more boots on the ground but also signalled that there was a higher level of cocaine inflow.
Belgian interior minister Annelies Verlinden added that a Europe with a robust network of its own is the only way to fight the criminal network successfully.
In Europe, nearly 70% of all drug seizures made by customs take place at ports and Europol's chief Catherine De Bolle said that drug trafficking is still the largest criminal market in Europe.
EU ports contribute to 75% of external trade volumes but are particularly vulnerable to drug smuggling and exploitation by high-risk criminal networks, with Port of Antwerp-Bruges CEO Jacques Vandermeiren telling Belgian media last year that measures were needed to fight organised drug crime.
"Port companies are victims of this problem. Their workers are approached and threatened by criminals," Vandermeiren told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad last year.
The partnership, which also involves the help of Europol and Eurojust, will give 200 million euros to help EU customs and aims to raise awareness while also supporting port authorities.
(Reporting by Charlotte Van Campenhout; editing by David Evans)