TOURNAI, Belgium, March 21 (UPI) -- Criminals who take advantage of the border between France and Belgium to evade police pursuit have been targeted under an agreement between the two countries.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls and Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Joelle Milquet, meeting Monday in the border city of Tournai, Belgium, signed an update of a 2001 cooperation agreement that sets up joint French-Belgian police patrols which can work both sides of the border.
Among its provisions, the agreement will allow Belgian police officers working on the French side of the border to make arrests if they observe a crime being committed, even without the presence of a local counterpart -- something that has been prohibited under the French Constitution.
The new agreement will especially affect the French city of Lille, where people suspected of crimes in Belgium often take refuge.
The jurisdictional problems have enabled crime, including car thefts from home garages, burglaries and robberies, drug trafficking, metal theft and theft by deception and abuse of the elderly, to flourish in the border area, police say.
Valls and Milquet said the goal of the new agreement is to strengthen and better coordinate cross-border police response capabilities. The joint French-Belgian patrols may now exercise their arrest powers when on the territory of the other party.
They signed the updated agreement at Tournai City Hall in an event hosted by Rudy Demotte, president of the Walloon Region and mayor of Tournai, after six months of intensive negotiations, the Belga news agency reported.
"Safety is a priority for both countries," Milquet said. "We have modernized the (2001) Tournai agreements. On one hand it's a new agreement and on the other it's an action plan."
"This provides new momentum for previous agreements," Valls added. "It focuses on four key ideas -- strengthening the core of police and customs cooperation in Tournai, modernizing the instruments of cooperation, increasing joint patrols and joint strengthening of the role of stakeholders when egregious crimes are committed."
In Belgium, the agreement will cover the whole country. In France, it covers the departments of Marne, Pas-de-Calais, Moselle, Somme, Nord, Aisne, Ardennes, Meuse and Meurthe-et-Moselle.
In practical terms, the new agreement will, for example, allow Belgian police who make an arrest on the highway near the border to continue into French territory to take the nearest exit and turn around. Until now, this wasn't possible, causing "many operational difficulties," officials said.
The police will also be able to cross the territory of the other country to get from one point to another in their own territory, which, for example, will allow the Belgian officers to avoid having to bypass the "Givet boot" region of France that extends into Belgium.
France and Belgium say the agreement will strengthen and solidify the legal framework for data sharing between the countries, enabling the creation of a "common file" to help investigate cross-border crimes.
These functions are to be carried out by the Central Police Cooperation and Customs of Tournai, which includes permanent French and Belgian officers.