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Justice and Home Affairs Post-Council Statement

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 30 November and 1 December 2009 in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Bach, the Scottish Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following issues were discussed at the Council:

The Council, in Mixed Committee with non-EU Schengen states, received an update from the presidency on the current state of play on the implementation of the regulation establishing the Visa Information System (VIS). As a result of testing delays in both the central and national databases the roll-out of VIS will now take place, subject to no further problems, in December 2010. The UK does not participate in the regulation.

The presidency then updated Ministers on arrangements for the first milestone test for the second-generation Schengen Information System (SIS II) noting that the test should take place by 29 January 2010. If the Council deemed the first milestone test to have failed it would then have two months to decide whether to switch to the contingency plan. The UK stressed the need to distinguish between technical and contractual elements of the project highlighting the importance of the milestone test in this respect. The UK could not accept a delayed milestone test being equated with non-compliance; if the test could not happen in January then the Council should be consulted on the next steps. This was reflected in Council conclusions adopted following the Mixed Committee.

The presidency sought the Council’s views on the need for an IT agency and its potential scope, inviting applications from those wishing to host it before the end of the year. It concluded that there was broad support for the agency, which would manage SIS, VIS and the Eurodac systems, and the details would be further discussed at working level. The UK supported the need for an agency and wishes to take part in the adoption and application of this proposal to the extent we participate in the relevant IT systems.

The Council adopted amendments to the common visa list lifting visa requirements for Serbia, Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Their citizens will no longer require a visa to enter the Schengen area. Albania and Bosnia Herzegovina were urged to work towards full completion of the benchmarks required for visa liberalisation. While the UK does not participate in the EU visa regime, we maintain an interest in all visa issues.

Under any other business Switzerland gave an update on the national referendum on the building of minarets and asked Schengen partners for their support to help free two Swiss businessmen detained in Libya since 2008.

Following Mixed Committee, the Council approved the A points list. Of note the Council endorsed the suspension of negotiations on the Council regulation and Council decision on the establishment of an evaluation mechanism to verify the application of the Schengen acquis. The Commission has been invited to review the texts and devise next steps, due to the European Parliament’s rejection of the text and the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty.

The Council adopted the decision authorising the presidency to sign the EU agreement with Japan on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters which includes important safeguards regarding the death penalty. Other measures of note included a framework decision on prevention and settlement of conflicts of jurisdiction in criminal proceedings, a resolution on a “roadmap” for strengthening procedural rights of suspected or accused persons in criminal proceedings, and Council conclusions on model provisions guiding the Council’s criminal law deliberations.

The presidency presented the draft future JHA work programme (the Stockholm programme). The Council considered interior issues on the first day and justice on the second. All delegations welcomed the draft text, although points on mutual recognition of asylum decisions and training targets for police and judges remained contentious. On asylum, the Commission insisted on mutual recognition of asylum decisions as a long-term objective. The UK along with a number of other member states supported a text reflecting that beneficiaries of international protection should not have an automatic right to move throughout the European Union. In addition the UK secured language limiting ambitious targets for providing training in European law to police and judiciary to those who were concerned with European co-operation. The UK also secured acceptable language on the “Roadmap” on criminal procedural rights.

Overall, the Government welcome the Stockholm programme, which will allow the EU to build upon the many successes of EU collaboration in this area. The programme will now go to the December European Council for final agreement. An action plan for implementation of this JHA work programme will be presented by the Commission as soon as possible in 2010.

Over lunch Interior Ministers held a discussion on the location of the European Asylum Support Office. The Council agreed that the office should be located in Valletta, Malta.

After lunch, the Commission introduced its proposals to revise directives on asylum procedures and qualification. The UK fully supported the objectives to streamline standards, simplify the law and combat abuse, but not the draft directives, which would go in the opposite direction. Restrictions on accelerated procedures would stop member states making fast, fair decisions on asylum applications. Lengthening the process and unnecessary burdens (like new rules on translation) would result in additional costs. Changes to who qualifies could actually result in member states granting asylum to those not in need of EU protection. Measures on unaccompanied minors would have negative effects and could undermine efforts to reduce human trafficking. These concerns were supported by other member states.

The presidency presented its paper on external relations to the Council and updated the Council on the recent global migration forum, held in Athens in early November.

The EU Counter-terrorism Co-ordinator (CTC), Gilles de Kerchove, presented his six-monthly report and outlined considerations for ongoing efforts to implement the CT strategy. Priorities would be: victims; prevention; information management; co-operation with the private sector; and development and security. The UK supports efforts made by the CTC to continue to drive forward EU co-operation on CT, and is particularly appreciative of his efforts with priority third countries, such as Pakistan. The Commission looked forward to further work with the private sector, such as follow up by future presidencies of the recent seminar organised by the UK’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), and encouraged member states to further co-ordinate their counter-terrorism strategies.

The Council agreed the EU-US agreement on the processing and transfer of financial messaging data for the purposes of the US terrorist finance tracking programme (TFTP). This agreement, supported by the UK, was required due to a restructure of the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank financial Telecommunications) system used by the TFTP to identify and trace terrorist finance and facilitators. The presidency concluded that the interim agreement would be signed and, though temporary, did contain strengthened data protection provisions. It will come into force on 1 February 2010.

Under any other business, the Commission noted the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty on 1 December: any third pillar proposals not adopted would become void and would need to be re-negotiated; new proposals would be brought forward under the new Commission, as soon as possible in 2010. Spain outlined its presidency priorities and, in the margins of the Council, the UK joined other member states in signing a mobility partnership agreement with Georgia.

On day two, the presidency outlined the progress made during negotiations on the framework decision on combating sexual abuse, exploitation of children and child pornography. A new proposal will be needed, following the coming into force of the Lisbon treaty. The Commission said it would table one as soon as possible. The UK welcomed the progress made and looked forward to a new Commission proposal.

Justice Ministers then debated transfer of proceedings in criminal matters. This covered, among other things, the extent to which EU action could add value to the 1972 Council of Europe convention on transfer of proceedings, in particular in relation to jurisdiction. The UK congratulated the presidency on its efforts to try to reach agreement on this complicated issue. It is not clear whether, or when, a new proposal on this subject will be brought forward.

The presidency updated the Council on the way forward on negotiations to update the framework decision on combating trafficking of human beings and, following the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, looked forward to a new Commission proposal. The UK supported this view for an updated framework decision, drawing on the good work done by the Swedish presidency.

The presidency also updated the Council on the adoption of the action-oriented paper (AOP) and the human trafficking conference held in October. The UK highlighted that the implementation of the AOP should focus on how existing measures, instruments, and mechanisms could be best utilised. The UK welcomed the presidency’s efforts to link JHA work with the external dimension, but also needed to address the internal EU dimension of trafficking, as the EU contained source, transit and destination countries.

There was a state of play report on e-Justice, during which it was explained that the launch of the European e-Justice portal had been delayed for technical reasons. It is hoped that the launch can be rescheduled for the first half of 2010.

Under AOB, Spain listed their priorities for their presidency, which included the European protection warrant, and making progress on the new proposal on succession and wills.