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Justice and Home Affairs (Pre-Council Statement)

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010

My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Secretary for Justice, and I will attend the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 8 and 9 November in Brussels.

The Council will begin with a Mixed Committee with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (non-EU Schengen States). Due to the standing commitment to update Council on the progress of the second generation of the Schengen Information System II (SIS II) the Commission will provide an update on developments.

Next there will be a discussion on the proposal to move Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the positive annex of Regulation 539/2001 which would exclude their nationals from the EU visa requirement when travelling to the Schengen area. The United Kingdom does not participate in the border and visa aspects of the Schengen Acquis as they build on elements of the Schengen Acquis in which we do not participate. The UK will not be affected by changes to the regulation of the Common Visa List, but will maintain an interest in all visa issues notably issues relating to full reciprocity for third-country nationals.

The Council will note progress towards an amending regulation on Frontex, the EU external borders agency. The new regulation is intended to increase the capacity of Frontex to strengthen the security and surveillance of the external Schengen borders, to develop relationships with third countries, and better to assist member states to return those with no right to remain in the EU. The UK is not directly affected as the amending regulation relates to those elements of the Schengen Acquis in which we do not participate. However, the UK does provide support to the operational and other activities of Frontex and we have been actively engaged in the drafting process for the amendment. The UK is particularly keen to see that the remit of Frontex is extended to allow it to handle the personal data of those suspected of involvement in criminality at the border. We believe that being able to gather and share these data with other agencies such as Europol is vital to Frontex’s contribution to the fight against human trafficking and smuggling.

The Council will be updated on a draft regulation updating the establishment of a network of immigration liaison officers, with a view to reaching agreement between Council and Parliament before the end of the Belgian presidency. The amended regulation is intended to strengthen the EU’s capacity to address illegal migration, and seeks to achieve greater benefit from Immigration Liaison Officer (ILO) networks for Frontex and the Commission. The UK supports the content of this proposal, and welcomes its aims to strengthen Frontex and to enhance partnership working within the EU (and with other international partners) to tackle illegal migration. However, we do not agree with the current interpretation of the UK’s legal participation and will look to protect the UK’s right to opt in.

Next the Council will discuss the sixth report of the Commission on the maintenance of visa requirements. Regulation 539/2001 as amended (the Common Visa List) aims to establish reciprocity with non-EU countries which continue to impose a visa requirement on the nationals of some EU member states for stays of under 90 days (although those member states do not impose the visa requirement on nationals of those non-EU countries). The UK will not be affected by changes to the regulation of the Common Visa List however; will maintain an interest in all visa issues, and notably issues relating to full reciprocity for third-country nationals.

Following Mixed Committee, the Council will receive a progress report on those dossiers being prioritised by the Belgian presidency under the Common European Asylum System: the extension of the long-term residents directive to beneficiaries of international protection, the qualification directive, Eurodac, Dublin and the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office. The UK Government believe that the challenges that Europe faces in the asylum field are better addressed by practical co-operation than by further legislation. We need to work with those member states that are under pressure to help them improve their asylum systems and deal with the claims they receive. In particular, the EU needs to provide properly co-ordinated support to help Greece implement reforms to its asylum system. We see the new European Asylum Support Office as playing a crucial role in this work and will play an active role in the office’s development.

Over lunch Interior Ministers will receive an update from the Belgian Minister for Immigration on recent visits to Cyprus, Malta and Greece and have a discussion on solidarity in the field of immigration and asylum.

After lunch the Council will have a discussion on the creation and implementation of an EU policy cycle on organised crime (Project Harmony), which presents a pragmatic, intelligence-led approach to prioritising and tackling agreed threats caused by serious organised crime. The UK, having been a project partner in this initiative since its creation, supports these conclusions as we believe key benefits to the UK include greater opportunity to influence the EU agenda on organised crime; the potential alignment of EU funds to support operational delivery; and as a result greater commitment of member states to work collaboratively to tackle the agreed prioritised threats.

The presidency will seek a firm political steer on the way forward for implementation of the Prum Council Decisions. The Council will acknowledge that obstacles are not only technical in nature but also political and linked to financial and human resources. The Council will also consider recommendations for practical solutions, through the provision of technical assistance, the use of EU funding, and a streamlined evaluation process.

The Commission will present their annual report on the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) which is due to be published on 10 November.

Under AOB the Commission will present their initiative for a regulation on the marketing and use of explosives. The regulation proposes to limit access by the general public to specific chemicals that can be used to manufacture home-made explosives by restricting their use and possession above set concentration thresholds. The UK will seek to negotiate changes to the text and it is expected that the proposal will go for Council approval in the middle of 2011.

The presidency has also placed the Prague process-building migration partnerships as an AOB item at the request of Hungary. The intention of the process is to implement strengthened practical and operational co-operation with main countries of transit and origin based on the global approach to migration—specifically the Eastern migration route, which includes Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. We support the Prague process and welcome the valuable results it has achieved, it is a good example of how we can turn our policies into practical action.

The Justice day will commence with a Commission presentation on a proposal for a directive regarding measures against new forms of cybercrime, including large-scale cyber-attacks. The UK takes the issue of cybercrime very seriously and recognises that it is an international problem. The UK is keen to work with other member states to ensure that there can be an effective response to cybercrime in the EU. We are considering whether to opt in.

There will be an orientation debate on the European Investigation Order (EIO) which is a draft directive aimed at streamlining the system of mutual legal assistance between participating EU member states to discuss broad issues relating to the EIO including grounds on which an EIO could be refused. In particular, the Council will be asked to give a steer on the grounds for refusal which should apply; the UK will argue strongly that proportionality must be a consideration. Detailed work will then continue at working group level.

There will be an information point on the letter of rights to information in criminal proceedings. This is the second measure in the road map to strengthen procedural rights in criminal proceedings and it aims to set common minimum standards and improve the rights of suspects and accused persons by ensuring that they receive information about their rights. The UK has opted in to this measure.

During lunch Justice Ministers will discuss judicial co-operation in cross-border regions in the light of responses to a questionnaire submitted to member states. The questionnaire and the debate are aimed at improving the knowledge about the different forms of international co-operation between borders. The UK’s experience of co-operation in cross-border regions is limited to that between the borders of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.