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Justice and Home Affairs (Post-Council Statement)

Volume 518: debated on Monday 15 November 2010

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

The Council began with Mixed Committee with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (non-EU Schengen States). The Commission provided an update on the progress of the second generation of the Schengen Information System II (SIS II). Since there were no major developments reported, it was suggested it may not be necessary to discuss SIS II at every Council as was the present standing commitment.

Next the Council noted 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 to better 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 Government support the extension of Frontex’s remit 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 Commission confirmed that it had dropped its opposition to Frontex handling personal data, but emphasised that the purpose should be limited, with necessary safeguards on data protection and the respect of human rights.

The Commission updated the Council on the draft regulation establishing 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 supported the proposal’s aim to strengthen partnership working on illegal immigration, but objected to the failure of the text to reflect the application of the UK and Irish opt-in protocol. The UK had a right to opt-in to measures pursuant to this part of the treaty and highlighted that a recital should be inserted to reflect the Government’s decision to opt-in. The UK would not be able to support agreement until that amendment was made.

Next the Council discussed the sixth report from the Commission on the maintenance of visa requirements with third countries. Commissioner Malmstrom said progress was being made on the lack of Czech-Canada reciprocity. The Council then adopted an amendment to the Common Visa List to grant Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina nationals access to the Schengen area without an EU visa, subject to a strengthened monitoring mechanism to allow for a rapid suspension in the event of a sudden inflow. Ministers from Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina joined the Council for this item to welcome the decision. The UK will not be affected by changes to the regulation on the Common Visa as it builds on elements of the Schengen Acquis in which we do not participate.

Following Mixed Committee, the presidency gave a progress report on those dossiers being prioritised by the Belgian presidency under the Common European Asylum System noting that the Council was close to agreement on the Dublin and Eurodac regulations, although several delegations intervened to argue for the inclusion in the latter of law enforcement access. The UK acknowledged the presidency’s determined efforts to reach agreement on these measures, but thought the EU’s emphasis should be on practical co-operation. The UK highlighted that support for Greece was vital, that the Greek action plan was a real step forward, but there was an urgent need to act with strong leadership by the Commission. The UK stated that in the right circumstances we could send asylum caseworkers to support Greece, but there had to be a proper funding source at EU level. The UK highlighted that Dublin should be supported, not suspended. Rather than legislation that would increase the rights of all asylum seekers (whether or not their claims were valid), member states should provide faster protection for those in need, while protecting EU asylum systems from abuse.

Over lunch Interior Ministers discussed solidarity in the field of immigration and asylum and, at the request of Germany, the aviation security incident, involving cargo freight originating in Yemen. The UK updated on the current threat and its response to date. The UK also raised the importance of an EU PNR directive that included intra-EU flights.

The French Minister also informed the Council of the establishment of a “Mediterranean Office for Youth” in 2011; an intergovernmental initiative to improve mobility for young people through, for example, work experience opportunities.

After lunch Council conclusions on the creation and implementation of an EU policy cycle on organised crime (Project Harmony) were adopted. The mechanism should allow an intelligence-led approach to prioritising and tackling agreed threats from serious organised crime.

The presidency then sought a firm political steer on the way forward for implementation of the Prum Council decisions. The UK stated that it would not meet the August 2011 deadline for implementation. The UK acknowledged the offer of EU funding and suggested the deadline should be reconsidered. The UK could not support harmonisation of post-hit operational business rules. The presidency called on all member states to fulfil their commitments and make use of the support available.

Under AOB the Commission presented 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. There was no discussion.

The Hungarians called on the presidency and Commission to focus on the Eastern Partnership and on delivering a migration dialogue with the Russian Federation during discussions on the Prague process-building migration partnerships. The process is intended 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.

On the Justice day the Commission presented its proposal for a directive on attacks against IT systems which would replace the existing framework decision, which was part of a broader package of measures to combat cybercrime. The presidency looked forward to negotiations under the Hungarian presidency. The Government are considering whether the UK should opt in to this proposal.

There was an orientation debate on the European Investigation Order (EIO) which deals with cross-border requests for evidence in criminal proceedings. The UK supported the proposal but highlighted that some issues needed further debate at working-group level, in particular grounds of refusal. We needed to look further at cost, proportionality and dual criminality, in particular in relation to coercive matters. Proportionality must be a consideration in both the issuing and executing state. The presidency concluded that it would report on progress in December after further negotiations.

The presidency then provided an information point on the directive on the right to information in criminal proceedings. This is the second measure in the road map for strengthening criminal procedural rights 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 presidency stated that while progress has been made on this directive, it was essential to take account of the common law systems. The Commission reiterated this and encouraged member states to support the presidency in finding a solution that worked for all. The presidency will seek a general approach on this directive at the JHA Council on December 2-3.

The Commission presented the mid-term review of the Drugs Action Plan and stressed the seriousness of the drug abuse problem in Europe and the need for implementation of the plan. It accepted that it was not the right moment to expect higher investment in drug prevention and treatment programmes but it was also not the moment to cut investment. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) presented its annual report which was published on the 10 November.

Over lunch Justice Ministers received a presentation from the presidency on whether EU action was required to enhance cross-border co-operation in border regions: this was intended to give guidance to the EU Prosecutors Forum at the end of November.