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Justice and Home Affairs Council

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 3 March 2011

The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 24 and 25 February in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Justice, Lord McNally, and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following issues were discussed at the Council:

The interior day began with the Council adopting the ‘A’ points list. This included the adoption of the draft Council conclusions on the effective implementation of the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union. The conclusions set out how the Council will ensure that the charter is reflected accurately in future EU legislation.

The Council also adopted Council conclusions on the Commission’s communication on a comprehensive approach to personal data protection in the European Union. The conclusions set out the Council’s views on the general principles arising from the communication and do not prejudice the need for careful and detailed consideration of any legislative proposals.

After the adoption of the ‘A’ points list, the Council, in Mixed Committee with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (non-EU Schengen states), received an update from the Commission on the go-live date for the Visa Information System (VIS) regulation. The Commission said preparations at border crossings and consular posts in the first-phase region (north Africa) appeared on track. VIS would only go live once all consular staff there had been trained but current developments in the region could adversely influence this. They expected the April JHA Council would decide on a start date. The UK does not participate in VIS.

The Commission provided its regular update on the delivery of the second generation Schengen Information System (SIS II) central system and stressed the importance of member state participation through the testing phases.

Frontex presented its annual work programme (AWP) for 2011 to the Council. The Frontex executive director said core objectives for 2011 were to enhance flexibility to respond to emerging situations, earlier detection of crime at external borders, and enhancing inter-agency co-operation and interoperability. The main challenge would be increasing effectiveness with decreasing resources. He mentioned that pledges so far had only met 50% of requirements for the post rapid border intervention team operation on the Greece-Turkey border. Frontex warned that progress could be put at risk. The Commission agreed and called for swift adoption of the new regulation.

The presidency gave an overview of Romanian and Bulgarian accession to Schengen and introduced its proposal for conclusions. While the technical evaluation process for Romania had been completed, Bulgaria required a further visit to its land border. The presidency acknowledged wider concerns expressed by some member states, but sought to avoid political discussion concluding that there was support for the conclusions.

The Commission gave an update on visa liberalisation road maps for the western Balkan countries, noting that abuses did have to be addressed and confirming they were looking into the possibility of a suspension mechanism that would not target specific counties or regions. Proposals would be brought forward in June.

Under Mixed Committee AOB, the Council received an update on the EU-Canada visa situation and noted an information-gathering visit had taken place at the end of January. Preliminary findings suggested no problems with the way Roma communities were treated. The report will be published in April.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, used his presentation to urge member states to ratify the convention relating to the status of refugees and to increase their support for capacity building in the developing world. On the current situation in north Africa, he highlighted that the majority of arrivals to the EU were mainly economic migrants, but he warned member states to be prepared for a potentially massive flow from Libya. He asked member states to consider using the temporary protection directive but advised that the present situation should not distract attention from the significant structural problems with the EU asylum system, and particularly with Greece. The EU’s next financial perspective had to rise to the challenges of protection both outside and inside the EU. The UK welcomed the UNHCR’s work to help member states improve their asylum systems, and highlighted the close UK co-operation on resettlement and the quality initiative. The UK stated that although it did not always agree with the UNHCR on legislative solutions, it was essential to work together to ensure that real practical action happened on the ground, and to reinforce levels of protection in the region. The Commission said we were at a crucial moment and had a duty of solidarity to member states facing particular burdens. Protection in developing countries through regional protection programmes was important, and they urged the presidency to make progress on the EU resettlement programme.

There was also a presentation by Rob Visser, the newly appointed executive director of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), who explained that the support office was already operational (before the 19 June deadline mentioned in the regulation). Providing support to Greece for the action plan was the top priority. Member states urged Greece to speed up its asylum reforms and called on the Commission to improve co-ordination of member state offers of assistance. The Commission was already providing co-ordination and would soon hand this over to EASO. On Dublin, the emergency mechanism would not apply in this situation; it was only proposed for member states fully implementing the asylum acquis.

The draft text of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement was presented alongside Council conclusions on visa liberalisation. The UK welcomed the text and called for its swift conclusion and implementation. Given the high level of transit migration through Turkey and into the EU, co-operation with Turkey was important to all member states. Although there were sensitive issues at stake, it made sense for member states to agree the text; further delay could result in no agreement being signed. Thanking the Commission for its declaration on territorial application, the UK submitted declarations relating to the application of the Title V opt-in protocol to future measures and stated that the Commission should act within its competence when undertaking, a dialogue on visas, mobility and migration with Turkey. The Council discussed the substance of the conclusions and a declaration was inserted at the end of the conclusions stating

“The Commission acknowledges that the last indent of the Council Conclusions does not legally constitute a negotiating mandate”.

The Commission concluded that it now approach Turkey to initial the readmission agreement.

During lunch Interior Ministers discussed the developments in the north African region (migratory flows and internal security). The UK pushed for a focus on practical responses. In the press conference after the Council, the Commission and presidency were careful to emphasise the difference between the existing situation (5,000 Tunisians who had arrived in Italy were largely economic migrants who should be returned) and the potential threat from instability in Libya. The Commission emphasised the need to strengthen protection in Tunisia and Egypt, for those already crossing the borders. Ministers had not considered invoking the temporary protection directive, but the Commission said it did form part of the toolbox. Article 78(3) of the treaty also enabled them to propose emergency measures including exceptional financial support to help member states receiving a mass influx. The next steps will depend on how the situation develops. The next planned discussion will be at the March European Council.

The Internal Security Council conclusions were adopted without amendment.

The Council did not discuss the Commission evaluation into EU readmission agreements, the new directive on passenger name records or remaining AOB items due to time constraints. The communication on EU readmission agreements will be discussed at working party level in March and depending on the outcome of these discussions the presidency will present draft Council conclusions to the April JHA Council. Passenger name records will be discussed by working groups in March and a substantive discussion will be held at the April JHA Council.

The justice day commenced with a discussion on the directive on attacks against information systems which demonstrated differences of view on whether to include use of false identity as an aggravating circumstance and the value of increasing sanctions. The presidency said they wanted the Council of Europe’s 2001 cybercrime convention to become the international benchmark and encouraged those who had not ratified to do so, noting there would be a conference on the 10th anniversary of the convention for signatories, including the USA, on 10-13 April. The UK thanked the presidency for leadership on this issue and highlighted concerns about the handling of identity theft in the text; the UK sought more discussion of the issue at expert level. It also noted the firm commitment of the Government to ratify the cybercrime convention this year. The Commission indicated openness to solutions to deal with concerns expressed and noted they would bring forward a communication on critical infrastructure protection in 2012.

Next, the Commission presented its proposal to revise the regulation on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters (known as Brussels I). The regulation lays down rules governing the jurisdiction of courts and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters in the member states of the European Union (EU). The objective of the revision of Brussels I is to update and improve the operation of the regulation by addressing certain problems that have arisen with the current measure since its implementation. The Government generally support this objective and are currently considering the detail of the proposal and the results of the Government’s consultation in order to determine whether or not to opt in to the negotiations.

The presidency gave a state-of-play report on the directive on the right to information in criminal proceedings. This proposal 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 and about the accusation and evidence against them. Although a date has yet to be identified for the trilogue discussions, the Hungarians hope to reach a first reading deal before the end of their presidency. The Government noted the presidency’s report.

Next, the Council adopted Council conclusions on the inclusion of the website of the European judicial network in civil and commercial matters (civil EJN) in the e-justice portal. The website of the civil EJN has existed since 2001 providing information on the laws and procedures on a number of topics in each member state. The presidency and Commission highlighted the migration was an important step forward in securing a single online access point for justice issues for citizens.

Under any other business, the Council took note of a report by the Commission on the memory of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe. The report presents, among other things, how the EU can play a meaningful role in the process of preserving the memory of totalitarian regimes and that there are a number of ways of maintaining that including through funding mechanisms. It also underlines that there are different national measures in place and therefore, the Commission currently has no plans to introduce EU-wide legislation on the subject. The Government agreed the importance of recalling the crimes committed by totalitarian states and welcomed the Commission’s report.

Ministers also received an update from the Commission on the subject of collective redress. The Commission informed Ministers that it had launched a public consultation on the issue and that by the end of 2011, a communication would be published. The Government welcome this consultation and have yet to make their response to it.

Finally, at the request of Slovakia, Ministers considered the rights of EU citizens as regards the enforcement of court decisions in third countries concerning custody laws, in particular, in cases of mixed marriages and parental child abduction. Slovakia stated that the EU should explore ways of improving co-operation with third countries on international custody disputes. The Government supported the Slovakian proposal.