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Justice and Home Affairs Council

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2012

The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council is due to be held on 8 March in Brussels. I will attend on behalf of the United Kingdom. As the provisional agenda stands, the following items will be discussed.

The Council will begin in mixed committee with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (non-EU Schengen states). There will be presentations by the Commission and Frontex on illegal immigration, continuing the Council discussions on this issue under the previous presidency. The UK supports increased efforts to combat illegal flows across the external border and within the EU, and welcomes proposals for a presidency “roadmap” for a more coherent response to these flows. In particular, the UK believes it is vital that the EU response includes action to tackle fraud and abuse of free movement rights, as well as consolidation of efforts at the Greek-Turkish border, closer partnership working with Turkey, and work further “upstream” in countries of origin and transit using the tools of the EU’s global approach to migration.

The presidency will present its Council conclusions which aim to strengthen political governance over Schengen co-operation through regular political and strategic discussions at ministerial level in mixed committee format. The use of mixed committee format will allow the UK to participate in discussions which affect the control of illegal immigration flows that impact on the UK. The UK supports this proposal and the list of suggested topics for inclusion in the Commission’s periodic reports. The UK will use these debates to call for stronger practical co-operation on measures to protect the external border and prevent illegal immigration.

There will be an update from the presidency on attempts to secure agreement on the date for the removal of controls on Bulgaria and Romania’s sea and air borders with countries in the Schengen area. This issue will also be discussed at the preceding European Council. We do not expect a vote.

Next there will be an update on the second generation Schengen Information System (SIS II). The UK will continue to reiterate its support for the continuation of the current SIS II project. The Commission has committed to deliver the central element of SIS II in early 2013.

There will also be a presentation by the presidency on the EU conference on innovative border management, which the UK attended in Copenhagen on 2 and 3 February 2012.

There will be a discussion during lunch on combating organised crime through multi-disciplinary and administrative approaches.

The main Council will start with a “state of play” report by the presidency on the Common European Asylum System. This will set out the progress that has been made on the package to date: negotiations continue on the reception conditions directive and the Dublin III Regulation, with the development of a new article to enshrine the “early warning mechanism', which was the subject of discussions in JHA Councils at the end of last year.

The presidency will present draft Council conclusions which set out the outcome of discussions on solidarity and practical co-operation that took place at the informal Council meeting in January. They are intended to provide a framework or “tool box” for practical co-operation within the EU, focusing in large part on maximising the opportunities presented by existing arrangements. This is the first time the Council has been asked to consider the conclusions but there is a high degree of support for the direction they set out. The UK strongly supports the conclusions as currently drafted. They present the right balance on key issues including that the focus of “solidarity” should be practical co-operation between member states based on their individual responsibility to build migration management capacity; strong references to the “early warning mechanism” to be included in the new Dublin regulation in place of a suspension clause; and an explicit confirmation of the lack of support for any mandatory intra-EU relocation of beneficiaries of international protection.

Next there will be a presentation by the Commission, the European Asylum Support Office and Frontex on the Greek action plan (GAP) of August 2010. The GAP outlines Greece’s proposals to build its capability to manage migration, including through the creation of an improved asylum service which complies with EU legislation. Legislation has now been adopted in Greece to provide a new institutional framework by creating three new agencies (Asylum Service, Appeals Authority and Initial Reception Service). However, the implementation of these reforms has been significantly hindered by systemic deficiencies in the Greek Administration and constraints imposed by austerity measures. The UK supports the GAP and has a vested interest in its success, not least because a weak border with Turkey presents a security risk. Up to 80% of illegal migrants enter the EU through Greece, and many of these may travel on to the UK. Without significant improvements to the asylum system, use of the Dublin regulation to return asylum seekers to Greece will remain suspended. But the Government are concerned by the slow progress of reform and the limited evidence of the impact of EU support, including that provided through the European Asylum Support Office. Members of the Council are likely to discuss whether any further support would be appropriate and will push to secure further political will from Greece to bring about meaningful reform.

Under any other business the presidency will provide information on current legislative proposals.