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Justice and Home Affairs Council

Volume 542: debated on Thursday 15 March 2012

The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 8 March in Brussels. I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following items were discussed.

The Council began in mixed committee with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (non-EU Schengen states). The presidency opened a debate on illegal immigration by outlining some of the pressures facing member states. The presidency reported that it was working on a roadmap for the April Council grouping current and future measures into a single strategy. The Commission (Malmström) supported the presidency and saw the response as being threefold: member states needed to make full use of existing legislation; the EU Agencies (Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office) needed to work more closely together; and there needed to be further co-operation with countries of origin and transit, with Turkey a priority. Frontex’s update showed that despite a decrease in the flows from Libya and Tunisia, the situation overall was not improving. Ministers were supportive of the presidency roadmap and all agreed that the Greece-Turkey border was a priority. The UK supported the presidency’s work and noted concerns over visa liberalisation. In addition the EU needed to begin to take action to tackle fraud and abuse of free movement rights where third country nationals were using these rights to facilitate their travel across the EU and to circumvent immigration controls. The UK also supported work upstream with partner countries, and suggested that a more concerted EU dialogue with Turkey needed to be initiated.

There followed presentations by the Commission, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Frontex on the situation in Greece in relation to Schengen. The Commission noted there was evidence of progress but it was still uneven, particularly in the area of asylum management. EASO provided an overview of the training support currently underway. Whilst the backlog in asylum decisions was still too big, EASO welcomed the announcement that Greece’s new asylum service would be operational from this September. Frontex reported seeing real progress on border management and once again appealed to member states to increase their deployment of expertise. The presidency suggested developing returns strategies to help the Greek authorities increase their capacity to return failed asylum seekers and illegal migrants, and invited the agencies and Commission to report again in April.

The Council adopted conclusions on strengthening Schengen governance. Ministers from EU and associated states would meet twice a year in mixed committee to discuss the functioning of the Schengen area, including any serious shortcomings highlighted by reports under the Schengen evaluation mechanism. Member states welcomed the Commission’s intention to present regular reports, starting in May, which would cover planned and existing visa liberalisation and its consequences, co-operation with key countries of origin and transit, and the implementation of the Schengen acquis, including at the internal borders.

The presidency introduced its paper on co-operation with third countries in the area of border management and on strengthening internal security during major sporting events. There was little discussion. Updating Ministers on preparations for the Olympics, the Home Secretary underlined that the safety and security of the games were of paramount importance. The UK Government had been planning for years and had recently conducted live exercises, including a simulation of a terrorist attack and a test of the inter-operability of emergency services and other responders. The Home Secretary thanked Schengen states and the Commission for their assurances that requests from games’ family members for transit visas would be expedited and said the UK would disseminate information to participants informing them that they needed to meet any visa requirements of transit countries. Lastly, the Government were working with a number of member states to tackle the few instances of illegal ticket touting.

The presidency reported on the recent conference on innovation border management. Participants had acknowledged the benefits of a biometric EU entry-exit system and registered traveller programme, and agreed on the need to balance data protection considerations with the benefits of access to data for law enforcement agencies.

The presidency emphasised the importance of the second generation Schengen Information System (SIS II) in enabling the Schengen area to remain secure without internal borders. Commissioner Malmström noted they had completed all activities on schedule to date, but issues with the national testing tool could cause the timetable to slip.

Moving into the main Council meeting, the adoption of the A points (the list of items agreed without discussion) confirmed Rob Wainwright’s directorship of Europol for another four years.

Before inviting Ministers to approve the Council conclusions on solidarity, the presidency underlined the importance of having a ‘toolbox’ at member states’ disposal to counter the challenges presented in the field of asylum and managing mixed migration flows. The conclusions provided the framework for increasing mutual trust. The Commission stood ready to undertake their commitments and thought the conclusions should maintain the momentum required to complete the Common European Asylum System negotiations by the end of 2012. EASO presented its own view of the early warning mechanism to be agreed within the Dublin regulation, with EASO analysing member state data to identify trends and push and pull factors; a Commission lead on preparedness with EASO support; and emergency support which was already being provided to Greece. The UK was pleased with the balance of solidarity measures and member state responsibilities and the fact that the conclusions recognised the value of practical co-operation. However, the UK called for caution in striking the right balance between the roles of the institutions in the early warning mechanism. For the UK, EASO should have the leading role, but in close partnership with member states. The UK also supported the view that internal relocation would simply move the problem around Europe, creating pull factors, but noted that the reference in the conclusions was on a voluntary basis.

In the last session of the Council, the presidency gave a brief overview of progress on the asylum package and signalled its intention to move with commitment and energy to complete as much as possible, in view of the 2012 deadline. The Commission was pleased with the progress made, and urged the presidency to maintain momentum.