The Informal Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 23 and 24 January in Athens. I attended the interior day on 24 January on behalf of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was unable to attend the justice day due to commitments in Parliament, but he was represented by a senior official. The following items were discussed.
The justice day began with a discussion of the future development of the justice and home affairs area. There was widespread support among member states for implementation and consolidation of existing EU legislation, mutual recognition, exploiting new technologies, and greater coherence between internal and external EU justice and home affairs activities. Fundamental rights and minimum criminal procedural standards were also a theme for many member states. The UK supported concentrating on the implementation of existing EU law rather than creating new legislation, and argued against further harmonisation. The presidency concluded that mutual recognition should remain the basis of judicial co-operation and that existing legislation needed to be implemented and codified. It also said that there was a need to make full use of e-Justice and new technologies, and to have much greater coherence between internal and external EU JHA work.
Next, the Commission set out its package of measures on procedural rights in criminal law. The chair of the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee said the package would be a priority for the new European Parliament. There were mixed views from those member states who spoke in response, with support expressed in principle but some concerns raised about the detail of what the package would mean in practice.
Over lunch, the presidency asked for views on the proposed amendments to the European small claims procedure regulation. The UK joined the majority of member states in agreeing that the threshold should rise but there was a difference of opinion about what the new level should be. Most also agreed with the greater use of electronic communication methods, provided member states retained some discretion in their use. Although not raised by the presidency, some member states also expressed concerns about the proposed changes to the cross-border restriction and the introduction of a cap on fees.
After lunch there was a discussion on data protection and the issue of international transfers of personal data. There was broad support among member states for the principle of extending the rights of EU residents to third countries where possible but also concern among some delegations, including the UK, about the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism outside the EU, the potential for controllers to be confronted by conflicting legal obligations and a lack of certainty for data subjects about their precise rights. The UK maintained that the focus of effort should be on chapter 5 of the draft regulation, and its rules on international data transfers which are enforceable within the EU. Nonetheless, the presidency concluded that Justice Ministers agreed to the geographical scope of the proposed regulation while highlighting that there were issues about enforceability outside the EU. Further discussions will now take place at the technical level.
The interior day began with the presidency referring to the tragedy earlier in the week off the island of Farmakonisi in which a number of migrants died. The Commission (Malmström) expressed its concern about the loss of life.
The first session concentrated on terrorism and border security, including links between terrorism and border security, the “smart borders” package and preventing the movement of fighters to and from conflict zones.
The Commission also described the content of its communication on countering radicalisation and violent extremism. Member states and the EU’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator (De Kerchove) broadly welcomed the communication. A large number of member states stressed the importance of making progress on EU passenger name records (PNR) and called upon the European Parliament to unblock it.
The UK argued that EU PNR was essential to enable authorities to track the movements of terrorists across borders. The UK also suggested that other member states consider a system using advance passenger information (API) data to implement a “no fly” system, as we do. On smart borders, the UK stressed the need for joined up co-operation with third countries, in particular Turkey. Finally, the UK offered to share its experience of legislation to prevent people travelling to conflict zones for terrorist purposes.
The Commission stated that it intends to review the implementation of the framework decision on terrorism. Several member states were willing to look at amending the EU’s legislation on terrorism, in particular in the light of new legislation at national level.
The presidency concluded by calling for the use of all available tools to combat terrorism, in particular EU PNR and better use of the SIS II system; the smart borders package and better co-operation with third countries also needed to be stepped up.
The second session focused on the future development of the JHA area where the presidency introduced its paper and underlined the importance it attached to the strategic guidelines being clear about the need for burden sharing in the migration field, and solidarity with those member states under the most pressure.
The Commission said that the strategic guidelines on the future of the JHA area needed to take account of a range of new security and migration challenges. There was also a need to step up work on counter radicalisation and a number of serious crime areas, including trafficking in human beings and cybercrime. The European Asylum Support Office had an important role in supporting some member states to deal with excessive pressures on their systems. These issues would be considered in more depth at DG Home’s conference on the future of the JHA area on 29 and 30 January.
The UK highlighted that burden sharing was not the solution and that it would simply increase the pull factor. Nor should we call into question the Dublin system, which had only recently been strengthened. Instead, there was a need to strengthen the external border and reduce illegal immigration into the EU through practical co-operation, with a focus on returns and reducing abuse of migration and asylum systems. The UK stated that future JHA priorities should include better exchange of criminal records as well as action to tackle trafficking in human beings and modem slavery, where the UK was introducing new legislation.
The UK argued that the strategic guidelines should address the issue of abuse of free movement; in particular the way in which illegal third country migrants and criminals exploit free movement to circumvent controls on immigration. This was core JHA business and had previously been covered in the Stockholm programme.
In conclusion, the presidency called upon the Commission to listen to member states’ views in preparing its communication. There would be a further discussion at the March JHA Council.