The Informal Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 29 and 30 January in Riga. I and a senior Ministry of Justice official attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following items were discussed.
In the context of the attacks in Paris in January, the presidency focused the morning of interior day on the issue of counter-terrorism and, in particular, foreign fighters. Member states, along with the Commission and the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, discussed how best to tackle the threat posed by those returning from Syria and Iraq, as well as efforts to tackle radicalisation. Member states, including the UK, agreed a joint statement which emphasised a number of issues including: the need for a strong and effective passenger name records framework; the importance of effective action against illegal firearms; and the need to tackle terrorist content on the internet.
The UK urged other EU states to do more to improve the exchange of information about known criminals to keep the public safe. We highlighted that existing EU mechanisms are not fully utilised by other member states to identify released offenders who continue to pose a public protection risk and who may try to travel across Europe and stressed that, to be able to refuse such offenders entry, member states need to be told about them in advance. The UK also stressed the need for all member states to retain and share information about “spent” convictions for serious offences for appropriate lengths of time. We welcomed the continued focus on this important issue and on working together at the European level to tackle the threat but reiterated the importance of all member states working to make progress in this area quickly.
Over lunch there was a discussion of EU migration pressures based on reporting from Frontex and EASO, where discussion covered the situation in Syria, the handling of asylum claims in member states, and legal routes into the EU. The UK stressed the need to enhance co-operation with source and transit countries, in order to disrupt irregular migration flows.
After lunch, the presidency held a joint session of Interior and Justice Ministers along with their counterparts from the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—during which the EaP countries highlighted their progress on domestic reforms. In a common theme for many EU member state interventions, the Commission underlined the importance of rule of law, and in particular the independence of the judiciary. Many EaP countries had made progress, but there was more to do.
Eurojust wanted to see more co-operation with EaP based on the model of their network of judicial contact points, noting that it was in talks with Ukraine and Georgia to establish them there, and hoped to see a greater level of co-operation.
On justice day, ministers returned to the issue of counter-terrorism to look at the judicial response, including radicalisation in prison and the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution on foreign fighters.
The presidency then introduced its discussion paper on the scope of the data protection package, which consists of a regulation covering the processing of personal data in most civil and commercial circumstances, and a directive covering the processing of personal data in the context of criminal investigations and prosecution. Ministers were asked to consider whether the scope of the draft directive should remain as proposed by the Commission or be extended to also cover processing of personal data when “maintaining law and order and the safeguarding of public security”.
The Commission argued strongly for maintaining the directive’s original scope and noted that the regulation had already been amended to provide greater flexibility for the public sector. The European Parliament set out its firm support for the Commission position. While a few member states supported the existing Commission proposal, the majority of member states supported the presidency’s proposal for an extension of the scope of the directive. The UK, along with another member state, did not support either proposal. The UK understood the concerns of most member states, and recognised this was an important and difficult issue. The UK put forward a compromise proposal, to limit the scope of the directive to activities falling within those chapters of the treaty dealing with police and judicial co-operation—that is, chapters 4 and 5 of title V of part three of the TFEU. The meeting did not allow for a substantive discussion of the proposal, which the UK proposed should take place at expert level.
There followed a discussion on the promotion of digital solutions and tools for justice. The Commission argued that legal fragmentation across member states was a major obstacle to a functioning digital single market, with significant resultant costs suffered by businesses, in particular SMEs. This was a top priority for the Commission, and it would bring forward a package of proposals this year to supplement the data protection reforms already under way. This would include withdrawing its proposal for a common European sales law and bringing forward a new measure to harmonise rules for online purchases. There was also a need to make further progress on the e-justice agenda. Many member states called for a more ambitious e-justice agenda for both criminal and civil law.
The UK highlighted its recent paper on “The UK vision for the EU’s digital economy”. On the common European sales law, the UK had joined a number of other member states in calling for the Commission to withdraw the proposal. Any modified proposal needed to be based on a proper impact assessment and consultation. There was a need for a new focus on more effective enforcement of consumer law as well as new cross-EU consumer rights specifically for digital content. The UK argued there was scope for the Commission to consider online sales issues when reviewing the Rome I regulation.
Under AOB, Romania spoke to its joint letter with Italy calling upon the commission to provide EU funding to support improvements in prison conditions. They argued this was an important objective with implications for EU co-operation, in particular the European arrest warrant and the EU framework on prisoner transfers. Finally, Spain drew attention to its conference on 25 March which would include the signing of the convention on trafficking in human organs.