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Justice and Home Affairs Council

Volume 594: debated on Thursday 19 March 2015

The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 12 and 13 March in Brussels. My hon, Friend the Minister of State for Civil Justice and Legal Policy (Lord Faulks QC) and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following items were discussed.

The interior session began with a discussion on the fight against terrorism where the presidency presented their discussion paper identifying key priorities for action in advance of the June European Council. These included: enhancing security at the Schengen external border; developing an EU internet referral capabilities unit at Europol; tackling illicit trafficking of firearms and stepping up information sharing.

The UK stressed the importance of supporting progress on establishing the Europol unit and numerous delegations intervened in full support. There was also full support for enhanced EU action to tackle illegal trafficking of firearms. The UK called for swift action in this area. The Commission indicated that it continues to assess all options, but deactivation standards have emerged as a clear priority.

The UK highlighted the need to ensure that where there is free movement of people, there is also free movement of criminal conviction data. Many Ministers called for agreement on a PNR directive before the end of the year, and the UK stressed that this must include the ability to exchange intra-EEA data. The presidency expressed their confidence that agreement with the European Parliament remained possible by the end of 2015. In the meantime they would continue informal dialogue to prepare the Council for Trilogue. The presidency concluded that Ministers supported the proposal to enhance checks at the Schengen external border based on common risk indicators. The indicators would be provided by the Commission by the end of April and subsequently be updated by Europol. Ministers would also ensure access to relevant information systems at all Schengen external border crossings, though this will not apply to the UK as we do not participate in the border and immigration aspects of Schengen. Connectivity to SIS II and the Interpol Lost and Stolen Travel Document (SLTD) database would be the priority in the first instance. Work would also continue at pace in order to establish an internet referrals unit at Europol. Finally, the Standing Committee on Internal Security (COSI) would progress work on the firearms and information sharing points and report back to the June JHA Council.

The Greek road map on asylum for 2015 was presented and an overview of the new Government’s migration policy was provided to the Council. Greece highlighted that immigration detention would only be used as a last resort, and that their priority would be to meet their obligations under EU law and improve conditions to host illegal migrants. The road map also set out a strategy for clearance of the asylum backlog and a fast track process. Greece confirmed they would not withdraw from Schengen or Dublin obligations, however, they continued to call for the use of ‘burden sharing’ between member states. The UK noted the important strategic position of Greece at the external border and the advances it had made, but stressed that much still needed to be done. Greece should continue to build on work with European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the UK remained committed to providing support, both via EASO and bilaterally.

The lunchtime discussion on migratory pressures focused on discussion of the Commission’s forthcoming new European agenda on migration, as well the recent flows to the EU from Kosovo. Member states raised a series of current concerns and potential EU responses under the new agenda, with strong support for enhanced and coherent action in countries of origin and transit including efforts to tackle people smugglers and traffickers, and for the enhancement of Frontex. The UK supported these proposals. The UK also pressed for all member states to meet their responsibilities regarding the processing of illegal migrants arriving on their territory, a call supported by other Ministers. Several member states called for enhanced resettlement from third countries to the EU, but the Commission suggested there was insufficient support from member states to implement this. There was only limited support for calls for greater solidarity and burden sharing. The UK expressed scepticism regarding proposals for the “upstream processing” of asylum seekers outside the EU and the consensus was that such proposals could only be developed if we were clear they would not represent a ‘pull factor’.

Under AOB PNR with Mexico and Argentina was discussed at Spain’s request. Spain noted that a number of third countries, including Mexico and Argentina, were demanding PNR data from EU airlines, and urged the Commission to bring forward a negotiating mandate to open discussions on such agreements, or risk a race against time to avoid carriers being caught between a conflict of laws. The UK agreed, noting also that this reinforced the need to agree an EU PNR Directive which included intra EEA flights, or find ourselves in the bizarre situation of being required to share data with a growing number of third countries, without the capability to share between member states.

Justice day began with the presidency seeking a partial general approach on Chapters II (general principles), VI and VII (“one-stop-shop”) of the Data Protection Regulation. The UK with other member states raised a number of concerns about the regulatory one-stop-shop mechanism in the regulation, in particular that it was too complex, bureaucratic and did not maximise benefits for either businesses or individuals. One member state raised the need for a specific review of the one-stop-shop to be included in the text, on which the UK and others agreed. Others recognised the presidency’s attempt to find agreement and thought the text represented a good compromise. The majority of member states agreed to the partial general approach, though the UK abstained. There was a collective view that significant further work is needed on the text in the coming months if there is going to be a general approach on the whole regulation in June, as the Latvian presidency intends.

The Council then adopted a general approach on the Legal Aid directive. Some member states expressed disappointment at the reduction in the scope of the proposal and lowering of the level of protection it offers, although others supported the balance struck between the different legal systems. The UK has not opted into the directive.

The Council reached a general approach on the Eurojust regulation, with the provisions setting out the relationship between Eurojust and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office removed. The UK did not opt-in to the Eurojust proposal, and as such did not vote on the general approach text which will form the basis for discussion with the European Parliament.

The Council discussed certain aspects of the proposal to establish a European Public Prosecutor’s Office, in which the UK will not participate. The Council considered whether the European Public Prosecutor’s Office should have the power to dismiss a case through ‘transaction’ (in summary, this refers to the payment of compensation for damage, and a lump sum fine, by a suspected person as an alternative to prosecution). The presidency concluded that while most member states could support the idea, further technical work is needed.

The discussion over lunch was on the judicial dimension of de-radicalising foreign fighters. There was an initial exchange between member states on the work they do to combat radicalisation in prisons. The European Commission noted that it is keen to facilitate exchange of best practice between member states and referred to the UK’s expertise in this area. The UK confirmed that it was willing to share experience, while respecting the limits of EU competence in this area.

The presidency then presented a partial general approach on the simplification of public documents regulation, which was supported by the UK and all other member states bar one. A number of member states, including the UK, made interventions to be clear that the EU does not enjoy exclusive external competence in this field of policy. Some member states wanted to consider the possibility of a joint political declaration on external competence in June, while others were of the view that there was no need for the political declaration.

The Commission noted its willingness to work with member states on the issue of external competence language in the text of the regulation, but needed some changes compared to the current text. The presidency concluded that the Council agreed a partial general approach and that technical work to conclude the general approach would be carried out swiftly including finalising the text on the external competence, the recital and the multilingual forms. The Council would evaluate in June whether or not a joint political declaration is required on external competence.

Under AOB, the presidency signalled its intention to resume official-level work on the data protective directive, covering the processing of personal data in criminal investigations and prosecutions, in April as part of a package with the regulation.