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EU: Justice and Home Affairs Council

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 December 2006

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Nationality, Citizenship and Immigration, Home Department, has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Justice and Home Affairs Council was held on 4 to 5 December 2006 in Brussels. The Home Secretary, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and I attended on behalf of the UK.

The Finnish presidency opened the council with the “A” points list which was approved. These included general approaches on taking account of convictions in new criminal proceedings (an important measure that requires member states to ensure that judges can take into account previous convictions in other member states—when, for example, sentencing—in the same way that they would take into account previous domestic convictions) and the draft Council regulation (a measure that applies only to Schengen member states) listing the third countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing the external borders of member states.

The presidency presented its draft conclusions on the Hague programme review. Discussion focused on two elements of the conclusions: the passerelle and the wording with regard to the assessment of progress made in the areas of criminal and judicial co-operation. On the passerelle, there was robust discussion with some member states seeking to have reflected in the text the need for further work to explore the possibilities in the passerelle and a reference to the constitutional treaty. The UK opposed these suggestions strongly, noting that the majority of member states were against further work on the passerelle. The Home Secretary made clear additionally that there should not be any link to the constitutional treaty and that, given the limited support for the proposed use of the passerelle, the current debate should be regarded as over. A number of other member states joined in opposing reference to possible European Council discussion of the passerelle. The final text states that, “the subject of decision making would remain under consideration by the Council [i.e. the JHA Council]. This would be brought to the attention of the European Council in December”.

On the Hague programme review more generally, the agreed conclusions reflect the UK views that proposals or initiatives for new instruments at EU level should be based on a rigorous assessment of their potential impact and welcomes the progress made in implementing the programme to date.

The council reached political agreement on the regulation establishing the Fundamental Rights Agency on a basis that avoids any formal extension of the agency's remit to the areas covered by Title VI and any reference to the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the operative part of the regulation. Both of these elements were essential to enable the UK to agree the regulation. The text of the regulation will be formally adopted at a council in January 2007. The Commission is expected to implement the transitional arrangements from the existing European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

No agreement was reached on the Prisoner Transfer Framework Decision. The presidency, with the support of the UK and a number of delegations, pushed hard for agreement on the latest text on the basis that it represented a compromise package for all. However, one member state maintained that the text did not go far enough to meet its concerns about the need for prisoner consent and the right of the executing state to determine whether transfer to its territory would facilitate social rehabilitation. Work will continue in the council on the outstanding issues.

The presidency asked whether the council wished to pursue work on a binding framework decision on procedural rights in criminal proceedings, pointing out that it and a non-binding resolution on practical measures (which had been put forward by six member states) were not mutually exclusive. Several member states, including the UK, preferred the non-binding text, arguing that the framework decision added no value for the citizen and created legal uncertainty. A large majority of member states were in favour of a binding instrument or prepared to be flexible. However, within the majority there was disagreement on whether a binding text should contain explicit derogations so as to protect national law. The issue would be taken up by the German presidency who are making it a priority of their presidency to reach agreement on a binding text.

Commissioner Frattini presented the Commission's communications on the global approach to migration and reinforcement of the southern maritime border. These were welcomed by the council, though it was noted that there was more that needed to be done. The UK introduced a paper on behalf of the G6 and underlined our wish for succinct, practically focused conclusions from the European Council. Work needed to be done to build partnerships with third countries and effectively planning the management of the southern maritime border.

The second-generation Schengen evaluation system (SIS II) and interim solution to connect the new member states to SIS I (SISOne4All) were discussed at length. A majority of member states wished to proceed with SISOne4All given their view that the political implications of delaying the lifting of internal borders were serious. The UK stressed its support for measures to allow the new member states to join the Schengen area as soon as possible, but also reiterated its concerns about costs, timetable and technical feasibility. The presidency proposed a compromise text on the basis that only those member states connected to SIS I would be liable for the extra costs resulting from the extension of the network, thereby excluding the UK and some other states from liability. The council conclusions were agreed on this basis.

The presidency called for agreement on the Rapid Response and Preparedness Instrument on the basis of a compromise text which would have seen the previous proposal for Community finance to be available for the hire of civil protection equipment removed from the instrument entirely. This represented a major move towards the UK position. Community finance would have remained within the scope of the instrument for the transport of civil protection assistance to disasters inside and outside of the EU provided the member state sending the assistance met 50 per cent of the costs. The amount of Community expenditure available for transport would also have been capped at 60 per cent of the total spend available through the instrument. There was support for this proposal from most other delegations. However the UK was not prepared to agree the instrument at the council on this basis. The presidency agreed to send the item back to COREPER for further discussion. Following a further concession to the UK whereby the maximum amount of Community expenditure available for transport was lowered to 50 per cent, agreement was reached at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 11 December.

The council conclusions on the future of Europol were agreed in principle with just one issue to be discussed at ambassadorial level on the replacement of the Europol Convention with a council decision.

The EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator presented a stock-take report which noted good progress on developing EU counter-terrorism legislation, secure intelligence analyses from the EU's Situation Centre and international co-operation. The report also identified shortcomings identified in implementing the legislation and in national capabilities to respond to attacks. As such, it may be useful to note that the EU has recently begun to develop initiatives in the field of combating radiological and biological terrorism. The UK has been closely involved with this work since its inception, lending our considerable expertise in this field, and ensuring that this work progresses in a manner that adds value at the European level and is not detrimental to UK interests.

The presidency presented a progress report on the strategy for the external dimension of JHA, which had been agreed under the UK's presidency. It was noted that implementation of the strategy was progressing, but that more time would be needed before a full evaluation of results would be possible.

There were a number of AOB items: the European evidence warrant should be adopted early in the German presidency; European contract law, during which the Commission stressed that the project concerned better law-making, not a European code of contract law; progress on the Prüm Treaty was noted and the German presidency indicated that it intended to attach priority to bringing the treaty into the EU acquis during its presidency. This would be discussed further at the JHA informal council in January.

At lunch on day 1 the Home Secretary took the opportunity to brief colleagues on the ongoing investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko. There was a brief exchange of views on violent video games where the Home Secretary emphasised the need to protect children, and others, from violent material and set out the UK's specific concerns about extreme pornographic material. Domestically the UK is proposing to make illegal the possession of a limited range of violent and extreme pornographic material and would like other member states to consider how they control the publication and distribution of such material. The Home Secretary urged that this work be taken forward under the German presidency. Judge Vassilios Skouris, president of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), gave a presentation on the ECJ's proposals for accelerated procedures for handling cases in the area of freedom, security and justice. Lunch items on day 2 included a presentation by Michel Barnier, diplomatic adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, on disaster response and a presentation by Kristiina Kangaspunta, chief of the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, followed by discussion of the EU action plan to combat human trafficking.