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EU: Justice and Home Affairs Council

Volume 697: debated on Monday 17 December 2007

The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held in Brussels on 6 and 7 December 2007. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw); my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Bridget Prentice); the Solicitor-General for Scotland (Frank Mulholland); and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Meg Hillier) attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following issues were discussed at the council.

The council opened with a jumbo meeting of Interior and Employment Ministers who met to discuss the links between migration, employment and the Lisbon agenda. Commissioner Frattini highlighted legal migration as key to delivering the Lisbon agenda and addressing the demographic challenges facing the EU. The UK underlined our commitment to the Lisbon agenda and stated that the key to achieving it was to increase labour market participation, ensure national flexibility in legal migration, combat illegal migration and ensure that integration and cohesion issues were taken into account in legal migration policy development. Every member state intervened and consistent themes emerged similar to those made by the UK but, in general, member states felt that these decisions were primarily for individual states.

The council then moved on to the mixed committee which included Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The presidency began by congratulating all concerned on the historic achievement of the extension of the Schengen acquis to the member states who joined the European Union in 2004.There were also updates on the Schengen Information System (SIS) communication network which was still on schedule to be completed within the prescribed timescale and the SIS II programme. The presidency spoke of the two key issues surrounding the SIS II programme: the overall timescale and the migration of data. The migration issue will be discussed at the informal JHA Council of the Slovenian presidency in January. The Commission said the timescale for delivery of SIS II in December 2008 was still technically possible.

There was a report on the progress made on the directive for common standards and procedures in member states for returning illegally staying third-country nationals. As we are not yet convinced of the need for common standards in this area, the UK has not opted into this directive.

The main agenda began with agreement to council conclusions on mobility partnerships and circular migration in the framework of the global approach to migration. The presidency compromise was accepted after some textual amendments were made at the request of one member state to ensure that references to circular migration were not becoming permanent.

Interior Ministers attended a presidency lunch with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Gutteres. He set out the UNHCR's expectations of the next stage of the common European asylum system (CEAS) and urged greater international co-operation between countries in regions of origin, transit and arrival. The Commission announced the results of the Green Paper on the second phase of the CEAS and detailed its timetable for proposals next year. The UK urged caution in timing of the second phase of the CEAS.

The report on the implementation of the counter-terrorism strategy was introduced by the presidency and the new EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, Gilles de Kerchove. He focused on the exchange of information and emphasised the importance of member states fulfilling their commitments under the 2005 decision on sharing information with Europol and Eurojust. Gilles de Kerchove commented on the importance of creating synergies between, for example, police, customs and judicial information and outlined the development, of “check the web”, common principles of data protection, and the implementation of council decisions. The presidency agreed with Gilles de Kerchove on the importance of the relationship between Europol and Eurojust and work with the US. Work on these and other areas will continue under the Slovenian presidency.

The presidency welcomed the first reading agreement on the weapons directive with the European Parliament. The UK congratulated the presidency on this outcome. There had been raids in Manchester seizing real and imitation firearms and this clearly underlined the importance of this issue. It is hoped this will be adopted under the Slovenian presidency.

The presidency hoped to conclude Chapters VI, VII and IX of the Europol council decision, subject to the outcome of decisions on budget neutrality, bold posts and immunity. However, after the UK and other member states confirmed their continuing parliamentary scrutiny reserves and member states raised further concerns about the voting regime, it was concluded that that these areas would need to be resolved at a later stage.

The incoming Slovenian presidency congratulated the Portuguese on its achievements, particularly on SISOne4All. It announced that under its presidency, it would continue to take forward work on Europol, Prüm, the weapons directive, readmission agreements and CEAS. It also set out its future presidency programme and announced that its informal council would take place in January at Brdl Castle.

The presidency also announced that the EU could now support the European day against the death penalty as all reserves had been lifted. It would be celebrated on 10 October every year.

The presidency introduced the proposal to update the 2002 framework decision on combating terrorism to bring it in line with the Council of Europe convention. This was an important subject matter, and there was a delicate balance to be achieved to ensure that fundamental rights were protected while terrorism was effectively tackled. The Commission emphasised the importance of responding to terrorist use of the internet as a criminal matter not as freedom of expression. Most member states welcomed the proposed changes to the framework decision and the Commission's comments on the dividing line between freedom of expression and criminal acts.

The presidency presented achievements so far in work on e.Justice. The Commission will increase funding in 2008 and produce a communication in May/June setting up an overall e.Justice strategy.

The presidency confirmed agreement to the latest text on choice of law in contractual obligations (Rome I). The Government consider that the text now improves on the Rome convention and addresses earlier concerns about potential loss of legal and financial services to other jurisdictions. The UK will consult its stakeholders, as soon as possible, as to whether it should, now, opt in to the text.

The council conclusions on Eurojust were adopted without debate. Slovenia announced it would address the issues raised during its presidency. The Government support the conclusions but have made it clear previously that any future proposals should focus on ensuring that Eurojust fulfils its potential within its current powers.

A general approach was reached on mutual recognition of suspended sentences, alternative sanctions and conditional sentences. The Government considered that the text balanced the different interests of member states and respected the differences between legal systems, while remaining proportionate. Accordingly, the UK was able to support a general approach.

The presidency gave an update on the framework decision of the European supervision order and confirmed that it was finalising the draft text in co-operation with the Commission and the incoming presidencies on the basis of the mandate provided from the September JHA Council.

The presidency reported that the recent EU-Russia JHA Ministerial had gone well and included discussions on narcotics, particularly from Afghanistan, and the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding on financial crime.

The two common positions on the review mechanism and asset recovery in relation to the UN Convention Against Corruption were noted briefly by the presidency but no member state intervened.

The presidency noted the successful outcome of the diplomatic session on the Hague Convention on Maintenance and observed that this text was a good basis for work on the Community's draft regulation on the same topic.

The presidency announced the important outcomes achieved at the European-Mediterranean migration summit. The statement agreed at the summit was balanced and comprehensive and included various projects to be taken forward. The Commission had announced €5 million to finance the projects agreed.

During the Justice Ministers' lunch, the Commission reported on the first meeting of the Justice Future Group, on which common law countries are represented by the Attorney-General of Ireland. There was a general discussion.

One member state noted that consistency was needed between security needs and the Community work to set a standard for the ammonium nitrate content of fertiliser. The Commission agreed and said work would start in the new year.