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EU: Justice and Home Affairs Council

Volume 698: debated on Monday 4 February 2008

The Justice and Home Affairs Informal Council was held on 25 and 26 January 2008 in Ljubljana. My right honourable and noble friend the Attorney-General (Baroness Scotland), my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle), and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Meg Hillier), attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. Since it was an informal council, no formal decisions were taken. The following main issues were discussed:

The first home affairs session opened with a report from the presidency on the work of the Future Group on EU Home Affairs.   Those not on the group were invited to give their views.  All supported the work under way, stressing the need to prioritise data sharing, both within the EU and co-operation with third countries.  In relation to other subject areas, there were suggestions that work might look at the further harmonisation of rules to manage the Schengen area, tighter border controls, measures to bring terrorists to justice and the strengthening of action in the area of civil protection and disaster response. Several delegations also raised the need to ensure that the work of the Home Affairs Group and that of the Justice Future Group were linked more closely.  The new European Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs (LIBE) president, Gérard Deprez, gave a general introduction to the approach of LIBE, stressing its concern for privacy and individual rights.

The presidency concluded that interoperability of databases and the needs of law enforcement should drive future EU policy on data sharing, coupled with thorough data protection. On migration, an integrated approach to management was needed based on Frontex (the EU’s border agency), operating across land and sea borders. Links with external policy should be stronger, as should data sharing, and work with and in third countries.  In all these areas the EU should analyse what it already had, and then look at the next steps.  The presidency noted that a final report should be prepared under the incoming French presidency, with a view to contributing to the successor to the Hague JHA work programme.

The second session discussed practical co-operation in the field of asylum, with the presidency stressing the need for joint practical projects and asking for views on a European Support Office (ESO) which would oversee all forms of co-operation between member states on the common European asylum system. The UK welcomed practical co-operation based on an assessment of why people moved. The Commission said that its proposals on the second stage of the common European asylum system were due in July and work on an ESO should start with a feasibility study.  All member states agreed that practical co-operation should be strengthened, and that there was a need for more uniform country-of-origin information.  All member states also supported the ESO, but views differed as to its role and staffing.  The presidency concluded that work to unify the interpretation of existing instruments, common training, and shared interpretation pool should continue. There was wide support for an ESO, but further work was needed on its tasks and financing. The presidency looked forward to the Commission’s ESO study. The council would be invited to agree conclusions on this at a future session.

The home affairs session closed the official programme with a working lunch, during which Ministers considered the timetable for the implementation of the second generation of the Schengen information system (SIS II).  The Commission and presidency argued that member states had to set and commit to a real timetable for SIS II. More time for testing was needed, but a formal decision had to be taken at the February JHA council. Ministers agreed with a presidency proposal to remodel the oversight of the SIS II project on similar grounds to that used for SISOne4All, setting up a ministerial-level steering group of various member states.

Ministers also had an exchange of views on the Commission's proposal on the use of the passenger name records (PNR) for law enforcement purposes. The Commission stressed the need to prevent terrorism, but protect the privacy and rights of honest travellers. At the presidency’s request, the Government presented the UK's experience of using PNR data, with concrete examples of their use, proportionality and success, with the conclusion that they should be used to detect all forms of crime.  While generally favouring the proposal, member states noted that it raised difficult technical and substantive issues, including concerns about data protection.  The presidency concluded that there was general support for the proposal, subject to further work on the scope and to ensure data protection. 

Over lunch on the second day, Justice Ministers discussed the report on the Justice Future Group. There was no clear conclusion on whether to merge the Home Affairs and Justice Future Groups, though the presidency encouraged Ministers to co-ordinate better with their home affairs colleagues.

After lunch, Justice Ministers discussed whether the e-justice portal should be opened to the public and if so how it should be co-ordinated and whether data should remain decentralised. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle), said that the portal should be opened up, but that issues around data protection and charges for access, if any, had to be carefully considered in each pilot.

The next justice session focused on the presidency’s paper (co-sponsored by the UK) on trials in absentia. The paper was unanimously welcomed as a step forward for EU criminal procedural rights. My right honourable and noble friend the Attorney-General (Baroness Scotland) congratulated the presidency on its achievement. The presidency aims to conclude agreement by the end of June.

During their final session, Justice Ministers discussed matters of family law and, in particular, their views in relation to the proposed regulation on maintenance obligations and the proposed regulation on divorce, also known as Rome III. The UK has not opted in to either proposal. In response to a question from the presidency, a majority of Ministers agreed that the recently agreed text on the Hague convention and protocol on maintenance obligations should be signed and ratified as soon as possible, reflecting the UK's position. Further discussions took place on the desirability of eliminating obstacles to the recognition and enforcement of maintenance decisions from other member states. On Rome III, a consensus view emerged that spouses ought to be able to choose the competent jurisdiction and law applicable to their divorce.