The Justice and Home Affairs Informal Council was held on 15 and 16 January 2009 in Prague. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw) and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Meg Hillier) attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The first day of the informal council focused on interior items, while the second day dealt with justice issues. A planned debate on EU drug policy did not take place but will be added to the agenda of the next JHA Council on 26 and 27 February 2009.
On the implementation of the second-generation Schengen information system (SIS II), the Commission noted that, while significant problems remained, consultants had concluded that the architecture of the system did not need to be fundamentally revised. However, a four-month period is needed to fix the current problems and provide sufficient stability in the central system for testing to resume. The Commission proposed a new, more focused programme management structure to help deliver this test/repair approach, which involved member state experts.
Delegations expressed frustration at the delays and costs incurred and recommended a thorough analysis of what could be repaired and what was beyond repair. Analysis of what had taken place needed to begin in parallel with a full examination of the alternatives, with clear timescales in place. It was also argued that any alternative scenarios needed to take into account the investments already made, something upon which the presidency gave assurances. The UK noted that everyone needed to pull together to solve the current situation.
Delegations were divided on when a decision should be taken on the options available, with some, including the UK, arguing for April, and others, including the Commission, suggesting that June was more viable. The presidency brought the debate to a close by noting that an alternative solution should be scoped in parallel to the ongoing work to test and analyse the current system, and a taskforce approach to testing would be implemented to offer greater scrutiny by member states’ experts. The February JHA council will be asked to confirm this approach.
On the use of modern technology for security purposes, the presidency stressed the importance of the core values of mobility, security and privacy in taking forward this work. The Commission emphasised the need for a coherent common strategy to enable information sharing and interoperability, covering all aspects of law enforcement information exchange across the EU. The UK also stressed the need for a broad strategy, but one which was not artificially constrained by the treaty pillars, and which drew on operational needs. The UK agreed that a balance of privacy and data sharing was important. In subsequent interventions there was general support for a broad strategy in the area of EU information access which looked at the practical needs and which could then be reflected in the post-Hague JHA work programme. There was also a sense that this work should be taken forward through existing council structures rather than through the creation of new groups.
On the related issue of the use of modern technologies in border control, migration management and asylum policy, there was clear support for the use of modern technologies to improve border management, including the use of biometric data to manage external borders. There was also broad support to develop the use of Eurodac. The presidency noted that existing mechanisms should be combined to enhance the effectiveness of border management work and said that the entry/exit system and registered traveller system would be ongoing areas of work for its presidency. The Commission recognised the possibility of an automated border system for those with biometric travel documents, but noted that a requirement to make the collection of such data binding would require a change to the current legislation. The Commission thought that new systems should only be developed once the legal instrument had been agreed, and systems needed to be developed in an integrated manner, across all levels (national and EU). The Commission also said that there would be an agency to manage IT systems, which would improve the process and enable member states to be more involved. The UK welcomed the presidency's proposals, noting its extensive use of data in border management, which facilitated travel as well as being a tool for law enforcement and migration management. It was important to learn from one another, and agree on the basic principles and benefits for citizens, for example in the use of passenger name records.
During a working lunch the presidency sought views on the international protection of children, with particular emphasis on the use of IT, including SIS II. The Commission raised the issue of the still small number of member states that currently have an early warning child abduction system in place. The UK called for support on a number of related issues: the work being undertaken by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre to tackle the sale and distribution of abusive images; for member states to consider participation of their law enforcement agencies in the virtual global taskforce (an international collaboration of law enforcement agencies that lead work to tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation both on and offline in their respective countries) to broaden its use within the EU; for consideration of an EU-wide child abduction taskforce and use of a website to exchange information and child alerts. Other delegations stressed the importance of a concerted effort at EU level, mentioning specifically the role of internet service providers (ISPs), whilst warning against duplication of existing Interpol work in relation to child pornography.
As regards the debate on the future of mutual recognition of court decisions and judgments, there was a general sense that mutual recognition should remain the cornerstone of judicial co-operation. However, there were also widespread calls for better implementation and for improved evaluation of existing instruments, and for minimum procedural safeguards in order to enhance trust in each others' systems. The UK stressed the importance of proportionality in the way instruments were applied, and called for existing standards under the European Convention on Human Rights to be better observed.
During the debate on succession and family law, general support was expressed in principle for a proposal that dealt with problems arising from succession and wills involving property in more than one country. However, there was widespread caution as to the detail, with some delegations calling for work to proceed slowly and taking full account of the diversity of member states’ legal systems. During a short discussion on family law, some states observed that it would be better to focus on implementation of agreed measures before proceeding further. A number of delegations spoke in favour of enhanced co-operation where negotiations on family law measures among all member states had not led to agreement. Nonetheless, the Commission indicated it did not consider that there was the critical mass to proceed with a proposal under enhanced co-operation on choice of law in divorce (following from the failure to reach agreement on Rome III).
Over lunch there was a discussion about e-justice. The presidency announced that they are going to produce a manual listing the location of video-conferencing facilities in every member state. The Commission said that member states would be able to request funding to help them to improve their video-conferencing capabilities.