A Justice and Home Affairs Council was held in Luxembourg on 4 and 5 June 2009. My noble friend Admiral Lord West, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Security and Counter-Terrorism, Kenny MacAskill, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following issues were discussed:
The council, starting in mixed committee with Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, adopted conclusions on the future direction of the second generation of the Schengen information system. These conclusions propose that the development of SIS II continues on the basis of the current SIS II platform with stronger project management in place and milestones to assess progress. The conclusions propose that a contingency plan based on the current SIS I platform be retained until tests defined in the project milestones are successfully completed. It was also agreed that any future decision on a move to the contingency plan would be taken by a qualified majority in the council. The UK supported the continued development of SIS II, noting the challenge always posed by such large scale IT projects to Governments and the necessity for clear project management and milestones, as outlined in the conclusions.
The Commission then provided an update on the implementation of the visa information system (VIS), reminding Ministers that VIS could not start until all participating member states were ready to connect (the UK does not participate in VIS). The Commission also provided an update on the geographical deployment of VIS, noting that it would prepare a draft decision, to be presented later in June. Dates for commencement would be established by the Commission, on the basis of member states' readiness to transmit the relevant data.
Ministers adopted conclusions on a co-ordinated EU approach to the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. The conclusions put in place a framework for information sharing to facilitate member states’ acceptance of former detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The conclusions also outline that it is for individual member states to decide whether they accept ex-detainees. The council noted that primary responsibility for the closure of Guantanamo rests with the US, but the EU should do its part to assist this process. The UK supported the conclusions, highlighting that closure of Guantanamo was a key issue not only for transatlantic relations but also for the radicalisation and recruitment of potential terrorists. Getting the message right was important in adding to the safety and security of citizens by countering extremism and the conclusions were a step forward in that regard.
After the mixed committee there was a political debate on the package of proposals presented by the Commission this year to take forward development of the common asylum system. The package includes proposals on the Dublin and Eurodac regulations, the asylum reception conditions directive, a European support office and refugee fund. The UK has opted in to all of the proposals except the one on asylum reception conditions. The Commission said that more work and discussion was needed to establish the right direction for this package and this would be taken forward at working group level. The UK outlined its vision on what the EU should be doing in this area, stressing that the key aim had to be the protection of genuine refugees, by deciding their claims as swiftly as possible, and the prevention of abuse of the asylum system by people making false claims to be refugees. External efforts were vital too: to improve protection beyond the EU's shores and tackle illegal immigration more effectively with source and transit countries.
In council and then continuing over lunch, Ministers held a debate on illegal immigration in the southern Mediterranean. The Commission expressed its view that the EU had to act and member states must be ready to assist each other, including through a pilot internal relocation project. The work of the EU Borders Agency (FRONTEX) work should be enhanced through a local office in the Mediterranean and more involvement on returns. Enhanced dialogue with third countries was vital too: co-operation with Libya was already delivering results. The EU needed to ensure protection was improved throughout the world; and a second Tripoli conference on tackling illegal immigration through East Africa should be held.
The Commission provided an update on the guidelines on the implementation and application of the free movement directive (2004/38/EC) advising that they would be adopted on 2 July. Follow-up work would continue at expert level to help tackle abuse. The UK supported the view that these guidelines would be crucial in assisting member states and their courts to interpret the legislative framework and welcomed the inclusion of criminality and abuse of residence rights in the guidelines. The UK also emphasised the need for better monitoring, to inform future decisions on action to tackle abuse.
The EU counterterrorism co-ordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, gave oral reports on the implementation of the EU strategy and action plan to combat terrorism, progress made over the past six months and priorities for the future. These highlighted the need to continue working closely together to maintain the momentum of co-operation at EU level. He outlined three key regions where focus was needed going forward; Pakistan, the Sahel and the Arabian Peninsula, stressing the importance of the Commission's stability instrument funding in supporting work in these regions.
The presidency updated the council on three EU external relations meetings held recently between the troika of the current and incoming presidency and the Commission and the US, Russian Federation and Ukraine. Outcomes of these meetings would continue to be discussed in relevant working parties.
Under any other business, the Commission presented a report on visa liberalisation in the western Balkans. A full evaluation would be undertaken in July by the Commission and proposals then made. Attention was also drawn to a recent Commission communication on disaster prevention, along with a parallel communication on disaster prevention in developing countries. The communication supplemented those activities carried out at national level, by improving knowledge, creating links between stakeholders, and increasing the efficiency of existing mechanisms. Finally, the incoming Swedish presidency noted that Home Affairs Ministers would be invited to meet in October at Europol to celebrate its 10th anniversary and consider the future of EU police co-operation in the context of the next five-year JHA work programme.
On day two of the Justice and Home Affairs Council the presidency presented two proposed regulations providing mechanisms for negotiation and conclusion of bilateral agreements with third countries in certain areas of civil and family law, where there is external Community competence. The council agreed the texts of both proposals. On behalf of the UK I welcomed these proposals in principle while expressing the hope that the scope of the civil law proposal would be expanded in due course.
The presidency presented the draft report on the setting up of a common frame of reference for European contract law, confirming that the project would create a non-binding “toolkit” for legislators.
The presidency presented their achievements to the council on e-justice over the past six months including work on the e-justice portal and video-conferencing. The Government welcome this work and hope to see it feature as one of the priorities in the work programme in justice and home affairs over the next five years.
The presidency informed the council about the First Reading deal on ship source pollution that had been agreed with the European Parliament on 5 May.
The presidency presented the final report on the mutual evaluation of the operation of the European arrest warrant (EAW). On behalf of the UK I congratulated the presidency on the report, and stressed in particular the importance of taking forward work on proportionality. The EAW had been a real success. However, issuing EAWs for low-level offences had significant operational consequences. The UK looked forward to work being taken under the Swedish presidency and UK officials were ready to assist.
The presidency outlined the progress that had been made during the early stages of negotiations on the Commission’s proposals to combat sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking.
The presidency presented work on the implementation of the non-binding resolution on judicial training, aimed at improving the training of judges in EU law and legal systems.
The presidency reported on the recent conference about succession and wills held in Prague in April. It had been successful in gaining a clearer view of all the issues related to succession and wills in a European context. The Commission expects to bring forward a proposal during the Swedish presidency.
Under any other business, the presidency drew the council’s attention to the responses that it had received from member states about justice ministries’ experiences of the financial crisis. It also updated the council on the status of negotiations on the free trade agreement between the EU and Korea. Slovenia presented information about the Beyond Winning project which is being run by the alternative dispute resolution in Rome. The project is intended to facilitate the use of mediation in cross-border cases. Slovenia announced that it had just taken over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe and would be holding a conference on procedural rights in October.