The Justice and Home Affairs Council took place on 12 and 13 October in Luxembourg. I represented the UK for justice day, along with the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department represented the UK for interior day.
Justice day (12 October) began with the adoption by 20 member states of the regulation establishing the European public prosecutor’s office (EPPO). We have always been clear that the UK will never participate in an EPPO.
This was followed by a policy debate on the proposed regulation on mutual recognition of freezing and confiscation orders, which the UK has opted into. Discussion focused on extending the scope of the draft regulation to include systems of preventive confiscation, on condition of a clear link to criminal activities, and the application of procedural safeguards. The Minister for Immigration intervened to support this extension, which was agreed by Ministers.
Ministers proceeded to discuss the European criminal records information system (ECRIS) and the proposed extension on the exchange of information to third-country nationals. Debate covered questions on dual nationals and the threshold for the obligation to take fingerprints. The Minister for Immigration supported the extension, and urged for flexibility on the technical detail. There was no clear majority on the specific questions and the presidency mandated further technical work on these issues.
Following this, the director of the Fundamental Rights Agency, Michael O’Flaherty, introduced its annual report on the application of the charter of fundamental rights. The discussion focused on rights protections in the EU. EU Ministers then adopted the Council conclusions on the application of the charter of fundamental rights.
Over lunch, domestic implementation of the EU general data protection regulation which will apply from 25 May 2018 was discussed. I used this opportunity to highlight the UK’s ongoing commitment to strong data protection standards, and that the UK was readying itself for application of the GDPR in a number of ways, including through the Data Protection Bill currently in Parliament.
The afternoon comprised a joint session of Justice and Interior Ministers. The Commission updated Ministers on their cyber-security strategy, e-evidence, and encryption. The Minister for Immigration intervened to support strong encryption and effective law enforcement access to electronic evidence, offering to share the UK’s expertise on working with service providers. The Commission noted that a new strategic framework for EU cyber-security will be adopted at the General Affairs Council in November, and they will shortly issue a communication on tackling illegal content online.
The final item on justice day provided Ministers with an opportunity to comment on the presidency’s mid-term review of the JHA strategic guidelines. Ministers and the Commission were positive about the EU’s progress against existing guidelines, but noted the change of priorities in light of evolving threats. Ministers’ priorities included migration, data sharing and improved links between internal and external security policy. New guidelines will be proposed to the December European Council.
Interior day (13 October) began with a discussion on the Commission’s proposal to amend the Schengen border code to allow internal borders to be raised in exceptional circumstances. As the UK is not part of the Schengen internal border-free zone, the Home Secretary did not intervene. The proposal will now be discussed at a technical level.
This was followed by a presentation from the non-EU counter-terrorism group (CTG). The CTG reported on the development of improved co-operation with Europol. Interventions from Europol, the Commission and the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator focused on the continuing need for greater co-operation.
Finally, the presidency presented its progress report on the common European asylum system. There was no discussion.
Council concluded with a working lunch focused on resettlement. The UK, along with other member states, supported resettlement. The Home Secretary highlighted the UK’s strong track record of resettlement, including our offer of 5,000 places so far in response to the Commission’s latest call. This is part of our wider commitment to resettle 23,000 refugees from the region by 2020. The Home Secretary also stressed that resettlement should be from the refugee’s home region to ensure that we do not inadvertently incentivise illegal migration.