The first meeting of EU Interior and Justice Ministers during the Bulgarian presidency took place on 25 and 26 January in Sofia. Her Majesty’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Emma Hopkins, and a senior Government official represented the UK for interior day. I represented the UK for justice day.
Interior day began with a debate on European asylum policy. The presidency set out its objective to conclude negotiations on the reform of the common European asylum system (CEAS) package, including Dublin IV, by the end of June. Member states supported the aim of concluding negotiations by June but there remains a lack of consensus on the inclusion of burden sharing mechanisms in Dublin IV. The UK continues to support a comprehensive approach to migration but does not support a mandatory redistribution system within the EU and has not opted into the Dublin IV regulation.
Over lunch, Ministers discussed the global UN compact on migration (GCM), which will be negotiated in the UN over the next six months. The discussion aimed to initiate consideration on the alignment of member states’ positions on the principles of the GCM text. The UK is committed to agreeing a global framework for a new approach to orderly, safe and regular global migration. The UK reaffirmed the Government’s principles that underline our approach to achieving this, in particular that refugees should seek protection in the first safe country they can reach; that a distinction needs to be maintained between economic migrants and refugees; and that states have the right to control their borders and the duty to accept their citizens back.
Interior day ended with a discussion on integrated border management. Member states highlighted priorities for co-operation among the relevant authorities and agencies involved in border security and with third countries to help secure the Union’s external border. These priorities related specifically to implementation of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCGA) and related EU databases—the entry/exit system (EES) and the European travel information and authorisation system (ETIAS). The UK recognises the importance of increased border security across the EU. However, the UK is not part of the border aspects of the Schengen agreement and therefore does not participate in the EBCGA, EES or the ETIAS.
Justice day began with a consideration of the issues relevant to future co-operation between the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) and other partner agencies and offices of the EU, such as Europol, Eurojust and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Member states agreed on the importance of clear working relationships, with a clear delimitation of responsibilities so that the EPPO does not limit or encroach upon other agencies’ competences. The Government have been clear that we will not participate in an EPPO and did not opt-in to the regulation.
The day continued with a discussion on the Brussels IIa recast regulation. Member states agreed that the continued requirement for exequatur in some family cases was a significant obstacle to the operation of the system and should be abolished. Similarly, it was agreed that the grounds for refusal of recognition of a judgment should be limited, which is of particular importance where children are concerned.
The Commission presented an update on the progress of the forthcoming legislative proposal on cross- border law enforcement access to e-evidence held by communications service providers. The Commission aims to present the proposal to the JHA Council in March. The Government will consider their position and whether to opt in to the proposal when it is published. The Commission also provided an update on the code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online which was signed in June 2016 by major social media companies and aims to ensure illegal hate speech is removed within 24 hours. The Commission detailed the progress made by social media companies and explained their intention to expand the number of signatories to the code.
Over lunch, Ministers discussed the justice issues raised by artificial intelligence, in particular on questions of liability. Member states broadly agreed on the need for clear, but light touch, rules on liability which would create certainty to allow investment decisions to be taken without overregulating and discouraging innovation.