The final meeting of EU Interior and Justice Ministers that the UK is expected to attend as an EU member state took place on 7 and 8 March in Brussels. I represented the UK for Interior day. The Secretary of State for Justice represented the UK on Justice day.
Interior day began with a progress report on the proposal to amend the European border and coastguard regulation. Ministers discussed the proposal for a standing corps of 10,000 border guards. The Home Secretary did not intervene as the UK does not participate in this Schengen building measure.
The Council then discussed the legislative proposals relating to the common European asylum system. Ministers discussed whether the package should be split between those measures that can be progressed now and those where further consideration is required, including the redistribution mechanism. I supported splitting the pack to ensure useful improvements to systems such as Eurodac, to which the UK has opted in, are agreed swiftly. Ministers were split on this issue. The UK has not opted in to the rest of the CEAS package.
Ministers then discussed co-operation with third countries on migration. Ministers broadly agreed that Morocco and Tunisia should be priorities, although some member states emphasised the importance of the western Balkans. I intervened to reiterate support for the whole-of-route approach to tackling illegal migration and noted the UK’s continuing commitment to co-operation with our European partners on migration.
Over lunch, Ministers discussed achievements and future activity in the JHA field. I intervened to reiterate the UK’s commitment to strong security co-operation post-Brexit. I made clear that while the UK recognised that the future UK-EU relationship on security would be different, that should not be at the expense of the protection of UK and EU citizens. I emphasised the importance of continuing operational co-operation against terrorists and organised criminals. I also noted that this was Commissioner Sir Julian King’s last JHA Council and thanked him for his work as Commissioner for the Security Union. My intervention was warmly received with a number of member states and the Commission paying tribute to the UK’s contribution in the JHA field and supporting the need for continued operational co-operation in this area.
After lunch, the Council discussed the state of play on the EU’s approach to counter-terrorism. Ministers broadly agreed that existing legislation needed to be fully implemented before moving on to further legislation. On terrorist content online legislation, the Commission and a number of member states, including the UK, urged rapid progress.
Finally, the Commission set out the measures the EU was taking to safeguard the forthcoming EP elections from interference and disinformation.
On Justice day, the Council reached a general approach on the e-evidence directive, which lays down harmonised rules on the appointment of legal representatives for the purpose of gathering evidence in criminal proceedings. There was wide support for this measure, with most Ministers noting that the e-evidence package as a whole represented significant progress in the ability of competent law enforcement authorities to access data held by communication service providers. The UK maintained its parliamentary scrutiny reserve. The Council would start trilogue negotiations on the whole e-evidence package, once the European Parliament has adopted its position.
The Council discussed the negotiating mandates for the second additional protocol to the Budapest convention on cybercrime and for an agreement between the EU and US on facilitating cross-border access to e-evidence. These mandates would complement the EU e-evidence legislative package. The Council broadly supported the EU-US mandate and the Commission indicated it would open discussions with the US in April, although some member states raised concerns around the Commission’s proposed approach in basing the mandate on draft EU legislation rather than the US’s CLOUD Act. Several member states raised concerns about the Commission’s assessment of EU competence in relation to the Budapest convention mandate. The Secretary of State for Justice noted the need for careful delineation between the second additional protocol and EU rules given the global reach of the Budapest convention. The presidency would seek to adopt the mandates at the June JHA Council.
The presidency noted progress at working level on the whistleblowers directive. The presidency would continue trilogues with a view to reaching a political agreement during the European Parliament’s current mandate.
The Commission provided an update on the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), noting the importance of concluding the process of appointment of the European Chief Prosecutor before the end of this legislature.
The Commission also informed the Council on progress made in countering hate speech online, and presented the results of the fourth monitoring of the code of conduct on tackling illegal hate speech. The Commission noted the need for further work to transpose the framework decision on racism and xenophobia and facilitate crossborder access to e-evidence.
Over lunch, Ministers discussed the use of artificial intelligence in the justice system. The Secretary of State for Justice highlighted the UK commitment to striking the right balance between ethical considerations and data protection on the one hand, and encouraging use of innovation on the other. The Secretary of State for Justice reinforced the UK’s ambition for a strong future EU-UK partnership.