The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Theresa May): The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 7 and 8 March in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling MP) and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. Roseanna Cunningham MSP also attended on behalf of the Scottish Administration. The following items were discussed.
The Council began in Mixed Committee with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (non-EU Schengen States) where the Council agreed that the second generation Schengen Information System (SIS II) would go live on 9 April 2013. The UK supports this date and has planned for integration into SIS II in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Next the Presidency introduced a state of play on Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the Schengen area. Although it was clear that the required unanimity to lift all internal borders did not exist, they considered that a two-step approach (lifting air and sea borders before land borders) could offer a way forward. The Presidency concluded that the Council would address the issue again by the end of 2013 on this basis.
The Commission presented the new Smart Borders Package aimed at enhancing EU border security and strengthening the Schengen area through an Entry Exit System (EES) whilst facilitating travel through the proposed Registered Travellers Programme (RTP). The Commission said that there had been extensive consultation and analysis in the preparation of the proposed package, and £949 million has been earmarked in the external borders element of the Internal Security Fund for development costs. Despite some positive welcomes for the package, the high implementation cost dominated the exchange of views with calls for lessons to be learnt from other large scale IT projects. Many Member States pressed for the inclusion of law enforcement access and biometrics from the start of the system in order to justify the cost and ensure added value in tackling illegal immigration. The Presidency noted the exchange of views and looked forward to discussions at expert level. The UK will not be participating in either component of the Smart Borders package as they build on the part of the Schengen agreement in which the UK does not participate. However there is value in the successful introduction of an entry-exit system that would enable better measurement and control of illegal migration in the Schengen area.
Under AOB the Presidency provided an update on several legislative proposals. They were continuing negotiations with the European Parliament and hoped to find a solution on the Visa Regulation (539), EUROSUR (border surveillance) Regulation and the Schengen governance package.
The main Council started with a joint presentation from Gilles de Kerchove (EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator), Pierre Vimont (Secretary General of the EEAS), Frontex, Europol and Eurojust on the situation in the Sahel and Maghreb and the associated threat to internal EU security. In recognising the success of the French-led military effort, Member States acknowledged that much remained to be done to develop police and criminal justice capabilities in the Region. The Counter Terrorism Coordinator, supported by the UK, stressed the importance of work to counter extremist narratives and the need to strengthen aviation security. The UK argued that terrorist groups in the Region had benefited from ransom payments and restated the long-held position of the UK Government not to pay ransoms or grant other substantive concessions to hostage takers. The UK also noted that data sharing, in particular passenger name records, was vital for detecting individuals travelling to conflict zones. Finally, the UK highlighted the importance of sending a clear signal that terrorist attacks on EU soil would not be tolerated. If there was compelling evidence linking the military wing of Hizballah to the Bourgas attack, the UK said that the EU had a responsibility to consider that evidence and take action.
Under AOB the Presidency updated the Council on the progress of the Asylum Procedures Directive, Seasonal Workers and Intra-Corporate Transferees proposals. On the Multiannual Financial Framework, the Presidency noted that trilogue negotiations had started in February on the Asylum and Migration Fund and Internal Security Fund. Figures were still being examined, and work was expected to continue on these matters in the coming months.
The Spanish delegation informed Ministers of its intention to establish a platform in Bogota for the exchange of information on transatlantic cocaine trafficking. This would follow the example of similar platforms in Accra and Dakar and bring together operational staff from EU Member States in Colombia.
The Commission gave a brief overview of the Radicalisation Awareness Network high level symposium that took place in January. Both the Presidency and the Commission saw a need to revise the current EU radicalisation and recruitment strategy; input to this would be provided through Council Conclusions in June and a Commission Communication in the autumn.
The Commission updated the Council on the Morocco Mobility Partnership negotiations following Commissioner Malmström and President Barroso’s visit to Rabat, during which broad agreement on the political declaration of the Mobility Partnership was reached. It was made clear that visa facilitation and a readmission agreement would be negotiated together. The Commission thanked the countries that had agreed to take part in this Partnership, including the UK (which has offered to share best practice on border management with Morocco), and invited Ministers to sign the Declaration upon completion of negotiations.
Over lunch the Council received presentations from Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office on the recent trends at the external borders and resulting pressures on Member States’ asylum systems, with particular focus on developments in Syria and Mali, and the continuing volatile situation in North Africa. A number of Member States stressed the need for an EU wide response to migratory pressures on the external borders and some Member States, including the UK, expressed their concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria. Ministers agreed to continue discussing this issue with the assistance of statistics and data from Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).
The Justice Day began with the Presidency presenting its progress report on the Data Protection Regulation. They noted that they had made significant progress, in completing a first read-through of the text and proposing changes to the text on the rights of data subjects and the obligations on controllers and processors. The majority of Member States welcomed the Presidency paper and the risk-based approach. There was broad consensus from Member States on the need for legislation that provided flexibility and respected national laws and structures. The Presidency agreed to task the expert working group to consider the risk-based approach and flexibility for the public sector in greater detail.
The Commission presented the draft Directive on Protection of the Euro and Other Currencies against Counterfeiting by Criminal Law. The Commission stressed the importance of this instrument in protecting the Union’s financial interests and the Eurozone generally. Member States were broadly in agreement about the scale and impact of the problem, and supportive of the central objective, although the majority of delegations opposed a key feature of this directive, the introduction of minimum penalties. The UK argued that the proposal was in danger of breaching the principle of subsidiarity, as well as constraining judicial discretion which is a fundamental principle of the criminal law in the UK. The UK was also unconvinced by the need to establish extra-territorial jurisdiction over its own nationals. The Presidency summarised that a vast majority opposed minimum penalties, and this would provide the basis for expert discussions on the matter in due course.
Political agreement was reached on the first reading deal on Mutual Recognition of Protection Measures in Civil Matters. The Presidency indicated that the EP Plenary vote would take place in the next few weeks and it was expected the proposal would return for formal adoption at the June JHA Council. The Commission welcomed this final element of the victims’ package.
The Presidency outlined the state of play on other current negotiations. They were optimistic about reaching a conclusion on the Access to a Lawyer Directive in June. It might also be possible to conclude the European Investigation Order during the Irish Presidency. The European Parliament vote on the Confiscation Directive had been delayed until the end of March; but agreement with the Parliament on the Justice Funding Programme and the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme was within reach.
The Council concluded with a lunch discussion on the EU Justice Scoreboard. The Presidency said that most had recognised there was a relationship between efficient justice systems and growth and suggested the discussion could move to senior officials for further discussion.