Secretary of State for the Home Department (Theresa May):
The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 3 and 4 March in Brussels. My Rt Hon Friend the Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling MP) and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom, The Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland attended on behalf of the Scottish administration. The following items were discussed.
The interior day began with a debate on the new Europol regulation. Member states welcomed the good progress made in the Europol negotiations, but agreed that the proposed merger between the European Police College (CEPOL) and Europol should not take place. The commission (Malmström) defended its initial proposal to merge the two agencies, but acknowledged the importance that both the council and european parliament attached to keeping them separate.
Member states were asked whether the commission should be invited to propose a new regulation to update CEPOL’s tasks and take account of the Lisbon treaty. The UK, while agreeing that CEPOL and Europol should not be merged, questioned whether there was a genuine need for further reform of CEPOL (other than agreement of the member state initiative currently being negotiated to approve its relocation to Budapest). Some other member states agreed that any reform should not be brought forward simply for the sake of new legislation. However, the majority agreed that a new regulation should be proposed, and the commission undertook to do this in due course.
The council then discussed the replacement for the Stockholm programme (the EU’s 5-year JHA work programme, which is due to be replaced at the June European council). The commission stated that its forthcoming communication on the new programme, due to be published later this month, would contain provisions on facilitating migrants‟ access to the labour market and the mutual recognition of asylum decisions.
Some member states argued for a ‘burden sharing’ mechanism, under which asylum seekers would be relocated from member states whose systems were deemed to be under pressure, but others felt solidarity was best demonstrated through practical cooperation. Some member states called for the EU’s common visa policy to be strengthened, for the establishment of an EU electronic system for travel authorisation (ESTA), for more automated criminal record exchanges and for the commission to maintain its focus on anti-corruption. While encouraging the programme to focus on practical cooperation, the UK welcomed the focus of the programme on strengthening the external border, trafficking in human beings and counter-radicalisation but called for it also to tackle the abuse of free movement. The UK noted that the commission had accepted that the issue of abuse of free movement was within the scope of the JHA and that a number of Member States had asked for it to be included in the programme. With the support of some other member states, the UK stressed the importance of an EU-wide passenger name records system. Finally the UK emphasised the need for the council to have a key role in determining the programme.
The presidency summarised the emerging areas of consensus as a preference for quality over quantity when considering legislation, an evidence-based evaluation process, increasing practical cooperation, coherence between the internal and external aspects of justice and home affairs and action to tackle trafficking in human beings, cybercrime and terrorism, and to return those with no right to remain in the EU.
Before lunch, the mobility partnership with Tunisia was signed by Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.
A discussion took place over lunch on cooperation in the area of returns. The UK agreed that EU agreements could add value in some cases, but stressed that individual member states‟ bilateral returns arrangements could be more effective in other cases, and that one size did not fit all. The UK agreed that it was important to share best practice and support approaches that had been shown to work, such as assisted voluntary returns programmes.
The council then discussed migratory pressures, and in particular the ‘Taskforce Mediterranean’ measures that were agreed following last year‟s tragedy in Lampedusa. Ministers received presentations from the European Asylum Support Office and FRONTEX on recent trends at the external borders, and asylum pressures, with a particular focus on developments in Syria.
The UK, supported by some other member states, called for clear timeframes to be put in place for ensuring that the actions agreed under taskforce Mediterranean were carried out. The UK reiterated its commitment to support information campaigns in countries of origin or transit, to dissuade individuals from travelling illegally to the EU. Some other member states called for more assistance for member states facing migratory pressures.
Under AOB, the council briefly discussed the situation in Ukraine. The commission outlined possible actions that would be taken, including the acceleration of dialogue on visas with the new government and a possible mobility partnership.
The presidency gave legislative updates on the draft directives on intra-corporate transfers, seasonal workers and students and researchers (none of which the UK has opted in to), and on the draft regulations on Schengen visa policy, operational rules for Frontex maritime operations and on the smart borders package (from all of which the UK is excluded as they build on those parts of the Schengen Acquis in which we do not take part).
Finally, during the AOB in the mixed committee, Switzerland gave a brief update on the legal implications of its recent referendum on migration by EU nationals.
The Justice Day, attended for the UK by the justice secretary, started with a lengthy state of play debate on the proposed general data protection regulation. The commission reminded ministers of the importance of the proposals, but the presidency accepted that further work is required at technical level before any text could be agreed. Ministers agreed that questions on international transfers of personal data, pseudonymisation of personal data, data portability and the relationship between ‘data controllers’ and ‘data processors’ should be referred back to the official-level experts’ group.
Next, the presidency sought views on 3 core questions regarding the proposal to create a European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). The UK has not opted in to this measure and believes the creation of the EPPO to be unnecessary. We did not intervene in the debate. The first question concerned structure: the clear majority of member states who intervened favoured including a college in some form, comprised of prosecutors appointed by the participating member states. Secondly, views were sought on the EPPO’s jurisdiction. The vast majority of intervening member states thought the EPPO should not have exclusive competence over minor cases of fraud against the union’s financial interests, where it would often be more efficient and proportionate for these to be dealt with at national level. The final question, concerning the protection of individual rights in EPPO proceedings, had been added at the commission’s request. Whilst Ministers who intervened agreed with the proposition that individual rights merited the ‘highest standard of protection’ there was a wide range of views on how to achieve this, with a number disagreeing that it was achieved by the commission’s proposal. Vice-President Reding said she would ask the President of the European Council to add the EPPO to the justice and home affairs matters which would be discussed at the June European Council. The presidency concluded that a clear majority favoured including a college in some form and that minor cases should primarily be dealt with at national level, but that more discussion was needed on procedural safeguards.
During lunch, ministers exchanged views on the proposed regulation simplifying the acceptance of certain public documents in the EU. While there was support in principle to the idea of reducing bureaucratic burdens associated with the legalisation of documents in different member states, there was general consensus that the commission’s proposal raised a number of practical implementation issues. In particular, the UK remains concerned about the possible costs of the proposal.
After lunch, the presidency asked the council to consider various questions on the proposed directive on the rights of children in criminal proceedings. Options on the approach were presented and the council gave opinions on which of the options were preferred, with the aim that these could be helpful to steer on-going negotiations in council. The first question asked whether the directive should still apply, in whole or in part, to persons who cease being minors during the course of proceedings. There was a difference of opinion on this question with a number of member states agreeing with the UK view that the directive should not apply at all after a suspect becomes an adult. The issue was remitted back to the technical level to be considered further. On the question of whether minors should be able to waive the right to a lawyer, the majority of member states seemed to favour the mandatory presence of a lawyer, although many thought there should be exceptions possible in minor cases. Again, this was remitted back for further technical level discussion. Finally, on the question of how the child‟s right to privacy and the right to open justice should be balanced and specifically whether trials involving minors should be held in public or private, the majority view was that this should be decided by national law and this was agreed as the principle to guide further consideration of these aspects of the proposal.
Then the presidency summarised emerging areas of consensus on the future of justice policy in the EU in advance of the European Council adopting strategic guidelines in June. These included quality of legislation over quantity; ongoing evaluation of legislation; mutual recognition at the heart of the union’s justice policy; and coherence between internal and external policies. Differing views remained on further approximation of criminal law, including via codification of existing instruments, and some further assessment was needed on the role of fundamental rights and the rule of law in specific areas. Commissioner Reding introduced the main thinking behind the forthcoming commission communication on this matter, which centred on the objectives of trust by citizens in government decision-making, mobility and growth. She said that codification of EU law should remain a guiding principle.
The UK, together with certain other member states issued a note of warning over further codification. The UK also reiterated its call for a strong council ownership over eventual guidelines. The UK could not agree with some of the commission’s proposals, including the reference to creating a common justice area by 2020. For the UK, the focus was on practical cooperation, implementation and evaluation. Specifically, implementation of existing EU measures to return prisoners to their countries of origin, and to exchange criminal records, were priorities for the UK.
Commissioner Reding then set out her plans to produce a 2014 justice scoreboard later this month. She explained that for 2014, the commission would use the same indicators and scope as the 2013 scoreboard, whilst taking into account the comments of the European Parliament. Subsequently, in agreeing council conclusions on civil and commercial justice systems, the council set out the significant concerns of member states about the approach adopted by the commission on the scoreboard and reiterating respect for independence of the judiciary.
The presidency provided updates on a number of legislative files, including counterfeiting the Euro, the European Account Preservation Order and the Brussels I (patent) amendment. These instruments should be approved by the European Parliament at plenary in April and subsequently adopted by the council. Work on the insolvency regulation, supported strongly by the UK to support a rescue culture for businesses, would continue as a priority.