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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 1 February 2006


Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): The Austrian Justice and Home Affairs Informal Council was held on 12–14 January in Vienna. I represented the UK along with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Baroness Ashton of Upholland.

The Austrian presidency opened the Council by introducing the discussion on asylum and immigration. They drew attention to their ideas in relation to regional co-operation; rapid intervention teams; charter flights; and information exchange.

The Commission stressed the work they are currently undertaking and, in particular, their intention to produce, by the end of January, a communication on practical co-operation. In advance of that the Commission have issued an information note setting out the ideas likely to be contained in the proposal. The intention is for these to be discussed in more detail at the February Justice and Home Affairs Council.

Key ideas included information on countries of origin and the Commission's ideas for a European information system. In the medium term the aim would be to establish a common European database on countries of origin with information pooled by member states. In the short term, it would be useful to consider a common form for the collection of information and agree a common format for this. The Commission's communication would contain ideas on how to respond to particular pressures on specific member states. These proposals would include amendments to the European Refugee Fund/ARGO funding programmes to establish a fund for emergency situations. The Commission communication would also propose the creation of rapid reaction/emergency teams capable of providing such things as emergency medical assistance and interpretation. Training would be an essential component. Finally, the Commission's communication was likely to look at the procedures for examining applications for refugee status, with a view to harmonising processing procedures across the EU. This would be a key element in the longer-term move towards a common European asylum system (CEAS).

In subsequent discussion, most member states were broadly supportive of the ideas set out in the presidency paper and the Commission's analysis.

I stressed that strong EU action on immigration/asylum was essential. The solutions were, in principle, simple and included a need for:

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These principles are easy to lay down but in practice difficult to achieve. I therefore stressed the need for the EU to focus on achieving practical outcomes.

Antonio Gutteres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave his organisation's full support to regional protection programmes, both at a political level and on the ground. The migration and asylum nexus was the key policy issue in looking at the large-scale flows of population. The key question was to ensure that those genuinely in need of asylum got the right treatment. Gutteres stressed it would be important, however, to tackle the root causes in a global and comprehensive way. That would involve looking at broader issues such as conflict resolution; institutional good governance; trade; debt relief; and common migration management. Regional protection programmes needed to be part of that overall process and not something done in isolation. The EU needed to provide strong political initiatives in taking forward this work in partnership with UNHCR.

In summary the presidency noted broad support for its ideas and for the ideas put forward by the Commission. It was clear that a comprehensive programme would need to be developed and that work on many of these issues would need to be taken forward in close co-operation and co-ordination with UNHCR.

On criminal law, Ministers discussed the future of the draft framework decision on procedural safeguards for defendants in criminal proceedings and the impact of the recent European Court of Justice Judgement (Case 176/03) on environmental crime. Ministers agreed that the extent to which criminal law measures should come within the first pillar needed to be considered in greater detail and the Commission agreed to reconsider its proposals to "fast-track" the movement of third pillar measures to first pillar legal bases. All member states agreed that the JHA Council should have an important role in ensuring consistency in the way in which the Court's ruling was applied in relation to subjects falling outside the third pillar.

In the afternoon the discussion moved on to Europol. Presentations were made before the Council by Gijs de Vries (EU Counter Terrorism co-ordinator), Max-Peter Ratzel (Europol) and Mike Kennedy (Eurojust) highlighting the progress that has been made but also the need for further improvements.

The presentations led to a debate on how Europol could be developed further, ensuring that law enforcement authorities of the member states derive maximum benefit from its progress. It was clear that greater flexibility was needed in handling the work of the management board and it was necessary to ensure that the Director of Europol had the proper tools to lead and guide the organisation. At present, the bureaucratic processes involved made it difficult to respond flexibly to changing priorities and to revise the staff regulations.

The Commission called for greater information flows to both Eurojust and Europol—especially now that both bodies are internationally recognised. The majority of member states agreed on the need to create a more flexible Europol, better able to respond to the demands of member states and to the needs of the day and with more flexible internal management. The point
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was also made that competence lay principally with the member states' own bodies and that it was therefore necessary to look at the development of Europol in that context. Europol should not duplicate work properly undertaken at a national level and should not be given any greater operational powers: it had a co-ordinating and analytical role.

In this context, member states also discussed how better to improve co-operation and co-ordination and whether there was a need for the creation of a committee on internal security as envisaged by the constitutional treaty. A number of member states warned against anticipating the treaty and emphasised the need to use existing bodies more effectively.

The presidency, in its summing up, noted general agreement on the need for greater co-operation, e.g. in the fields of analysis and information exchange. In relation to Europol, it needed to be more involved in joint operations but not to lead these operations. It needed more flexibility and adaptability and to build on what had already been developed. Member states needed to ratify the Europol protocols and there was a general view that no new structures were needed but that the EU needed to make better use of its existing arrangements. In particular, the EU needed to identify key areas and topics—such as the Western Balkans; Afghan drugs; and the Mediterranean/Africa and ought to develop priority road-maps for each of those areas. Member states welcomed the presidency commitment in this area; supported the country and topic priorities and on the need to take regions and issues together for best effect.

On the Justice and Home Affairs external relations strategy the presidency stated that it intended to make concrete progress on the basis of the strategy agreed under the UK presidency; and will be working closely with future presidencies and other member states in relation to key geographic areas such as the Western Balkans.

In the Commission's analysis, priority needed to be given to neighbouring regions and the strategy ought not to be confined simply to security issues. Attention was drawn to the idea of action plans focusing on particular policy issues such a drug trafficking; cybercrime; human trafficking and illegal migration. They recognised, too, the need to work closely with the UN and other international organisations. A number of member states commented on the clear priorities in the strategy thanks to the work done under the UK presidency. Work now needed to be developed in a balanced way—and with sufficient resources. Member states welcomed the notion of action oriented papers and there was broad acceptance that the existing EU frameworks and agreements were sufficient to take forward the strategy. Relevant operational agencies such as FRONTEX, Europol and Eurojust should be involved in taking that work forward. A number of member states mentioned other geographical areas which should receive attention in addition to the Western Balkans.

In conclusion, the presidency noted the need to get down to practical steps, in partnership with other bodies and to ensure a co-ordinated and consistent approach. European neighbourhood policy countries; the Western Balkans and the Southern Mediterranean were all
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important and the presidency noted in particular the Euromed meeting that it had planned. An EU-Africa meeting would be taken forward under the next presidency. Work with countries such as Russia was also highly important.

In concluding the Council, the presidency looked in particular at the way in which civil law matters were dealt with in the current institutional structures. They asked member states whether they felt adequately informed about Justice and Home Affairs related issues that are dealt with in other Council formations.

Member states supported the analysis set out in the presidency paper. Baroness Ashton noted that the Civil Law Committee was set up on the initiative of the last Austrian presidency in 1998 and that one of its purposes was to ensure that justice matters which arose in other Council formations could be considered by civil law experts. Baroness Ashton also noted that this had met with some success but that the presidency was right that the system could be improved.

Summing up, the presidency noted that member states broadly shared its analysis; that the Civil Law Committee should play a greater role and that both Coreper and the JHA Council should receive information on all subjects touching on civil law in other councils.

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