Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)

Mrs Laura Yli-Vakkuri

28 NOVEMBER 2006

  Q480  Chairman: No, right. Perhaps I could ask an unscripted question because we have heard quite a bit today from other witnesses about a Portuguese proposal for an SISone4all. Would you like to give us your reaction? How does this affect your Working Party's work? What impact is it going to have on progress, or lack of progress, of SIS II?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Indeed, Portugal presented this proposal to the Council in September/October in order to facilitate or speed up the process of Schengen enlargement vis-a"-vis the new Member States. During this autumn the relevant working groups have been discussing the proposal, the technical feasibility, the legal, technical, operational and management issues related to this proposal. In fact, at this very moment some conclusions are being drafted in the Justus Lipsius building concerning the outcome of this study and these conclusions will be presented to the Council next week on Tuesday. We know already that in principle this solution could be technically feasible but the effect on the SIS II project as far as technical issues are concerned is still under discussion.

  Q481  Chairman: Is it likely to further delay the process, do you think?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: There is always a risk because you can take a political decision saying that one or other of the options is the priority but we are the same people working with these projects and we are only so many. Obviously one cannot exclude that these projects affect each other's timetables. We could be talking about a few months maybe, I do not know. We will need to discuss that between the ministers on Tuesday.

  Q482  Chairman: Thank you. Does the Presidency believe that the process of negotiating the SIS II legislation was transparent enough for the public and for national parliaments? Does the Presidency have any plan to address the transparency of the co-decision process, in particular the informal discussion between the European Parliament and the Council and the process of reaching "first reading" agreements?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: This is a good question because we are talking about legal instruments which will come into force and be directly binding on Member States and citizens, so obviously transparency is important. Also transparency issues are close to the heart of the Finnish Presidency as one of our priorities.

  Q483  Chairman: Indeed.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: I would say that the rules on transparency within the Council have developed a great deal during the past years. Concerning legal instruments, like here in the context of the SIS II, the working documents have been made public if there has been a request to the Council to do so. Throughout the process all the working documents, revised versions of the original Commission proposals, have been distributed if such a request was made. That is as far as the documents are concerned. As far as the negotiations or deliberations within the institutions are concerned, when these issues have been discussed in the Council there is always a press conference afterwards and the conclusions are made public, so in that sense the public and national parliaments are able to follow the process. As far as the working level discussions are concerned, let us say that as to the working groups within the Council or the informal meetings with the European Parliament, it would be quite difficult to make them public. But the results of these discussions are always based on and will be reflected in the documents that are made public if such a request is made.

  Q484  Earl of Caithness: I have a supplementary that is on the transparency of the existing system. When the French ran the Schengen office a lot more information was produced before 1999 when it became part of the EU, and it was only recently due to a public outcry that more information was released about how the present system is working. Why do you think that happened, that there was a sudden reduction in the amount of statistics and information available in 1999? What have you been doing to satisfy the demand for a clearer and more transparent system?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: That is an interesting question. I did not realise that was the case.

  Q485  Earl of Caithness: Would you like to write to us about it?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: I am sorry I am not able to reply, I did not know that there was such a decrease in transparency after 1999. I am sure that was not the intention when we integrated the Schengen Information System and the whole Schengen system into the European Union. As I said, the transparency rules are developing and with the SIS II we will see even more transparency and more involvement by the European Data Protection Authority, for instance, so let us hope that things will get better then.

  Q486  Lord Avebury: My question is about the various negotiations between the Parliament and the Council and whether you can identify significant parts of the texts which can be attributed primarily to the Parliament in the face of the Council's reluctance to accept them and, conversely, whether you can also identify the provisions which are primarily the work of the Council in spite of the Parliament's reluctance. Can I ask you to illustrate that by reference to a document which was presented to the Parliament on 23 October and which we understood was approved by them on that occasion which has now gone to Council where we are told there is substantial agreement and it may just go through on the nod with one minor exception to do with a matter that has been raised by the Germans concerning their security force's access to certain information. Is the process really one of substantial agreement or can you identify places in which there has been controversy and where the final text represents the best compromise that could be achieved between the Parliament and the Council?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes. First of all, may I just clarify or emphasise that in October a political agreement between the institutions was reached so we will not touch the text itself any more. We are not negotiating the provisions any more. The only slight changes that we might still have to see in the text will be the results of the linguist lawyer process. You spoke about reluctance, I think that is quite a strong word because here we are speaking about the negotiation process, we are speaking about co-decision, we decide together. When two institutions discuss we first have a basic text and then we discuss amendments. We present the proposal and we have to present and justify the amendments in a convincing way. In the end, and I think this was confirmed throughout the negotiations, all the institutions were working towards the same goal. The SIS II should be a secure system, it should be a safe system, it should be an efficient tool for law enforcement authorities and, very importantly, it should guarantee some basic rights for individuals. We are all working towards the same goal, but maybe the Member States are more experienced in knowing how the system operates so when there is a proposal, let us say from the European Parliament in this case, and the Council discusses it, and because we are all sensible people we accept the idea if it is found useful but we have to look at the drafting to ensure it works in practice. I would not say that there was a reluctance towards Parliament's proposals but every proposal was discussed and justified as to why it could or not could be accepted, and if it could be accepted in most of the cases we did some drafting, again together with the European Parliament. You asked also who could be the mother or father of certain provisions in these documents. I would say that the European Parliament contributed a great deal to the provisions that concern the security of the system, for instance, and to the data protection rules as well. Parliament was very strong on those points and concerning the provisions which ensure that the central system and the national systems function together in an efficient and safe manner.

  Q487  Chairman: Thank you very much, that is very helpful. Obviously this Committee is interested in the whole range of questions but perhaps most particularly in the role of the British Government and their representatives in Brussels and, with permission, a representative is sitting behind. Could you tell us either on or off the record your reaction to the role that the British machine has taken given the fact that we will not participate in the adoption of the regulation governing SIS II immigration data. How much impact does the British input have given this rather curious situation we are in of being only partially in Schengen? If you want to go off the record you are very welcome.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: As we go along I will indicate if that is necessary. First of all, I mentioned that I am a lawyer, if I can still say that after 17 years of government service. For a lawyer the Schengen world is a fascinating world, or justice and home affairs in general in fact, we have so many exceptions, opt-in, opt-out, it is quite interesting sometimes. As far as the negotiation process on the SIS II legal instruments is concerned, we started discussing these instruments during the UK Presidency so the UK had a big impact in the beginning because they had a privileged task but also a difficult task in managing the first reading of those documents in the Council. As already has been discussed, this is a huge and important system so obviously the discussions at the beginning were quite difficult in the sense that people did have views, but maybe people did not understand all the provisions included in the Commission proposals, and under the UK lead we had to go through all those provisions. I am not convinced that the fact that the UK does not participate in all parts of the Schengen Acquis affected the discussions on these instruments that much. If you have a look at these two basic instruments—of course there are three instruments—the decision and the main regulation, many of the provisions are horizontal as far as the establishment of the system is concerned. The functioning of the system, the processing of data, et cetera, et cetera, all of these are horizontal provisions. The UK participated fully in the adoption of these parts in the context of the decision. This is what I can say from the process, the UK participated as a normal Member State in the discussions.

  Q488  Earl of Caithness: My question is almost a supplementary to what the Chairman has just asked. In particular you reminded us that all this discussion started during the UK Presidency. Did our position affect our ability to chair the meetings either positively or negatively?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: I do not think it did that much, probably not, no. In any case it was difficult. When you do a first reading of a huge legislative package like this it is in any case quite difficult, so I would not say so.

  Q489  Lord Dubs: What concerns have Member States expressed about the Commission's record of managing the SIS II project to date? I am aware it is a very complicated project indeed. Is the Presidency happy that an agency will be created to manage SIS II following management by Member States for an initial period?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: First of all, on the managing of the SIS II projects, there have been some drawbacks. For instance, the process of call for tenders, for instance, was not that successful and the Commission had to go to court even which caused some delays to the process. This was a concern. If we think of the SIS II as a whole it is a common project, it is not just the Commission who manages it, it is also the Member States who implement it and they have national systems which they will have to update. It is not only the Commission who has to deliver here. Throughout the process it has been indicated that all these, can we call them stakeholders, need to deliver. Of course we are speaking about a system which started as a system developed between the Member States and managed by the Member States, so obviously it is a question of building trust as well between different parties. As far as the future is concerned, the Finnish Presidency is quite happy with the solution that was found in these legal instruments. We foresee the establishment of a management authority. This management authority should be an independent agency who would then manage the SIS II. We think that it would have delayed the adoption of these instruments had we tried to develop or decide on this agency this year, so it is quite good that we have an extra two or three years before we have to establish that agency. Our view is that it should be an independent agency.

  Q490  Lord Avebury: You said just now that the call for tenders was not successful. Do you attribute that to a management failure of those who were drafting the tender documents or was it simply that the people tendering were not the right organisations to undertake this particular project?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: I am afraid I cannot answer that question because I am not an expert on the technical side. I am sorry, I am not very familiar with that process.

  Q491  Lord Avebury: You made the remark in the context of Lord Dubs' question about the Commission's record of managing the project.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Q492  Lord Avebury: I take it that in fact this was, indirectly at least, a criticism of the manner in which the Commission handled the tendering process.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: I mentioned some of the problems that the Commission was facing.

  Q493  Baroness Henig: Part of my question has already been answered. You obviously expressed a preference for an independent management agency.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Q494  Baroness Henig: I just wondered whether the Presidency would support management of the Schengen II by Europol or by Frontex and what your views on that would be.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Indeed our preference would be for an independent agency. We did discuss the two options you mentioned in Helsinki and they have been discussed between the Member States as well, or at least we had a preliminary discussion in spring. In Helsinki, the way we see it is that Europol is not an EU agency, at least it is not yet, so we see that as a problem because if you create an EU agency then this agency would function under the EU rules directly. Furthermore, Europol is a third pillar agency in a way, or will probably be a third pillar agency concentrating on law enforcement cooperation, while SIS II is an inter-pillar system which deals on the one hand with border control management issues and, on the other hand, it is a law enforcement tool for police organisations. Europol is not designed for doing this kind of work. The same goes for Frontex. Frontex is a border management agency. We are also talking about an important police co-operation aspect here.

  Q495  Chairman: I am sure I do not need to tell you that the United Kingdom is by no means the only country in the European Union which has had some very unhappy experiences with large IT projects. Are you convinced that there is somebody or some organisation out there actually competent to take on this enormous project?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Well, we certainly hope so.

  Q496  Chairman: So do I!

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Obviously we will wait for the Commission proposal on this but we have tried to make the Commission's work a little bit easier because in these instruments we have developed rules on how to manage this system. There are quite a few clear rules related to security, exchange of information, et cetera, et cetera. We are not talking about easy things. There are other large scale IT systems being developed at the same time, so at some point we will need to discuss the interoperability of these systems.

  Q497  Lord Dubs: Have you got any that work?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: The Schengen Information System works very well at the moment.

  Lord Dubs: But it is smaller.

  Q498  Lord Avebury: In any case, by the time it gets handed over to the agency the design and development work will already have been accomplished, will it not?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Q499  Lord Avebury: For whoever is appointed to conduct this phase of the development it will become clear by the time the agency is appointed whether it is working or not and it will be handed over as a working system, I presume.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

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