Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500-519)

Mrs Laura Yli-Vakkuri

28 NOVEMBER 2006

  Q500  Earl of Listowel: Mrs Yli-Vakkuri, continuing our discussion of this agency, may I ask you whether the Presidency has a view about what mechanisms should be adopted to ensure the accountability of this institution?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: As I mentioned before, in these instruments we do already have quite a few rules on this. We have defined the basic responsibilities which this authority should take. We have rules on security, confidentiality, keeping of records, the processing of data, et cetera. The basic rules are already there. I am sure that when we do discuss that Commission proposal in the coming years we will have to see whether there is something we need to change in these basic instruments to ensure accountability.

  Q501  Earl of Listowel: So there will be an annual report and any shortcomings would be addressed in that report?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes, I would imagine so, because this system will probably start functioning before we have that agency, so we can gain experience and then we will see. We do have quite convincing data protection rules in these instruments. We have the national data protection authorities who supervise the system from the national point of view, we have involved the European Data Protection Authority and we have rules on how to link the work at national levels and European level so that these data protection authorities can discuss and address issues of common interest.

  Q502  Lord Teverson: I would like to ask what view the Presidency takes in terms of the delays in implementation of SIS II and I suppose very directly who is responsible for those delays? Perhaps I can leave it at that and you can talk us through that.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes, the blame game. As I said earlier, this is a common project and we have done quite a lot of research work on the development of the system and we have had to adapt the timetable of this system as we have gone on with the process and, indeed, there are still some unknown factors. We do not know if we will accept the SISone4all solution, for instance. It is a common project and I think it is safe to say that nobody is perfect. You can always blame the Commission and say that they could be more efficient or there is a lack of experience or something like that. This can be said but, of course, there have been some reported delays at the national level as well and at the central level. We need to understand that this is a common project and we are trying to manage this project in a way that all the interests are met. In fact, the Council has established an SIS Task Force to oversee the technical development.

  Q503  Lord Teverson: Just to take that slightly more broadly. Although there have been delays if, say, SIS II was ready next week, because this is just the technical systems side, are the potential new members of Schengen ready? How ready would you judge them to be in terms of the evaluation side that has to take place? Is your feeling that on the whole if the systems were ready it could be practically implemented on the ground or is there still a long, long way to go in terms of secure borders and that sort of side in terms of the East European states?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Not that long. If we are talking about next week, no, they would not be ready next week. In fact, the Council next week will discuss the Schengen implementation in the new Member States and we are going to discuss the progress report prepared by the Presidency concerning the ability of these new Member States to implement Schengen rules. When we talk about Schengen implementation it not just that you change laws, you may have to change operational structures, you need to have sufficient infrastructure at the air borders, land borders, sea borders, et cetera, so this process takes time. We need to have target dates. The target dates we have been speaking of so far are somewhere towards the end of 2007. I would say that no new Member State will be ready tomorrow or even early next week because we need to give national administrations some leeway there to organise themselves. At some point before that target date we need to decide whether we are convinced that these new Member States are able to apply the Schengen Acquis in full. The progress report concerning the evaluations that took place in 2006 are quite positive in the sense that a lot of progress has been made but some infrastructural changes or adaptations still need to be done and even some laws still need to be changed. The process is going along very well, I would say.

  Q504  Lord Teverson: Thank you very much.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: There will be a report next week to the Council. We are preparing the conclusions on this.

  Q505  Earl of Caithness: Can I turn Lord Teverson's question round for you. Given that since the late 1990s we knew that there was going to be an expansion of the Member States and that Schengen would have to be improved and enlarged, and here we are eight years later still floundering, what are the lessons to be learned for the Commission, the Council and the Member States in all of this? Surely we have got to find something so that some of the horrendous mistakes that have been made do not happen again. Is that something that you and the Presidency are addressing?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: First of all, I am not sure that there have been huge mistakes because if you look at the history of Schengen, Schengen has always been enlarged in steps. If we start from the beginning, the Schengen Convention was signed in 1990, it entered into force in 1993 and the full implementation started in 1995. Even the original Member States needed five years to prepare for that. For the Nordic countries, and we are good pupils, it took four or five years as well. We signed the Schengen Accession Agreement in December 1996 and started applying the Schengen Acquis in March 2001. For some other Member States it has taken up to seven or eight years to start implementing Schengen. It has always been a two-step process. First of all you express the will to be part of Schengen and then the process starts and it takes X years. The new Member States acceded to the European Union only two years ago so I think we have worked quite fast, although it is true that we started already before accession working with them with this ultimate goal—the full Schengen implementation—in mind. We have prepared for this decision for some years. I would not speak about crucial mistakes in this context.

  Q506  Lord Avebury: Has the Finnish Presidency got any view about whether or not, and in what circumstances, the UK should participate in alerts for the non-admission of third country nationals? If you as a lawyer could imagine that there are perceived advantages, not only for the UK but for all other European states in having such a system which would enable more effective management of the immigration process throughout the whole of Europe, have you any views on how that access should be organised legally and in practice?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: If we start with the legal basis for all this. There are the rules in the UK protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam, there is a Schengen protocol to that same Treaty, and in accordance with those rules the UK applied for a partial application of the Schengen rules and this UK application was dealt with in 1999 and the final decision on the UK application was taken in 2000. In that application, and indeed the Council finally was in favour of the UK application, and in that decision the UK does not participate in the provisions of the Schengen Acquis which deal with border control issues or the refusals of entry. This is quite clear. This is the legal basis. The UK did not apply for participation in the provisions related to the entry to the Schengen area.

  Q507  Lord Avebury: That is res judicata, you cannot imagine any revision of that.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Unless we received an application from the UK to participate in these provisions and then we would deal with the application in accordance with the Treaties. As far as the Schengen Information System is concerned, and as a result of that basic decision on the UK Schengen application, a filter is foreseen in the Schengen Information System so that alerts on refusals of entry will not be used in the UK. This is a result from that basic decision that the UK does not apply these rules. Of course you can always ask why will we not give access to the asylum authorities, they are not guarding the borders, they are dealing with these issues from a different perspective, but then you have to bear in mind that we are talking about the Schengen area and the purpose of the alerts on refusals of entry is to refuse entry to the Schengen area, so the reason why the Schengen asylum authorities of some Schengen states have access to these alerts is quite logical, but that would not be the case for the UK asylum authorities.

  Q508  Chairman: It is quite clear that the UK position on this partial opt-in or partial opt-out has disadvantages for the United Kingdom, you have made that very clear. Can you just speculate a little what disadvantages does it have for the other members?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: The Schengen system is—I can speak from five years experience of being a member of Schengen—quite an important law enforcement tool for Member States, so it is quite regrettable that not all EU Members can fully participate in this system. I would say for law enforcement purposes it would be nice to have everybody in.

  Q509  Chairman: For both sides?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes. It is about exchanging information.

  Q510  Chairman: Presumably the Commission are even now working on proposals for harmonising alerts, for non-admission of third country nationals, rules on flagging, certain criminal law and policing alerts, and rules on remedies in the context of data protection. Is the Presidency actively involved with the Commission in drawing up these proposals?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Given that it was only a few weeks ago that we finalised this text I am not sure how far the Commission is in its thinking. I would say that during the Finnish Presidency nothing will happen. We are feeling relieved that we have finalised this package. As far as the Commission proposals you have mentioned are concerned, they were seen to be quite important in the sense that many Member States feel we need to have a look at these rules after the system has been functioning for a few years. We are looking forward to dealing with those proposals, but not during the Finnish Presidency!

  Q511  Earl of Caithness: I would like to take a slightly wider view now and make the question a bit broader. What are your views about the interoperability of EU databases?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: It is an interesting question and worth exploring, I would say. We have received, and you have probably seen it as well, a Commission communication on this subject which was submitted a year or so ago. The Council has not had the possibility yet to discuss the ideas in the Commission proposal in detail. We have addressed the issues but as we have been developing these systems we have not started in-depth discussion about interoperability. Of course, some basic issues need to be discussed. First of all, we need to see if it is technically possible. Secondly, we need to ensure that important basic rules of data protection, for instance, will be respected. From the technical point of view there has already been a discussion that the VIS system and SIS system would have a common platform, for instance, so from the technical point of view things have developed towards that goal. From the legal point of view we need to have a look at this question on the basis of the Commission's communication.

  Q512  Lord Dubs: Can the Presidency make available any information or statistics about the practical operation of SIS II in Finland?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes, indeed it can. I have those statistics with me but they are in Finnish so I decided to ask my colleagues to send them to me in English. I was not precise enough when I asked for those statistics. If I may, I could send them separately.

  Q513  Chairman: Would you be prepared to send them to us?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Sure, yes.

  Q514  Chairman: It would be very helpful if you would.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: We have been in operation now for five years. I do not know whether you would like to have an overview of everything.

  Q515  Chairman: I think it would be very helpful to have a sort of mood view from you.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: I could provide some information in writing.

  Q516  Chairman: If you have anything you want to say now about how the SIS system is working in Finland that would be helpful.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Just today, because we are discussing SIS issues every day right now, and it is the pre-Council time and the Council next week will be an important Council from the Schengen and SIS point of view, I discussed this with the head of the Finnish SIRENE office and we discussed the Finnish experiences and she confirmed that the Finnish law enforcement authorities are very happy to be part of Schengen, it has made international co-operation much easier and much more efficient. Now we have a means of exchanging law enforcement data this with each other in an efficient manner, even in structured form. SIS includes a system of exchanging forms, for instance, so it is very easy to see what the information is about. I am not a technical expert but I know what these forms look like.

  Q517  Chairman: Before your entry into the European Union there was presumably quite a lot of exchange with your Nordic neighbours at least on immigration, asylum and crime?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes. We felt that it was quite important that all five Nordic countries entered Schengen at the same time. We saw that as essential.

  Q518  Chairman: Is your co-operation with Norway affected by the fact that Norway is not a member of the European Union?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes, it is. As you know, the Council has an agreement with Norway, Iceland and Switzerland concerning Schengen issues and they participate in the Council meetings.

  Q519  Chairman: As if they were members?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Let us put it this way, they cannot take decisions. They can participate in the discussions, they can bring forward proposals and say if they have a problem with a certain proposal but when the formal decision is taken, when we count the votes, they are not in that count.

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