Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520-539)

Mrs Laura Yli-Vakkuri

28 NOVEMBER 2006

  Q520  Chairman: I think my last question is from your point of view how do you see the readiness of new members, particularly Bulgaria and Romania, at this point in time to take part in these discussions and these proposals?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Bulgaria and Romania, as from the signing of their Accession Agreements, have participated in the Council work as observers, so they have had the opportunity to follow the discussions as far as Schengen enlargement issues are concerned and I think it has been a very useful and helpful opportunity for them to learn as well, so we hope that after 1 January they can start participating more actively.

  Q521  Chairman: Be fully involved?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Q522  Lord Dubs: I wonder if I could just follow up on this wider issue. You mentioned that there were a number of countries within Schengen that were not in the EU, and you mentioned Norway, Iceland and Switzerland, and then you have got Denmark, Britain and Ireland who are in the EU but not in Schengen.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: That is why I said that Schengen is a paradise for lawyers.

  Lord Teverson: Denmark is in Schengen.

  Q523  Lord Dubs: Denmark is not in Schengen.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: It is in Schengen but it has an opt-out concerning other first pillar matters in the EU.

  Q524  Lord Dubs: Leaving aside the work that this produces for lawyers, I take it there is no thought given to other countries being able to be part of Schengen who are not in the EU on the model of Switzerland, Norway and so on? Are we saying Schengen is there and the only extension will be if other countries join the EU?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: I would say that geography plays a big role here. By the way, we are negotiating with Liechtenstein at the moment. I have not heard of any other further applications.

  Q525  Lord Avebury: How about Kaliningrad?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Kaliningrad, yes.

  Q526  Chairman: An interesting question.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: An interesting question.

  Q527  Chairman: You need a few more lawyers for that.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Indeed.

  Q528  Lord Dubs: Would you mind if I went back to the point you answered a little while ago about the British position as regards sharing information on immigration.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Q529  Lord Dubs: You said from the point of view of law enforcement it would be a good thing if this information were shared.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Q530  Lord Dubs: Are you reflecting a unique position in this or is there a wider view that, in fact, the countries that are not in Schengen could usefully exchange immigration information with Schengen in order to help with law enforcement? It is a point that our Chairman made a little while ago. Is there a sense that there might be some movement on this? You have made a more positive statement than perhaps some people have.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: These matters are being discussed all the time. Let us say it is a horizontal issue in a sense because we are talking about fighting organised crime and terrorism and so on, so in the context of these discussions these points pop up. I do not know, I am not an expert on police co-operation so it would be difficult for me to answer. If we go back to the data on refusals of entry, for instance, even though the UK does not have at the moment, or will not have, direct access to these alerts, the EU instruments dealing with asylum issues—the first pillar instruments in which the UK does participate and which are not Schengen related—provide for co-operation between the Member State authorities so the UK has the possibility to discuss this with colleagues from other countries on the basis of those instruments.

  Lord Dubs: I think you are right about how good it is for lawyers!

  Q531  Lord Teverson: I had not realised Switzerland was part of this system actually.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Not yet. The agreement with Switzerland has not entered into force yet, there are still some parliamentary reservations left. They will enter into force quite soon I would expect.

  Q532  Lord Teverson: In terms of the civil liberties or the control aspects related to Schengen and the use of the information, does that mean that the regulations effectively have to be passed by those national parliaments more or less as they are in the EU? That is presumably a condition and they are pretty well identical to the equivalent EU regulations in terms of data protection and that sort of stuff.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: There is a guillotine clause, I do not know if you can call it that. If the associated states—Iceland, Norway, Switzerland—refuse to adopt or apply a Schengen related legal instrument the Council will have to determine what to think of that and then in a very hypothetical case the third country concerned would be left outside Schengen. This is really hypothetical, it has not happened yet and it would be very difficult to foresee this kind of situation.

  Q533  Lord Teverson: For Norway and Iceland and Liechtenstein it is similar to the EEA procedures anyway in terms of reflecting Directives and Regulations?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Q534  Lord Teverson: But Switzerland is obviously different.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: No, it is not different. The rules are the same for them as for Norway and Iceland. Switzerland does not apply Schengen yet. After their agreement has come into force the normal Schengen evaluation process will start and it will take some time, so we are not talking about something which will happen even next year, we are probably talking about 2008 at the earliest.

  Q535  Lord Teverson: Do they pay part of the developments costs of the SIS II system?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Q536  Earl of Listowel: You mentioned that you are involved with Schengen evaluation as well. Can you say a bit more about the Schengen Evaluation Team and in particular perhaps about possible developments of it, for instance no warning visits or how co-operation with authorities in the monitoring process might be improved. What about pressures to go forward once the assessment has been made even if there are questions within the assessment provided by the evaluation team, the political pressures to go ahead? Are you calm about that? Do you feel any concern about that? Finally, can you indicate what sort of worst case scenarios you have thought of in terms of the abuse of the data provided either by an individual or perhaps leakage to organised crime? Perhaps that is a bit far from your experience.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: I have been involved in the Schengen evaluation work since 1998 or 1999 and I have followed the evaluations of the Nordic countries and the recent evaluation processes. The Schengen evaluation consists of two parts. First of all you have the evaluation of the possible newcomers, and that is what we are talking about in respect of the new Member States now, and then you have an ongoing evaluation of the Schengen states who already apply Schengen. The Schengen system is based on trust, so you have to trust the others and from time to time you want to check that everything is okay in the other Schengen states. That is the other aspect of the Schengen evaluation. We do have a working group, which is called the Schengen Evaluation Working Party, which meets here in the Council. I am the Chairman of that working group during the Finnish Presidency. We are horizontalists obviously, nobody can be an expert on all issues. This Working Party has established evaluation committees for all aspects of Schengen—including the land borders, air borders, sea borders, police co-operation, visas, data protection—and these committees visit the countries concerned. For instance, this year has been quite heavy for the experts because we have had to visit ten Member States and we have had six subject areas. Normally you do not visit a country for half a day or one day only, you spend some time there, you travel along the border, et cetera. We did 58 evaluation emissions this year, we assessed and discussed the reports in this working group and now we are finalising the conclusions. Concerning the information that is received and discussed during the evaluation process, until now they have been so-called restricted documents so it is understood that this information is confidential by nature.

  Q537  Earl of Listowel: That is very helpful, thank you. Are you concerned that having done all this work political pressures will perhaps push things forward when the careful reports you have made do indicate some concern about a particular area in a particular country? When I was talking about the sensitivity of the information and the worst case scenarios I was thinking of if a country was not doing a good enough job at safeguarding this information what is the worst case scenario from the point of view of a data subject that you could imagine happening to that person? What is the worst case scenario in terms of organised crime or whatever else obtaining access to the Schengen system, being able to know when an alert is going out about somebody being surveyed or something like that? Perhaps that is a bit far away from your experience. What you have said so far has been very helpful and perhaps that is as much as is necessary for you to say at the moment.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Again, I must say that nobody is perfect, not even Finland, although we were assessed quite positively concerning our borders. At some point you will have to decide that the trust is there and the Schengen Acquis is implemented in a satisfactory manner. This assessment may include, for instance the verification of whether a stamp is placed in the right place on the passport. As you can see, technical issues like that are assessed and but obviously more crucial issues are emphasised. This is where the evaluation process truly comes into play. You may have to visit these countries again and see whether the weakness has been remedied or not. It is an ongoing evaluation. It is in The Hague programme, by the way, that the Commission will submit, I think next year, a proposal to develop the evaluation procedures in the justice and home affairs areas so we will debate and see how we should develop the system.

  Earl of Listowel: Thank you very much.

  Q538  Chairman: Mrs Yli-Vakkuri, thank you very much indeed. You have given us very helpful answers to our questions, we are most grateful to you for coming. We wish you good luck in the remaining 31 days of your Presidency.

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Thank you very much. It is true that we are counting the days!

  Q539  Chairman: But you are taking a few days off for Christmas, I hope?

  Mrs Yli-Vakkuri: Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you so much.

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