PRIORITISE PRACTICAL ACTION TO TACKLE CRIME AND ILLEGAL MIGRATION IN EU, SAYS COMMITTEE
In a report released today, Tuesday 5 June 2007, the Commons Home Affairs Committee says that practical co-operation between EU countries to tackle terrorism, crime and illegal migration should be prioritised over the current debates raging about the institutional arrangements in the EU. The report comes ahead of the upcoming Justice and Home Affairs Council in mid-June, which is expected to be dominated by discussions of proposed institutional changes in the wake of the failed Constitutional Treaty.
John Denham MP, Chairman of the Committee, said; "Throughout this inquiry we have been struck by the way in which the debate about EU action on crime and illegal migration is dominated by different views of the future political shape of the EU, instead of identifying what would be most effective in tackling these major European challenges. Much of the debate is taking place without a sound analysis of the problems, or a reliable assessment of the effectiveness of current action."
The Committee concludes that "policy initiatives at EU level should only be pursued if there is a solid evidence-base that they are likely to make a real practical difference to the effectiveness with which the common challenges ... can be tackled."
Mr Denham said; "We conclude that the priority should be to develop practical co-operation between police forces, judicial systems and other agencies. EU wide institutions like Europol, Eurojust and Frontex are playing an important role in tackling crime and illegal migration. More needs to be done to ensure that all member states participate fully and effectively in them. But the case has not been made that wide ranging institutional changes are necessary to achieve more effective action."
The Committee says that the case has not been made at present for proposed changes to the voting system on justice and home affairs issues, which would see decisions made by qualified majority voting (QMV), rather than on a basis of unanimity. It says that if criminal law and procedure were brought under QMV then in principle Government and Parliament could be required to pass legislation on issues of particular sensitivity which neither had desired. "The evidence we have seen does not persuade us that, as things stand at present, there are sufficient benefits in terms of tackling crime, either here in the UK or across the EU, to justify such a major transfer of power away from individual member states."
The Committee recognises the danger of some member states making their own arrangements for co-operation. The recent adoption into the EU legal framework of the 'Pr¼m Treaty' on police co-operation is an example of "a worrying precedent whereby a small group of member states may reach an agreement between themselves which then is presented to the wider EU almost as a fait accompli". The Committee concludes that UK Government must not opt out of future discussions of this sort.
The Committee also concludes that the case has not yet been made for a common EU approach to legal migration. It says that the UK is right to remain outside the Schengen border-control regime, although it warns that the UK's 'pick and mix' attitude to Schengen has unintended consequences, such as the denial of access to 'Article 96' immigration and visa data for UK police. "It is not acceptable that crime-fighting should be hindered simply in an attempt to force the UK to take a different attitude towards participation in the Schengen border-control regime."
Frontex is a young organisation which facilitates and assists with cross border co-operation between member states and has been demonstrably effective in operations countering illegal migration. It has much untapped potential given proper resources and staffing. The Committee urges the Government to continue its bid for the UK to become a full member of Frontex, so far blocked by the Schengen states.
The Committee discusses a number of issues where some witnesses urged stronger EU action.
It was argued that there are insufficient criminal procedural safeguards to ensure that UK citizens would receive fair treatment in all other EU countries. The Committee concluded that there was no case for a full-scale harmonisation of the European criminal justice or legal systems, but agrees that some degree of common standards in tightly limited areas may be desirable to facilitate effective co-operation. However the Committee was critical of the Government's failure to monitor the scale and extent of the problem, which made it difficult to assess what level of EU action might be necessary. The Committee concluded that the starting point should be to use existing mechanisms to ensure that rights already specified in the European Charter on Human Rights are uniformly observed across the EU. UK standards are high: any EU-wide binding agreement must also offer a high standard.
The Committee welcomed the "principle of availability" of information which would enable much wider information sharing between the police and criminal justice systems within the EU but called for stronger measures to ensure the application of effective data protection policies in order to prevent potential abuse. It calls for an independent impact assessment on the potential use of data under the principle of availability, and renewed efforts to agree a data protection framework across the EU to protect privacy. The Committee highlighted its concerns about the sharing of data on EU citizens with non-EU countries, noting the recent cases of banking and air passenger data sharing with the USA. It suggests that practical issues of this nature - of more concern to EU citizens than the debate about institutional decision-making - have great potential, but the Committee expresses strong concerns over the "casual" sharing of EU citizens' personal data with other countries.
The Committee discusses the arrangements recently put in place on exchange of information about criminal records, an issue which was revealed by our inquiry. The Committee concludes that an EU agreement made in 2005 addressed a real deficiency in information sharing between member States, but there is still a lack of specificity about content or format of information shared, and countries have implemented it in different ways. The Committee also calls on the Home Office to address the current deficiency whereby police are not notified when an individual convicted abroad is released from custody or re-enters this country.
The Committee also says there is a much greater role for "mainstream" policy scrutiny of EU issues by Parliament and its Committees. Mr Denham said "Parliament is often involved far too late in the development of EU policy to be able to offer effective scrutiny of justice and home affairs issues. Parliament should be formally consulted at a much earlier in the EU negotiating process. Closer co-operation between MPs and MEPs is desirable."
Notes to eds:
1. The Chairman of the Committee John Denham MP held an embargoed briefing on the report on Monday 4 June 2007 at 1pm in the Palace of Westminster. Please contact Jessica Bridges Palmer on 07917 488 447 for more information.
2. The Constitutional Treaty was signed by all Member states in 2004 but ratification was halted after it was rejected in national referenda in France and Holland. It proposed a number of significant changes to Justice and Home Affairs. Most importantly, it would have abolished the pillar structure and granted the European Union legal personality (currently the European Community under the first pillar has legal personality, but not the Union under the second and third pillars). The main changes resulting from abolition of the pillar structure under the Constitutional Treaty relating to Justice and Home Affairs are outlined on pages 22 and 23 of the report.
The current German Presidency has made clear its intention to open up debate about the future of the European Union. It promulgated a statement, the so-called 'Berlin Declaration', reaffirming the core principles of the Union. This was signed by EU leaders on 27 March 2007. It called for institutional changesin effect, adoption of the Constitutional Treaty either in its original or a modified formto be in place before the European Parliament elections in mid-2009. Recent press reports have emphasised that the agenda for the forthcoming Justice and Home Affairs Council, to be held on 12-13 June 2007, is more than likely to be dominated by negotiations on institutional changes, including big questions about changes to third pillar Justice and Home Affairs procedures
3. The Committee was nominated on 13 July 2005. Its terms of reference are to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Home Office and its associated public bodies; and the administration and expenditure of the Attorney General's Office, the Treasury Solicitor's Department, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office (but excluding individual cases and appointments and advice given within government by Law Officers).
4. The Report will be available on the Committee's website at 00.01 am on Tuesday 5 June:
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