Select Committee on European Communities Twelfth Report


Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)

TUESDAY 9 DECEMBER 1997

Ms JOYCE QUIN and MR PETER EDWARDS

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

  20.  My Lord Chairman, I was just going to ask the Minister what would have to be added to Europol to make it a recognisable fledgling FBI in the sense that the exchange of information is of the essence of power for police authorities and no doubt some simple matters such as powers of arrest which they may not have. With the immunities what big steps should be taken if it was to be what was suggested?

  (Ms Quin)  Oh, I think that it would have to be a completely different organisation.

  21.  An executive authority?

  (Ms Quin)  Exactly, an organisation which recruited and trained and employed people. It would really be a European police force in a way that is totally different from the kind of organisation that it is now and, in fact, it is hard to see Europol in its existing form developing into such an organisation. It would almost need, if countries wanted to do that - and I do not see that they do - to be a completely separate initiative to set up some kind of European police force and European police authority. May I say, however, that the role, indeed, the role of the kind of precursor of Europol which already exists and which has a desk in the National Criminal Intelligence Service in London, is very useful. What has always seemed to me to be a paper and theoretical subject came to light when I visited the National Criminal Intelligence Service and talked to people involved in the work and how this exchange of information had actually led to serious and dangerous criminals being apprehended, so I would certainly like to commend the usefulness of the work. It seemed to me that such co-operation does have very real results.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton]   It was, in fact, the evidence taken by Sub-Committee E on the National Criminal Intelligence Service of someone who came to tell us about NCIS a couple of years ago which made perhaps my imagination become too vivid.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

  22.  I just note that Article K.2 2.(a) does intend to "enable Europol to facilitate and support ... specific investigative actions ... including operational actions of joint teams comprising representatives of Europol". Now I think that we are all torn in two directions. We very much want to see effective international multinational operations against international organised crime, but we recognise that we are getting in to a very delicate area where police would be operating across borders with particular immunities, and I think that that is an area that we would all like to signal that this Committee would certainly like to have a very active oversight of.

  (Ms Quin)  I understand that. I think that Europol is really based on co-operative action on the part of Member States and Member States' authorities. None the less it certainly is an area where I believe Parliament should take an active interest because, as you say, it is an area that potentially is of sensitivity and certainly if further proposals are going to come forward, those proposals would need, I believe, to be considered widely, including at parliamentary level.

Chairman

  23.  May we move on to customs co-operation and can you tell us what the current status is of the Customs Information Service, the CIS? How many Member States have ratified that?

  (Ms Quin)  My Lord Chairman, the Customs Information Service database is not operational. It is still being developed by the Commission and they expect to have it ready by spring of 1998. Only Denmark and the United Kingdom have ratified the Convention, which I know is another area that you were interested in, but so far as the database is concerned it is not, should I say operational or up and running.

  24.  And what needs to be done to make it operational?

  (Ms Quin)  I must say, my Lord Chairman, I am not absolutely sure on that. I do not know whether Mr Edwards has any information about what further steps need to be made. As I say, we have been advised that it ought to be ready by the spring of 1998, so that is not very far off. Presumably good progress is being made.

  (Mr Edwards)  My Lord Chairman, I would only add that the key to this is for all the Member States to ratify the Convention. As the Minister said, so far only Denmark and the United Kingdom have done so. The Commission will no doubt be forging ahead with their preparation of the database, but until all the Member States have ratified or at least a majority of them - I do not think that full ratification by every Member State is actually required in the case of this Convention, but at least a majority have to ratify - until that has happened the database cannot become effective.

  (Ms Quin)  Certainly the High Level Group on Organised Crime recommended and encouraged Member States to ratify the Convention, all of them, by the end of 1998.

  25.  Now the work programme states that the Presidency intends to follow up the Joint Action on memoranda of understanding between customs administrations and the business community and the Resolution on police/customs co-operation. Can you tell us what further action is envisaged in this area?

  (Ms Quin)  Questionnaires about this have been issued during the current Presidency and the United Kingdom Presidency will have to collect and collate that information. It will also need to be analysed in order to consider the need for further action. In our Presidency we will be providing reports to Council on the Joint Action and the Resolution.

  26.  Let us move on to asylum and immigration then. Can you tell us what progress has been made on the draft Eurodac Convention?

  (Ms Quin)  A certain amount of progress has been made, but there are still a number of issues which need to be both considered and resolved. The Luxembourg Presidency had initially hoped to reach agreement on this by the end of the year, but not all the outstanding difficulties have been resolved. It was discussed at the Justice and Home Affairs Council briefly last week where certain articles of the Convention were "frozen" and agreed and others were referred to further discussion in order to try to achieve agreement on them. Other aspects relate to the European Court of Justice's role which I know is something that you have considered in this Committee on many occasions in respect to other instruments and there have also been quite a lot of discussions about data retention and the rights of the data subject to have access to information on Eurodac. I do not know whether Mr Edwards would like to add anything to that.

  (Mr Edwards)  I think not, my Lord Chairman. As the Minister says, some progress was made at the Council last week, but there remains a number of quite knotty issues yet to be resolved and it will be the intention of the United Kingdom Presidency to try to get as far with the resolution of those issues as we possibly can and obviously if we could bring the Convention to a conclusion by the time of our final Justice and Home Affairs Council that would be a very good triumph to chalk up for the United Kingdom.

  27.  How far are you looking ahead to enlargement in relation to Eurodac? What support can we give to applicant countries?

  (Ms Quin)  In the immediate future we are considering it on the basis very much of the existing European Union. None the less asylum and immigration aspects are important in terms of relationships with the applicant countries and the countries of central and eastern Europe, and at the Justice and Home Affairs Council there was discussion about the different ways in which the Member States can help the applicant countries in terms of training and exchanges and co-operation in the field of asylum and immigration. We certainly believe that that is an important area for us to work on together in order to help prepare a successful enlargement, particularly given, of course, the new borders that would emerge as a result of that enlargement process.

  28.  That is right. Again I come back to Hungary because there is this great difficulty with the Hungarian border that there is a free movement of Hungarian nationals over the border from Romania and Slovakia and no one yet seems to have worked out how that is going to be tackled if Hungary comes into the Community and the others do not.

  (Ms Quin)  Yes, obviously we are dealing - at this stage hypothetically - with some difficult issues here. All the countries involved hope to be members of the European Union, although Hungary is likely to be in the first wave, so certainly the arrangements that govern that new external frontier will be very important. We hope that some of the work through such things as the proposed Odysseus Programme on exchanges and training on asylum and immigration matters would help and I also believe that it is already possible under the PHARE programme for initiatives to take place and, indeed, the United Kingdom has been active in certain of the applicant countries in making available advice, information, on these issues in order to do our bit to help prepare this process.

  29.  It may be hypothetical at the moment, but it is not all that far down the track when it will cease to become a hypothetical question and become entirely practical?

  (Ms Quin)  No, I accept that, my Lord Chairman.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

  30.  If I may add to that, in the defence field the British Government and its partners through NATO are involved in very extensive training programmes, partnerships for peace, with all the applicant countries, and I am not aware that we are doing anything on the same scale in police, border controls, the various other activities there. Given the level of organised immigration trying to come in through those countries it seems to me that there is an immediate argument for doing it now. Since the scale of the training that they need is going to take five years or more it seems to me that this would be very much one of the things that the British Presidency might wish to push for the Community as a whole but also something which our police colleges and other such bodies might with to expand themselves.

  (Ms Quin)  Yes, I very much agree with you, and you are right that these activities where they are taking place are not on the same scale as the activities which are included in the partnerships for peace process. We do, because of our stress on the fight against organised crime as part of our own United Kingdom Presidency, also intend to make that a priority in our relationship with the countries of central and eastern Europe and, indeed, more widely. I mentioned at the outset that our involvement in G8 and in other international organisations means that we need to take the fight against organised crime on a wider basis as well. One of the areas where we are keen on consolidating work is the relationship with Russia in this respect, and stepping up efforts to work with them in the fight against organised crime, so we are very conscious of this. We certainly want to flag this up as an important area during our Presidency and intensify work on it both in our bilateral relations with the countries concerned and, of course, through the European Union.

Lord Bridges

  31.  But if I may return to the question put by the Chairman about Hungary, I think that we have perhaps a particular difficulty there because we more than any other Member State have been speaking encouragingly about accession of the central and eastern European countries, yet during our Presidency this is an issue where we are going to be tougher perhaps than any of the others because what we are going to have to suggest, I suppose, as the Presidency is that the Hungarians install a new form of visa or import control over their citizens living in these other two countries and they are going to have to invent a completely new system. Here are the British, who have always given them encouraging noises, being tougher than all the others put together, and if we can hope to adopt it in the way which has been suggested by officials they will have new systems. I do not know what travel documents people have - do Hungarians living in Transylvania have Hungarian passports? If so, they are not going to be able to have them in the future, are they?

  (Ms Quin)  If I may say so, my Lord Chairman, I think that a lot of assumptions are being made about negotiations which have not even really got under way on these issues. I do not think that it is right to say that we are being tougher than everybody else put together. Having participated in discussions at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on asylum and immigration I know that there is a lot of concern in Germany and other countries about large scale migration from eastern Europe and beyond and great concern that already there has been very considerable migration and a lot of that movement is still being absorbed, and to make the problems more difficult in the future would be very difficult for existing European countries. Therefore, I do not believe that we are being somehow tougher or more difficult than other countries, but in the accession negotiations we do have to take into account a huge range of different considerations and when we are looking at countries obviously we have to understand their situation in regard to people who may have affinity with their country but who are outside that country and we have to look at those issues in the context of the wider need to try to ensure that there is not large scale migration on a general level from the east and eastern part of the European continent. However, I must say that a lot of these issues have still got to be worked out in detail and I would certainly not want to prejudge the outcome at this stage.

  32.  What I was suggesting was that it falls to us as the Presidency to expose these problems which are widely seen throughout the Community and necessarily to be tough, that it will be our role as the Presidency to try to get them to grapple with these problems.

  (Ms Quin)  The Presidency obviously has a tremendous role in facilitating European Union business; and it does have to respond to the concerns of the European Union Members as a whole.

  (Mr Edwards)  My Lord Chairman, may I just add perhaps that while we certainly hope, subject to what comes out of the Luxembourg Summit this weekend, that the negotiations with a number of applicant countries will begin during our Presidency, there really is very little prospect of those negotiations actually concluding during our Presidency. They will go on for a considerable number of Presidencies very probably, and in our Presidency we expect only to begin the process of screening the applicants to see how far they are at present able to take on the Community and European Union acquis, to which, of course, is now going to be added the Schengen acquis.

Lord Inglewood

  33.  Are you confident that there is no illusion in the minds of the applicants, particularly Hungary, about the significance that within the Community we place on the kind of topics that we have been discussing? There must be a risk that they will think they want to join the Community but when push comes to shove they will not actually take these things as seriously as they say now?

  (Ms Quin)  I do not think that that is a problem. One of the advantages is that there has been a good level of involvement already on the part of applicant countries in terms of dialogue with existing European Union Members. Often this is attached to Council meetings - for example, in the Justice and Home Affairs Council last week, at the end of that Council meeting there was what we call a structured dialogue with the countries of central and eastern Europe, including not only those likely to be in the first wave but all those who have an interest in joining and have applied to join. I think that through those structures the applicant countries are very much aware of existing European Union countries' concerns.

Lord Wigoder

  34.  Minister, the Chairman has been so astonished at my unaccustomed silence that he suggested that I might raise with you the question of legal aid, which is obviously highly relevant particularly today because several members of this Committee, as you will know, are taking part in the debate that is going on downstairs at this moment. May I ask you then whether in the course of our Presidency we do intend to bring forward any proposals for the harmonisation of access to legal aid in civil and criminal cases in the European Union or is it a little premature at the moment in the light of our present position?

  (Ms Quin)  We do not have any plans to do this. Obviously, as you will be very well aware, legal aid in terms of ministerial responsibility falls within the remit of the Lord Chancellor and therefore it is not a matter that I have day to day involvement with, but we do not have any plans to bring forward such a proposal.

  35.  Is that as a result of a decision in principle or because we are simply not likely to be ready to do so?

  (Ms Quin)  Well, it is not an area which we see as an area of obvious European Union or Community competence so in that sense, yes, there is a principle involved, but I think also that it is not an area where other countries are pushing for agreement. Obviously the Presidency has a duty to respond to the issues, as I said in answer to an earlier question, that Member States are particularly keen to raise.

Chairman

  36.  May I just pick you up on that point, Minister. You say that you do not believe that it is within the Community competence as a matter of principle, as it were. Is that a view which is shared in other countries?

  (Ms Quin)  I am not sure, my Lord Chairman. It is not an issue that I have discussed with other countries because it has not been on the agenda or brought forward as an item for discussion with other countries, so I certainly would not want to misrepresent their position. However, as far as I am aware there is certainly no general movement in favour of putting forward a proposal of that kind.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

  37.  I should really like to pursue the external relations dimension, which seems to me very active. The work programme document that you sent us had a great deal on Council of Europe relations with the United States, G8, the Presidency and a range of other multilateral organisations in which clearly relations between the European Union and the United States appeared to be the most sensitive. Can you tell us a little more about how much time that takes up and how difficult it is, and also how that relates to G8, which is the Community plus the United States plus others?

  (Ms Quin)  Certainly the United Kingdom Government is going to be challenged in the amount of European and international activity it is going to be involved in in the next six months. Our approach is obviously to try to make sure that there is as little duplication as possible, yet at the same time that European action does not become a focus to the detriment of other important international work that we need to carry out. Relations with the United States in the fight against organised crime certainly are one of our priority areas although we do believe that other European Union countries share our thinking that that is very important. I also mentioned the important work to be done in similar fields with Russia, which is also again something that seems to be echoed by our European Union partners. The Council of Europe's work is very important. I suppose that is one area where duplication sometimes is possible. We certainly believe that it is important for the European Union's work to be co-ordinated with the Council of Europe's work in very many of these areas. Indeed, in some of these areas the Council of Europe was the pioneer, and we need to recognise that, and the fact that that also can be a very useful vehicle for involving European countries who are not in the European Union but who are now members of the Council of Europe. Certainly in the work on such areas as corruption there has been very much a feeling that we need to go hand in hand with the Council of Europe and not promote measures that would in any way conflict with it but perhaps would help to enhance the Council of Europe's work in that respect. It is customary for the incoming Presidency of the European Union to produce a paper outlining their plans for third country relations during the period of their Presidency. We are preparing such a document and we hope that that will be finalised in the immediate future.

  38.  May I just press you on the transatlantic dimension. Clearly the United Kingdom must have very active transatlantic relations with the United States in a lot of these areas, including the Caribbean, but there is also now this extensive European Union/United States dimension and I do not quite see where G8 fits into all of this. You mentioned the desirability of limiting duplication. The picture opens up of tired Home Office officials dashing from one meeting to another and writing different versions of the same paper for three or four different meetings. Is it as bad as that?

  (Ms Quin)  Well, it certainly is quite a difficult challenge to meet. Perhaps I should ask a potentially tired official from the Home Office to respond!

  (Mr Edwards)  My Lord Chairman, I am an already tired official of the Home Office! Yes, we do recognise that there is a risk of duplication between bodies, particularly like the G8, and the European Union and consequently our Presidency of both during 1998 is really a godsend and gives us an opportunity to try to make sure that their two work programmes in the area of crime do tie up with one another. We have been working busily on that within both fora. Within Europe we have been trying to ensure that some of the thinking of the G8 on tackling organised crime is also brought into the minds of our European Union partners. I am thinking here of what we have come to describe as the project based approach to tackling crime which focuses on practical measures to deal with particular crime problems, particular criminal organisations. We want to transplant that approach from the G8 where it is developing quite well under British patronage into a European Union context and try to get our partners also to sign up to it. Similarly the G8 forum has been developing some quite interesting thinking about what to do about high tech crime. This is tackling abuse of the internet and credit card fraud, things of that kind, and we are very anxious that the European Union should have the same agenda and should also do some work of a complementary kind on these very serious problems.

  39.  Do you imply that the United Kingdom has slightly more influence on the G8 fora meetings than it does in European Union fora and feels more comfortable in that or did I mishear the implications of what you were saying?

  (Ms Quin)  I think that we are happy in both.

  (Mr Edwards)  As the Minister says, of course we are happy in both, but I think that when one looks at the structures that exist and the numbers of members that exist in the two different fora, the G8 does have some advantage: it is a smaller group, it does not have a great institutional backing which develops proposals in the way that the Third Pillar committee machinery does. It sees its function as very much to look at new problems, develop solutions, then move on; whereas the European Union, as I think we all know, is a very substantial bureaucracy involving the different institutions, 15 Member States and so on, and on that account is necessarily somewhat slower and more ponderous than the G8 is able to be.


 
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