The first day of the informal meeting of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers began in Athens this morning. Data Protection Regulation and the future development of the JHA area were the main items considered.
The European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding, Members of the European Parliament as well as participants from a number of EU agencies and International Organisations attended the Informal Council meeting on 23 January in Athens. The meeting was chaired by Minister of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights, Charalampos Athanasiou.
During the meeting the Ministers for Justice focused on topics prioritised by the Greek Presidency in the field of Justice. The future development of the JHA area is a policy field with direct influence on the lives of citizens and on the operation of businesses. Since 1999, multi-annual programmes have provided a comprehensive framework for the development of the JHA area. The latest of these programmes, the Stockholm Programme for Justice and Home Affairs, expires in 2014. Future guidelines must reflect the interests and needs of Member States and citizens.
Common elements of most interventions were:
• The need for consolidation of mutual recognition, a cornerstone of mutual confidence, through training of all legal practitioners (judges, lawyers, etc )
• The emphasis on the implementation of existing legislation, its qualitative element and its codification.
• The need to improve cooperation mechanisms, including by means of e-Justice (e-justice) and the effective use of new technologies.
• The promotion of coherence between internal policies and external relations with third countries in the field of judicial cooperation.
• Finally, a greater consolidation of the rule of law and fundamental rights should be included in the guiding principles for the Post- Stockholm era.
“We listened carefully to the comments made by the Ministers. We urge the European Commission to take account of the concerns of Member States during the preparation of its Communication which we expect to be presented during the March 2014 Council. All these elements, and, inter alia, the conclusions of the Conference on Justice ("Assises de la Justice"), the resolution which is expected by the European Parliament, and the public consultation will enable the Council to contribute substantially to the Meeting of the European Council of next June”, stressed Minister Athanasiou.
The data protection Reform is another key priority for the Greek Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Data flows are an essential element of the digital economy, which has seen an explosion of their volume and a diversification of their nature. “European citizens have serious concerns, when their personal data are transferred to third countries. Governments and national parliaments have become more sensitive to the issue, especially after recent revelations about foreign intelligence collection programmes. We must ensure an adequate level of data protection in order to restore citizens’ trust”, said Mr Athanasiou.
Ministers agreed to the geographic scope of the Regulation, highlighting the need to ensure the application of the EU rules to third countries. They also agreed on the exceptional nature of the transmission of data to third countries, based on waivers (i.e. when not based on findings of adequacy/ corporate rules or contractual clauses) and the need to provide safeguards to ensure the fundamental right to privacy as enshrined in Article 8 of the Charter, delivering interesting proposals to be discussed at a technical level. Furthermore, the Ministers expressed their overall satisfaction with the provisions on the draft regulation and encouraged the strengthening of these models with new ones that will be examined at experts’ level. “We all should redouble our efforts to achieve the desired results”, stressed Mr Athanasiou.
Justice Ministers also heard a presentation by the European Commission on a legislative package strengthening procedural rights. The package includes:
• A proposal for a Directive on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and of the right to be present at trial in criminal proceedings,
• A proposal for a Directive on procedural safeguards for children suspected or accused in criminal proceedings and
• A proposal for a Directive on provisional legal aid for suspects or accused persons deprived of liberty and legal aid in European arrest warrant proceedings.
The proposed legislation aims at increasing mutual trust in Member States' judicial systems and therefore ensuring a smooth functioning of the European area of justice.
A final topic of debate was the cross –border operation of small claims. The general aim of the Regulation (EC) No 861/2007 establishing a European Small Claims Procedure was to improve access to justice by reducing costs and accelerating civil procedures with regard to small claims for both consumers and businesses. In November 2013, the European Commission issued a report reviewing the operation of the Regulation and adopted a proposal for amending it. “The Commission's report and the explanatory memorandum of the proposed amending Regulation state that the Small Claims Regulation is still not used to its full potential”, said Minister Athanasiou. Most Member States expressed the view that the current threshold of EUR 2,000 should be increased in order to allow parties, particularly small and medium size enterprises, to benefit from the simplified procedure. However, different opinions were voiced over the appropriate new threshold. The Ministers welcomed the Commission's efforts to strengthen the use of modern technologies in cross-border disputes falling within the scope of the Regulation, but warned of additional costs for Courts. Both issues will be examined in detail at experts’ level.
“I am confident that our meeting will contribute to the progress of legislative proposals in the field of justice. The Presidency will seek to build on the results of today's meeting so that the Council of Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs in March produces tangible results”, concluded Minister Athanasiou.