Statewatch article: RefNo# 2298
EU: JHA Informal JHA Ministers
Statewatch bulletin, vol 8 no 1 (January-February 1998)
Europol not ready until year 2000; encryption debates simmers; 1951 Geneva Convention "out-of-date" says Commissioner Gradin.

The informal meeting of the Council of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers was held in Birmingham on 29-30 January. As is the nature of "informal" meetings there were no decisions although Ministers were available for seven "photocalls". The "EU Action Plan: Influx of migrants from Iraq and the neighbouring region", adopted by the General Affairs Council three days before in Brussels was handed out and duly, and mistakenly, reported as having been adopted at this meeting, (see feature on page ...). The "Action Plan on organised crime" from the High Level Group adopted in April 1997, and later printed in the Official Journal, was also given out for reasons which escaped attending journalists.

The meeting started in the afternoon and most of the three hour meeting was devted to openness in justice and home affairs (see feature on page ...). Organised crime was only briefly discussed, covering Europol ratification and encryption.

Despite the UK Presidency's aim to be able to complete the ratification of the Europol Convention by May it became clear that this is not going to happen. Eight member states - Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal,Finland, Sweden and the UK have completed ratification and sent the ratification instruments to the Secretariat General of the Council in Brussels. Austria, Ireland and Germany had not sent the instruments to Brussels. But four countries - Belgium, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg had not completed national parliamentary ratification. As three months has to elapse after the deposit by the last member state of the instruments with Brussels formal ratification of the Convention is not likely until the autumn. No mention was made of the need for the two Europol Protocols to be ratified at national level - on the European Court of Justice and Immunities for Europol officers - both of which are necessary before Europol can become operational.

At the end of February Mr Jürgen Storbeck, the Director of the Europol Drugs Unit in the Hague, confirmed to European Voice that the Europol computer system - which will allow instant and automaitc access to personal information - will not be ready until the year 2000, over two years time. The delay is put down to "technical problems". The launch of the Schengen Information System (SIS), based in Strasbourg, was also put off from 1993 to 1995 due to "technical problems". This delay, which has been known to Ministers for months, casts doubt on the unseemingly haste urged on some national parliaments to push through the ratification process because of the urgency of the problems to be confronted.

Another dispute on Europol's role is also looming. During the negotiations Spain wanted the Convention to cover terrorism as well as policing - responsibility for tackling varies between EU mebmer states, in some it is dealt with by police forces in others by the military. Spain is now arguing that because of the delay in getting Europol up and running - the Convention was signed by the EU governments in June 1995 - Europol should be allowed to investigate terrorism from 1 January 1999. Other governments oppose the idea on grounds of cost but Mr Storbeck commented: "Once we have been officially asked we will make a feasibility study. I imagine that if member states agree to second an extra 20 experts to us, at their cost, then it might be possible even without dramatically expanding the budget." The Convention says that within two years of it coming into force Europol can be asked, under the procedures sets down in Title VI of the Treaty on European Union, to extend its activities to cover terrorism - constitutional niceties are apparently not an issue.

The issue of encryption divides the member states. Last October the European Commission published a report, Ensuring security and Trust in Electronic Commerce

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