Thursday, June 24, 2010

EU JHA co-operation: After Lisbon, reality bites

By Hugo Brady

EU policies on policing, justice and immigration were widely expected to take a big leap forward after the ratification of the Lisbon treaty. But interested outsiders should not assume that new powers for the EU’s institutions will translate automatically into more coherent European action in security and migration matters. In fact, the EU’s governments and its institutions face serious challenges in justice and home affairs (JHA) co-operation in the years ahead.

First, JHA policy-making is becoming more fractious and politically divided under the new treaty. Sensitive issues like terrorism or organised crime are now subject to the same rules as the EU's single market, meaning that the European Parliament can amend or block such decisions for the first time. This may not sound very radical. But for the EU's conservative interior and justice ministries – as well as key partners like the US – it is a brave new world.

Take terrorism. Last February, the European Parliament shocked both EU governments and the Obama administration alike by rapidly using its new powers to vote down the so-called Swift agreement. (This arrangement allowed US intelligence services to comb European financial transactions en masse for counter-terror purposes.) The parliament has since signalled that it will also vote down a modified version of the agreement which officials had hoped might soothe concerns over data privacy. Furthermore, EU officials worry that MEPs may reject any new security-related law on principle. There is an urgent need for EU governments and the parliament to find a new modus vivendi that allows them to work together constructively on such matters.

Second, EU countries complain that it is now harder under Lisbon to project a single voice in international fora when law and order and immigration issues are discussed. Officials are currently at a loss to know who takes the lead on terrorism or corruption issues in, say, the UN or OSCE. Is it the EU's six-month rotating presidency, the European Commission or the embryonic external action service? Although the Commission would bitterly oppose such a move, it should be up to the High Representative for foreign policy to decide in future who is best placed to lead the EU's external representation in these areas.

Third, the Commission's justice and security directorate, which has drafted most JHA legislation since 1999, is set to be divided in two. The split – into separate home affairs and justice departments – is largely at the behest of Viviane Reding, the EU's firebrand justice commissioner. Reding wants to use her new directorate to re-balance the JHA policy area which she believes has been hitherto too pro-American and too security-focused.

The decision to split up the Commission's JHA directorate is probably a mistake. Part of its added value in security and migration matters was the ability to bring all the relevant policy elements – policing, justice, immigration – together under one roof. There is also a danger that the split could result in more in-fighting and a loss of shared purpose. Better checks and balances were needed in EU internal security co-operation. But these have now been provided in the guise of a more powerful parliament and the extension of the jurisdiction of the EU's Court of Justice over all JHA legislation.

Lastly, despite new powers under the treaty, there is a dearth of really strong ideas from either the governments or the institutions about how the EU's JHA agenda should develop over the next five years. EU governments have recently agreed both an 82-page list of proposals for improving JHA co-operation (known as the Stockholm programme) and a wide-ranging ‘internal security strategy’. But the fact that these largely lack substance hints that the future of European co-operation on security and migration issues will centre on consolidating existing achievements rather than launching bold new initiatives.

One priority is to safeguard the EU’s Schengen area of passport-free travel. Schengen ranks alongside the euro as one of the EU's most tangible achievements. Like the euro, each Schengen country relies largely on assurances of good faith from others in the club, in this case that the common border is being maintained properly. But not all Schengen members are trusted equally. French police are increasing their spot-checks on cars crossing the border from Spain, for example, while Finnish border guards routinely check passports of non-EU travellers en route from Greece. To make the passport-free zone work properly, EU countries must agree a more transparent system for verifying border standards. They must also ensure that Romania and Bulgaria – both chomping at the bit to join – are not allowed in prematurely until they have carried out thoroughgoing reform of their police and judiciaries.

The gap between rhetoric and reality in the Schengen area should serve as a warning against future hubris. The EU’s new powers in policing, justice and immigration will only be a success if they result in the member-states adopting policies that seriously address current security and migration challenges. We will soon know whether a vague new treaty, a divided Brussels bureaucracy and a truculent European Parliament will help or hinder that ambition.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

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