EU justice ministers call for more data protection

Stockholm – The European Union must balance its attempts to gather more security information on EU citizens with the need to protect their privacy, EU justice ministers said in Stockholm on Friday.

‘The question of data protection must feature more strongly on the European agenda,’ Germany’s justice minister, Brigitte Zypries, said during informal talks with EU counterparts.

‘When it comes to individual rights, it’s of concern that (data) integrity is assured,’ agreed Sweden’s justice minister, Beatrice Ask, who chaired the meeting.

Sweden currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

In that capacity, Ask is tasked with overseeing the creation of the so-called Stockholm Programme, a five-year plan aimed at making legal cooperation between EU member states more efficient.

‘We have said yes to the fundamental freedoms (to move and live in EU member states), so we need to say yes to European law and European rules,’ Luxembourg Justice Minister Luc Frieden said.

But at the same time, cooperation ‘has to be useful and provide real added value,’ Ask stressed as she summarized the two days of talks.

One key element of the programme is a proposal to set up an agency to oversee the various computer systems the EU uses to share security information on visa applicants, travellers and criminal cases.

‘The advantage is that things will be handled more professionally than today: when you have these questions one at a time, sometimes it gets very expensive and it’s not professionally taken care of,’ Ask said.

That is particularly true of the EU’s programme to share complex data on people travelling within the Schengen border-free zone, known as SIS II, which is years overdue and millions of euros over budget.

The idea of creating an agency to oversee SIS II, the EU’s visa information system, VIS, and its database of fingerprints, Eurodac, has raised accusations that the bloc is trying to create a ‘Big Brother’ surveillance system.

But Ask rejected that fear, saying, ‘The thing is not that you want to collect a lot of information in one place, which is a danger, it’s how to govern and to secure different sorts of information.’

And Frieden stressed that European citizens should think about the kind of data held by private companies as well as the authorities.

‘People are giving a lot of information to private companies when they travel, when they shop, when they do other things: I think the abuses might come much more in that sector,’ he said.

The informal meeting, which was tasked with debating the broad outlines of the Stockholm Programme ahead of detailed discussions in the autumn, also analysed how EU citizens living outside their home country in another EU state could be given better access to legal services such as courtroom interpretation.

‘Suspects must be told about the case in their own language. You can’t have a situation where you arrest someone and he only understands the word ‘train station,” Zypries said.

Frieden called for standardized EU forms for documents such as birth and marriage certificates, to take into account the some 8 million EU citizens who now live, work and marry in other member states.

And EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot urged member states to use more use of modern technologies such as the internet and machine translation to make access easier for all EU citizens.

The language barrier ‘is a substantial problem, but we will have to be able to master it if we want people to be able to have access to justice,’ he said.

Ministers also called for an analysis of the way the EU-wide European Arrest Warrant is used, saying that some states were not using it enough.

‘Some countries don’t use it as often as others, so maybe they don’t have enough knowledge or routines,’ Ask said.

Justice and interior ministers are expected to finalize the Stockholm Programme by the end of the year.

Ask would not be drawn on the question of which issues would be most contentious, pointing out that ‘The devil is in the detail.’