The Meijers Committee on the “Money Laundering Directive”

ORIGINAL COMMENT PUBLISHED ON 12 MAY 2017 (*)

The Meijers Committee would like to comment on the European Commission’s proposal for a Directive on countering money laundering by criminal law.1

1. The Meijers Committee wishes to express its support for the idea of reviewing existing EU instruments in order to clarify obligations and achieve more coherence in the criminalisation of money laundering. However, the Meijers Committee considers that some elements of the Commission’s proposal deserve reconsideration in light of the principle of proportionality (article 5(4) TEU) and the ideas about criminalisation at EU level that the European Commission, the Council and the Parliament have expounded.2

The Meijers Committee holds that safeguards for suspects and defendants should be improved in the directive, inter alia because such harmonisation is important to enhance the effectiveness of cooperation between Member States.

2. The Meijers Committee deplores the fact that the Commission has not made an impact assessment of this proposal. The Commission reasons that the Directive mainly incorporates existing international obligations. Yet criminalisation of this behaviour at EU level, with its particular legal order, is more far-reaching than most existing international obligations. Moreover, as will be shown below, the proposal does go further than existing international obligations in some important aspects and it concerns a sensitive topic. Therefore, an impact assessment is necessary.

3. In the Commission’s proposal, the definition of criminal activity from which the property is derived (the ‘predicate offences’) has a wide scope. Whereas the Commission explains the necessity of the proposal mainly from the viewpoint of countering (financing of) terrorism, this is in reality only a small part of the proposal. Besides the list of EU-criminal offences, the proposal deals with ‘all offences as defined in the national law of the Member States, which are punishable by deprivation of liberty or a detention order for a maximum of more than one year or, as regards Member States that have a minimum threshold for offences in their legal system, all offences punishable by deprivation of liberty or a detention order for a minimum of more than six months’ (article 2(1 )(v)).

This may include possession of a small amount of property from a minor theft.

As the German delegation proposed, ‘a mandatory criminalisation of money laundering without any limitation to serious crimes could be disproportional’.3 Especially in purely national cases, which will be affected by the directive as well, having such a wide definition of the predicate offence may lead to unjustified outcomes. According to the Meijers Committee, this element of the proposal could be improved by including a requirement that Member States are only obliged to criminalise money laundering with regard to ‘particularly serious criminal activity’, which could include serious criminal activity with a cross-border element.

4. The Meijers Committee finds it questionable whether it is necessary and proportionate to oblige EU Member States to criminalise ‘self-laundering’ (article 3(3)), even though it should be welcomed that this offence only applies to conversion, transfer, concealment and disguise, and not to acquisition, possession or use. The Commission does not convincingly state why an EU-wide obligation to criminalise this behaviour, which is only optional in other instruments such as the Warsaw Convention, should be necessary to achieve the objective of the directive.

In many EU Member States, self-laundering is not criminalised because it is thought to lead to violations of the right not to be tried or punished twice for the same offence.4 The directive’s explanatory memorandum does refer to the ne bis in idem principle laid down in article 50 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights; however, this only applies to persons who have been finally acquitted or convicted and not to cases in which simultaneous prosecution takes place. Thus, the directive still leaves a gap in the protection for the defendant. Moreover, confiscation of the proceeds is already possible (see Directive 2014/42).

An option could be to limit the obligation to criminalise self-laundering to actions (of conversion, transfer, concealment and disguise) that cause further damage to the integrity of the financial system, in addition to the damage already caused by the predicate offence.

Another option could be to oblige states to limit the criminalisation of self-laundering (with regard to conversion, transfer, concealment or disguise) to situations where a person cannot be held criminally responsible for the predicate offence.

5. Even when there is no self-laundering involved, in some countries the prosecution of behaviour such as acquisition, possession or use of the property, when there is also a prosecution of the predicate offence, leads to problems of double jeopardy. As explained in par. 4, these problems cannot simply be solved by referring to article 50 of the Charter. It is exactly issues like these that, according to the Meijers Committee, necessitate an impact assessment of the proposal.

6. The Meijers Committee recommends putting in place more safeguards in relation to article 3(1), as these obligations potentially cover a wide range of conduct. There is a risk that states could use the money laundering offence as a ‘catch-all’ offence that also covers conduct which is not (or only very remotely) related to the rationale of protecting the integrity of the financial system. The Meijers Committee considers that this rationale of protecting the integrity of the financial system should be at the heart of the Directive, because that is what makes money laundering a serious crime and distinguishes it from other forms of assistance or encouragement of criminal conduct.

The latter forms should not be the subject of EU criminal law regulation, because the EU’s competences in article 83(1) TFEU are limited to particularly serious crime with a cross-border dimension.

This element could be improved by requiring that the conduct in article 3(1) – under a, b and c (not only under a) – is carried out with the purpose of concealing or disguising the illicit origin of the property. Also, the proposal would be improved if the offence definition would require that the conduct is suitable for concealing or disguising the illicit origin of the property. 7.

The Meijers Committee recommends amending article 3(2)(b), which states that it shall not be necessary to establish other circumstances relating to the criminal activity. If requirements with regard to establishing the predicate offence are too loose, Member States’ criminal law systems may focus on prosecuting for money laundering in order to evade the problems they may have in prosecuting the predicate offences. The wording proposed by the Council Presidency could provide a solution to this: ‘a conviction for the offences, referred to in paragraph 1 is possible where it is established that the property has been derived from a criminal activity, without it being necessary to establish all the factual elements relating to such activity’.5

(*) The Council has in the meantime agreed a new version of the text : see document 9280/17 on May 22, 2017 (however not directly accessible to the public)

NOTES

1 21 December 2016, COM(2016) 826 final.
2 Council Conclusions on model provisions, guiding the Council’s criminal law deliberations, 2979th JHA Council meeting, 30 November 2009; European Parliament, Resolution ‘An EU approach to criminal law’, 22 May 2012 (2010/2310(INI)); European Commission Communication ‘Towards an EU Criminal Policy: Ensuring the effective implementation of EU policies through criminal law’, 20 September 2011, (COM(2011)0573).
3 Council of the EU, Comments by delegations on the proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on countering money laundering by criminal law, 10 February 2017, 2016/0414 (COD), 15782/16, 6050/17.
4 Council of the EU, Comments by delegations on the proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on countering money laundering by criminal law, 10 February 2017, 2016/0414 (COD), 6050/17.
5 Examination of the proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on countering money laundering by criminal law, 9 February 2017, 2016/0414 (COD), 5443/17.

According to the CJEU the free trade agreement with Singapore cannot, in its current form, be concluded by the EU alone

The full text of the opinion is published on the CURIA website

(CJEU Press and Information)  Opinion 2/15 : The provisions of the agreement relating to non-direct foreign investment and those relating to dispute settlement between investors and States do not fall within the exclusive competence of the EU, so that the agreement cannot, as it stands, be concluded without the participation of the Member States

On 20 September 2013, the EU and Singapore initialled the text of a free trade agreement. The agreement is one of the first ‘new generation’ bilateral free trade agreements, that is to say, a trade agreement which contains, in addition to the classical provisions on the reduction of customs duties and of non-tariff barriers in the field of trade in goods and services, provisions on various matters related to trade, such as intellectual property protection, investment, public procurement, competition and sustainable development.

The Commission submitted a request to the Court of Justice for an opinion to determine whether the EU has exclusive competence enabling it to sign and conclude the envisaged agreement by itself. The Commission and the Parliament contend that that is the case. The Council and the governments of all the Member States which submitted observations to the Court1 assert that the EU cannot conclude the agreement by itself because certain parts of the agreement fall within a competence shared between the EU and the Member States, or even within the exclusive competence of the Member States.

In today’s opinion, the Court, after making it clear that the opinion relates only to the issue of whether the EU has exclusive competence and not to whether the content of the agreement is compatible with EU law, holds that the free trade agreement with Singapore cannot, in its current form, be concluded by the EU alone, because some of the provisions envisaged fall within competences shared between the EU and the Member States. It follows that the free trade agreement with Singapore can, as it stands, be concluded only by the EU and the Member States acting together.

In particular, the Court declares that the EU has exclusive competence so far as concerns the parts of the agreement relating to the following matters:

  • access to the EU market and the Singapore market so far as concerns goods and services (including all transport services)2 and in the fields of public procurement and of energy generation from sustainable non-fossil sources;
  • the provisions concerning protection of direct foreign investments of Singapore nationals in the EU (and vice versa);
  • the provisions concerning intellectual property rights;
  • the provisions designed to combat anti-competitive activity and to lay down a framework for concentrations, monopolies and subsidies;
  • the provisions concerning sustainable development (the Court finds that the objective of sustainable development now forms an integral part of the common commercial policy of the EU and that the envisaged agreement is intended to make liberalisation of trade between the EU and Singapore subject to the condition that the parties comply with their international obligations concerning social protection of workers and environmental protection);
  • the rules relating to exchange of information and to obligations governing notification, verification, cooperation, mediation, transparency and dispute settlement between the parties, unless those rules relate to the field of non-direct foreign investment (see below).

Ultimately, it is in respect of only two aspects of the agreement that, according to the Court, the EU is not endowed with exclusive competence, namely the field of non-direct foreign investment (‘portfolio’ investments made without any intention to influence the management and control of an undertaking) and the regime governing dispute settlement between investors and States.

In order for the EU to have exclusive competence in the field of non-direct foreign investment, conclusion of the agreement would have to be capable of affecting EU acts or altering their scope. As that is not the case, the Court concludes that the EU does not have exclusive competence. It has, on the other hand, a competence shared with the Member States.

That conclusion also extends to the rules relating to exchange of information, and to the obligations governing notification, verification, cooperation, mediation, transparency and dispute settlement, as regards non-direct foreign investment (see above). The regime governing dispute settlement between investors and States also falls within a competence shared between the EU and the Member States. Such a regime, which removes disputes from the jurisdiction of the courts of the Member States, cannot be established without the Member States consent.

It follows that the free trade agreement can, as it stands, only be concluded by the EU and the Member States jointly.

NOTES

1 Written observations were lodged by all the Member States with the exception of Belgium, Croatia, Estonia and Sweden. Belgium nevertheless appeared at the hearing and made oral observations.

2 Whether it be maritime transport, rail transport or road transport, the Court holds that the commitments contained in the envisaged agreement that relate to transport services may affect EU regulations or alter their scope, so that, in accordance with Article 3(2) TFEU, the European Union has exclusive competence to approve those commitments.

NOTE: A Member State, the European Parliament, the Council or the Commission may obtain the opinion of the Court of Justice as to whether an agreement envisaged is compatible with the Treaties or as to competence to conclude that agreement. Where the opinion of the Court is adverse, the agreement envisaged may not enter into force unless it is amended or the Treaties are revised.

Unofficial document for media use, not binding on the Court of Justice.

 

Worth reading : the final report by the EU High Level Expert Group on Information Systems and Interoperability (HLEG),

NB: The full version (PDF)  of the Report is accessible HERE

On May 8th the (EU) High Level Expert Group on Information Systems and Interoperability (HLEG) which was set up in June 2016 following the Commission Communication on “Stronger and Smarter Information Systems for Borders and Security ” has published its long awaited 56 long pages Report on Information Systems and Interoperability.

Members of the HLEG were the EU Members States (+ Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein), the EU Agencies (Fundamental Rights Agency, FRONTEX, European Asylum Support Office, Europol and the EU-LISA “Large Information Support Agency”) as well as the representatives of the Commission and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and the Anti-Terrorism Coordinator (an High Council General Secretariat Official designated by the European Council).

Three Statements, respectively of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, of the European Data Protection Supervisor and of the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator (CTC),  are attached. The first two can be considered as a sort of partially dissenting Opinions while the CTC  statement is quite obviously in full support of the recommendations set out by the report as it embodies for the first time at EU level the “Availability Principle” which was set up already in 2004 by the European Council. According to that principle if a Member State (or the EU) has a security related information which can be useful to another Member State it has to make it available to the authority of another Member State. It looks as a common sense principle which goes hand in hand with the principle of sincere cooperation between EU Member States and between them and the EU Institutions.

The little detail is that when information is collected for security purposes national and European legislation set very strict criteria to avoid the possible abuses by public EU and National Law enforcement authorities. This is the core of Data Protection legislation and of the art. 6, 7 and 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights which prevent the EU and its Member States from becoming a sort of Big Brother “State of surveillance”. Moreover, at least until now these principles have guided the post-Lisbon European Court of Justice jurisprudence in this domain and it is quite appalling that no reference is made in this report to the Luxembourg Court Rulings notably dealing with “profiling” and “data retention”(“Digital Rights”, “Schrems”, “TELE 2-Watson”…).

Needless to say to implement all the HLWG recommendations several legislative measures will be needed as well as the definition of a legally EU Security Strategy which should be adopted under the responsibility of the EU co-legislators. Without a strong legally founded EU security strategy not only the European Parliament will continue to be out of the game but also the control of the Court of Justice on the necessity and  proportionality of the existing and planned EU legislative measures will be weakened.  Overall this HLWG report is mainly focused on security related objectives and the references to fundamental rights and data protection are given more as “excusatio non petita” than as a clearly explained reasoning (see the Fundamental Rights Agency Statement). On the Content of the  perceived “threats” to be countered with this new approach it has to be seen if some of them (such as the mixing irregular migration with terrorism)  are not imaginary and, by the countrary, real ones are not taken in account.

At least this report is now public. It will be naive to consider it as purely “technical” : it is highly political and will justify several EU legislative measures. It will be worthless for the European Parliament to wake up when the formal legislative proposals will be submitted. If it has an alternative vision it has to show it NOW and not waiting when the Report will be quite likely “endorsed” by the Council and the European Council.

Emilio De Capitani

TEXT OF THE REPORT (NB  Figures have not been currently imported, sorry.)

——- Continue reading

Think of the children: the ECJ clarifies the status of non-EU parents of EU citizen children living in their own Member State

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON EU LAW ANALYSIS

Professor Steve Peers

What immigration rights do non-EU citizens have under EU law? There are three main areas of EU law that address this issue: EU immigration and asylum law; EU treaties with non-EU countries; and EU free movement law. The latter area of law is focussed on EU citizens’ right to move between Member States, and so only covers non-EU citizens if they are family members of EU citizens who have moved to another Member State. Those rules also apply by analogy where an EU citizen with a non-EU family member has moved to another Member State, then moved back to that citizen’s home Member State. (These are known as Surinder Singh cases: see this discussion of the ECJ’s most recent ruling on such cases, from 2014).

But what if an EU citizen has a non-EU family member, but has never moved to another Member State? Such cases fall outside the scope of EU free movement law. They will therefore in principle fall solely within the scope of national law, unless either EU immigration and asylum law or EU treaties with non-EU countries apply (they usually will not). But in a limited number of cases, there is a fourth category of EU law which might apply to them: EU citizenship law.

This principle was first set out in the 2011 judgment in Ruiz Zambrano, which concerned Belgian children living in Belgium with two non-EU parents. The ECJ ruled that expelling the non-EU parents would in effect would result in the departure of the children from the EU, thereby risking the ‘genuine enjoyment of the substance’ of those children’s EU citizenship rights.

Subsequent ECJ case law (discussed here) made clear that this principle is apparently restricted to the non-EU parents of EU citizen children living in their home State. Cases very similar to Zambrano – two non-EU parents of an EU child – are rare, because Member States now rarely, if ever, confer nationality upon children simply because they are born on the territory. However, there are rather more cases where: a) a home-State EU citizen marries a non-EU citizen, b) their child gets home-State citizenship because one of her parents is a home-State citizen; and c) the parents’ relationship ends.

In those cases, Ruiz Zambrano still potentially applies, as long as the non-EU parent is the ‘primary carer’ for the home-State EU citizen child. In that case, removing this parent to a non-EU country would in effect force the EU citizen child to leave the EU as well.  But when exactly does the ‘primary carer’ test apply? The ECJ clarified this issue in today’s important judgment in Chavez-Vilchez and others.

Judgment

Chavez-Vilchez and others concerned a number of non-EU parents of Dutch children in the Netherlands, who sought to argue that they were primary carers of those children, and so entitled to residence in accordance with the Ruiz Zambrano judgment. The Dutch government argued that they could not automatically be considered primary carers if it was possible for the other parent, ie the Dutch citizen, to take care of the children:

…the mere fact that a third-country national parent undertakes the day-to–day care of the child and is the person on whom that child is in fact dependent, legally, financially or emotionally, even in part, does not permit the automatic conclusion that a child who is a Union citizen would be compelled to leave the territory of the European Union if a right of residence were refused to that third-country national. The presence, in the territory of the Member State of which that child is a national or in the territory of the Union, as a whole, of the other parent, who is himself a Union citizen and is capable of caring for the child, is, according to the Netherlands Government, a significant factor in that assessment (para 66)

While the Court of Justice agreed that the non-EU parents could not automatically be considered as primary carers where the home state EU citizen child was dependent upon them, the Court’s approach was more open. It began by restating prior case law: the key issue was ‘who has custody of the child and whether that child is legally, financially or emotionally dependent on the third-country national parent’ (para 68). It then reiterated, following Zambrano, that dependency was particularly significant (para 69). Then it added new detail on how to assess dependency:

…it is important to determine, in each case at issue in the main proceedings, which parent is the primary carer of the child and whether there is in fact a relationship of dependency between the child and the third-country national parent. As part of that assessment, the competent authorities must take account of the right to respect for family life, as stated in Article 7 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, that article requiring to be read in conjunction with the obligation to take into consideration the best interests of the child, recognised in Article 24(2) of that charter (para 70).

For the purposes of such an assessment, the fact that the other parent, a Union citizen, is actually able and willing to assume sole responsibility for the primary day-to-day care of the child is a relevant factor, but it is not in itself a sufficient ground for a conclusion that there is not, between the third-country national parent and the child, such a relationship of dependency that the child would be compelled to leave the territory of the European Union if a right of residence were refused to that third-country national. In reaching such a conclusion, account must be taken, in the best interests of the child concerned, of all the specific circumstances, including the age of the child, the child’s physical and emotional development, the extent of his emotional ties both to the Union citizen parent and to the third-country national parent, and the risks which separation from the latter might entail for that child’s equilibrium. (para 71; emphases added)

The Court went on to answer questions from the national court about the burden of proof in Zambrano cases, which were connected with the substantive test to be applied. The Dutch government had argued:

…the burden of proof of the existence of a right of residence under Article 20 TFEU lies on the applicants in the main proceedings. It is for them to demonstrate that, because of objective impediments that prevent the Union citizen parent from actually caring for the child, the child is dependent on the third-country national parent to such an extent that the consequence of refusing to grant that third-country national a right of residence would be that the child would be obliged, in practice, to leave the territory of the European Union (para 74).

Although the ECJ accepted that the burden of proof lay upon the non-EU parent (para 75), it also ruled that national authorities ‘must ensure that the application of national legislation on the burden of proof’ in such cases ‘does not undermine the effectiveness’ of EU citizenship rights (para 76). This meant that the authorities had to make ‘the necessary inquiries’ to find out where the EU citizen parent lived, ‘whether that parent is, or is not, actually able and willing to assume sole responsibility for the primary day-to-day care of the child’ and whether the EU citizen child was dependent upon the non-EU parent (para 77).

In effect, the Court ruled that while the non-EU citizen must make a prima facie case, national authorities share some of the burden to investigate some aspects of the case. Again, the substantive test applicable is less stringent than urged by the Dutch government.

Comments

Today’s judgment clarified a number of issues relating to Zambrano cases, following on from last year’s judgments in CS and Rendón Marín (discussed here) which clarified when non-EU Zambrano parents could be expelled for public policy reasons. While the 2016 judgments referred to the child’s best interests, age, situation and dependency (referring to case law of the European Court of Human Rights), today’s judgment also refers to ‘physical and emotional development’, ‘emotional ties’ to both parents, and the effect of separation on the child. All of these are factors relating to the child, not to the non-EU parent; but all of them nevertheless concern the child’s links with that parent.

The Dutch government’s desired focus on the capability of the EU citizen parent takes a back seat to the child’s best interests, as further elaborated by the Court. This will protect more non-EU parents, but in a differential way. Oddly, the Court’s case law does not take express account of situations of joint custody, or the more general argument that the child’s best interest will usually be to maintain strong relationships with bothparents (assuming they are not negligent or abusive).

Could it also be argued that the requirement of always seeking to identify a ‘primary carer’ is problematic from the point of view of gender equality?  Due to the division of labour relating to child care in practice, the Court’s rulings would classify more non-EU mothers than non-EU fathers as ‘Zambrano carers’; but the expulsion of those fathers will only increase the childcare demands on the EU citizen mother who remains, as well as disrupt the child’s right to maintain a relationship with his father. Of course, the presence of the parent who looks after a child day-to-day is essential; but children love the parent who kicks the ball as well as the parent who cooks the meal.

The procedural aspects of the Court’s judgment are interesting, but raise further questions: is there a right to appeal, to a decision within a reasonable time, to a lawyer, to legal aid? In last year’s judgments, the Court of Justice referred to concepts from EU free movement law and its relevant case law when discussing the substantive test for expelling Zambrano carers; but it made no such cross-references today. The long-term immigration status of the parent is also an open question, although Zambrano noted that there should be access to employment to make the residence rights of the parent effective.

Finally, a Brexit point: the draft EU position for negotiating acquired rights does not appear to cover Zambrano carers. From a technical point of view, this is logical because the case law concerns (from the UK’s perspective) non-EU parents of UK citizens who have not moved within the EU. So no free movement rights have been acquired; we are rather talking of EU citizenship rights which will necessarily be lost when the UK ceases to be a Member State, since citizenship of the EU is defined as deriving from the nationality of a Member State. But from a human point of view, any deterioration in legal status could damage or even shatter the family lives of the children concerned. Zambrano carers should therefore be protected ideally in the Brexit talks, or failing that by the UK unilaterally.

See also further reading on UK Zambrano case law by Charlotte O’Brien and Desmond Rutledge

Legislative Tracker : the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS)

by Beatrice FRAGASSO (Free-Group Trainee)

The European Commission, on 16 November 2016, has put forward a proposal (COM(2016) 731, 16.11.2016, 2016/0357(COD)) establishing a European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) and amending Regulation (EU) (EU) 2016/399 (the ‘Schengen Borders Code’), (EU) 2016/794 and (EU) 2016/1624.

This proposal is being negotiated as part of the Smart Border Package and aims to ensure a high level of internal security and free movement of persons in the Schengen area. The Commission didn’t conduct an impact assessment but published a feasibility study on ETIAS, conducted between June and October 2016.

The system designed by the proposal would require also visa-exempt travellers to undergo a risk assessment with respect to security, irregular migration and public health risks prior to their arrival at the Schengen borders. This assessment would be carried out by means of cross- checking applicant’s data submitted through ETIAS system against other EU information systems, a dedicated ETIAS watch list and screening rules. This process will result in granting or denying an automated authorization for entering the EU.

Further information from the European Parliament Research Service are available HERE

The current situation
Currently, both visa-obliged and visa-exempt travelers are subject to border controls when entering the Schengen area. According to Regulation (EU) 2016/399, both categories of travelers need to comply with the conditions for short-term stay, which include not being a threat to public order and security, holding valid travel documents, justifying the purpose and conditions of the intended stay, not being the subject of any alert in the SIS for the purpose of refusing entry, and having sufficient means of subsistence.

For visa holders the compliance with this conditions is assessed at the time on the request for a visa  and relevant data are stored in visa information system (VIS) which can be consulted by law enforcement authorities for the purposes of combatting serious crime and terrorism.

However, no such advance information can be currently obtained for visa-exempt nationals arriving at the Schengen external borders. This means that border guards need to decide on allowing or refusing access to the Schengen area without prior knowledge regarding any security, migration or public-health risks associated with visa exempt travelers.

This is particularly true for visa-exempt travelers arriving by land, as the only source of information about them is their travel document presented at the time of crossing the EU external border.

The situation is different for passengers arriving by air as Council Directive 2004/82/EC obliges carriers to communicate all passenger data, known as ‘advance passenger information’ (API), including name, date of birth, passport number and nationality at the time of the check-in for inbound flights to the EU. Another Directive (EU) 2016/681 on the use of passenger name record data (the ‘PNR Directive’) collect 19 types of personal data already at the time of the flight reservation and obliges airlines to hand over to EU MS authorities their passengers’ data linked with the travel reservation (which includes travel dates, travel itinerary, ticket information, frequent flyer data,  contact details, baggage information, credit card and general remarks stored in the Airline files).

For visa-exempt passengers arriving on foot or by car, bus or train, no such comparable advance information is available prior to their arrival.

The changes the proposal would bring

Schengen Border Checks
Prior to arriving in the Schengen area, all carriers will verify if visa-exempt third-country nationals have a valid ETIAS travel authorization, without which boarding will not be authorized. A valid ETIAS travel authorization, should be obtained in advance of arrival at a Schengen border crossing point, and this will be a precondition for entering the Schengen area. However, border guards at the external Schengen borders will still take the final decision to grant or refuse entry according to the Schengen Borders Code.

Online application
As it is currently the case for visa-exempt travelers to Canada “ETA”,  USA “ESTA”  and Australia “ETA” who have to ask for a travel authorization also travelers wanting enter the Schengen area will have to fill in an online application by providing their biographical and passport data, contact details, information on intended travel, and answers to background questions relating to public health risks, criminal records, presence in war zones and previous refusals of entry or an order to leave the territory of a Member State.

At the same time, an application fee of €5, which will go to the EU budget, will be mandatory for all applicants above the age of 18 before their application can be processed.

Processing of applications
The automated processing will be carried out by the central system, which will be in charge of checking data provided by applicants against security databases, such as the VIS, Europol data, the SIS, Eurodac, the  Interpol SLTD database , the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS) and the planned future EU “Entry-Exit” system (currently negotiated between the EP and the Council). Personal Data will also be screened against a ETIAS “watch list” (where people suspected to have committed, or be likely to commit a criminal offence will be listed by the EU MS) and against specific risk indicators (irregular migration, security or public- health risks) which will be defined in consultation with an ETIAS screening board.

In the case of a positive hit after the automatic processing, that personal application will be further assessed manually by operators in the ETIAS central unit and in the national units.
In case no risks has been detected a positive response, in a form of a travel authorisation valid for five years (or until the expiry of the passport) will be delivered. In the case of a refusal, a justification will be given and applicants will have the right to appeal.

Authorisation will be revoked or annulled when the conditions for its issuance are no longer met, particularly when it is believed that it was fraudulently obtained or when a new alert for refusal of entry is created in the SIS.

Etias structure
ETIAS will consist of an information system, a central unit and national units.

The information system will be designed for processing applications and will be interoperable with other security databases that ETIAS will be connected. The new system will be managed by the European Agency for the operational management of large-scale information systems in the area of freedom, security and justice (eu-LISA).

The central unit will be part of Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) and will ensure that the data stored in the application files and the data recorded in ETIAS are correct and up to date. Where necessary, it will also verify travel authorisation applications whenever there are doubts regarding the identity of an applicant in cases where the latter’s data produced a match (a ‘hit’) against the stored data during automated processing.
The national units will be responsible for making the risk assessment and deciding on travel authorisation for applications rejected by the automated application process. They will also issue opinions when consulted by other national units, and act as a national access point for requests for access to the ETIAS data for law enforcement purposes related to terrorist and other serious criminal offences.

The role of Europol
Europol will be involved in ETIAS in several ways.
Firstly, Europol’s data related to criminal offences, convictions or potential threats will be compared to those provided by applicants for an ETIAS authorization.
Secondly, Europol will help define ETIAS screening rules by participating in the ETIAS screening board and managing the ETIAS watch list.
Thirdly, Europol will be consulted by the ETIAS national units in case of a match with Europol data during the ETIAS automated processing.
And finally, Europol will be able to consult personal data in the ETIAS central system for the prevention, detection or investigation of terrorist offences or other serious criminal offences (as provided by its mandate).

The Council’s position
In a  document om March 17, 2017 authored  by the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the EU and covering also the other legislative pending measures connected to ETIAS, a number of compromises are suggested: The Presidency identified other key issues that needed to be clarified and decided upon before revised text proposals could be submitted to delegations. The Presidency therefore prepared a discussion paper on which delegations were invited to comment. The issues outlined by the Presidency related to the division of competences between Frontex and the Member States, the definition of ‘responsible Member State’ as regards the decision to grant a travel authorisation, and the duration of a travel authorization […] With respect to the definition of the ‘responsible Member State’, delegations were divided into two groups, one in favour of the Member State of first entry, as proposed by the Commission, while the other stressed the key role played by the Member State at the origin of an alert triggering a “hit”. The following issues are the “object of extensive debates”:

“– the scope of the regulation;
– the ETIAS watchlist and the screening rules;
– the access to the ETIAS data;
– the interoperability of ETIAS with other systems and databases.”

More recently the Council Presidency has also submitted some possible compromise proposals to the other delegations (docs 8579/17 and 8584/17) and it is more than likely that the EP will be under pressure to launch the negotiations for a first reading agreement on this subject.

The European Parliament position (Libe Committee Debate)
On the EP side works are still at an initial phase (SEE OEIL DOSSIER HERE). The LIBE Committee has been informed for the first time by a Commission representative (Belinda Pyke) on 22 March 2017. It has been stressed that the purpose of the proposal is to improve internal security and border management and that policy visa liberalization is essential in the system. This proposal will contribute to the security of the Schengen area because as any risks will be identified prior to departure. Due to the political pressure of the European Council and the  very tight deadlines the Commission did not have the time to conduct an impact assessment although it would have been desirable; however, the Commission published a detailed study on the subject. The Commission representative made reference to the comparable systems in  Australia, Canada and USA and declared that the ETIAS system will take stock of the experience of these countries by overcoming their weaknesses and mirroring the strengths of these systems.
Firstly, request authorization will be easy and cheap. Applicants will receive rapidly (within 12 hours) a positive feedback and those without authorization will save travel costs. The ETIAS system provides an automatic control: such control will allow to verify that the criminal record is clean. These checks will take place on the basis of SIS, Interpol, ECRIS, Eurodac.
The ETIAS central unit will compare the data in the database and the identity of the applicant and the rest of the operations will be managed by the national units.
The decision of the unit will be delivered within 72 hours, unless it will be necessary to gather special information (in this case it will be possible an extension to a two-week maximum).
ETIAS will be financially self-sustaining, thanks to the tax that will be paid by applicants. It is estimated that the costs for developing it will amount to €212.1 million, while the average annual operations costs, to be covered by the revenue from fees, will be €85 million.
The data will be protected from abuse and the information may be given to law enforcement only in the case of very serious crimes (this possibility also exist for Eurodac).

The EP rapporteur Kinga Gal (PPE – Hungary) was not present at the debate, but a colleague read her statement. The rapporteur argues that the text is of great importance and it will cover three categories of passengers
1) European Citizens or persons enjoying the right of free movement under Union law
2) Third-country nationals under visa obligation
3) Third-country nationals without visa obligation
From now until 2020 the countries without visa obligation will increase. For third-country nationals without visa obligation it’s difficult to gather information; it’s therefore necessary to create an information system well established in legal terms, so as not to put excessive burdens for Member States.

The debate that followed, however, showed controversial elements in the proposal, criticized by MEPs.
Firstly, almost all the MEPs who spoke remarked the necessity of an impact assessment, finding it unacceptable yet another lack of it. An issue of such importance can not be studied without taking into account an impact assessment: the urgency can not justify such a lack.

Birgit Sippel (S&D – Germany), for instance, affirmed that she’s tired to listen to the Commission affirming that it’s necessary to adopt better legislation and that impact assessments are not conducted anymore because of urgency. EU needs to regulate well, not in a hurry: this rush to legislate, then, does not make sense if the execution by the Member States is so slow. She also remarked that one of the problems in this proposal is that the form requires a bit of everything and there is the risk that if an applicant forgets a small offense did at 15 years old he cannot enter.

The shadow rapporteur Gérard Deprez (ALDE – Belgium) wondered what professional criteria will be provided for ETIAS units and how it will be possible to apply Article 7 of the Schengen Code, because compulsory systematic checks for everybody (as provided in that Article) would have a significant impact on traffic at the border. Deprez considered that the term of 72 hours is reasonable whereas he considers excessive the term of validity of five years, because in the course of five years many things can change in a person’s life. Also foreign experiences in fact suggest different solutions: in US visa is valid for one year and in Australia for two years. Also with regard to rates, Deprez is at odds with the proposal: 5 euro is a low price if compared to the prices of US (14 euro) and Australia (20 euro). According to Deprez, then, in the request the applicant should indicate the member state where he would like to go. The proposal, in addiction, should define a better balancing of criminal convictions. For example, prison sentences of less than one year should not be an obstacle to the granting of authorization.

It may also emerge a serious problem for air traffic. It is estimated that for a plane carrying 300 people controls may last from four hours and a half to seven hours and a half. The controls are certainly a necessary corollary for visa liberalization, but the parliament should find more efficient solutions.

On behalf of DG HOME of the European Commission Mrs Belinda Pike replied that the validity of five years would be reasonable. Of course it is noted that in the case in which the person commits an offense such information is immediately acquired in the system. Contrary to what Deprez stated, then, the cost is not too low, but it’s instead sufficient to ensure the smart management of borders. It is a fee that will cover the costs and ensures a small gain. In the US half of the fee (therefore, 7 euros) is invested in the tourism sector. Do not pay anything on the other hand would be a huge burden on the EU budget.

Belinda Pike finally stressed that the screening does not immediately lead to the rejection of the request, but simply involves manual handling of the request.

Marie – Christine Vergiat (GUE/NGL – France) and Bodil Valero (Greens/EFA – Sweden) highlighted that visas are returned, albeit with a different name (authorization). According to Marie – Christine Vergiat, then, this proposal does not promote cooperation between member states, it is repressive and attacks the fundamental rights, like others in this area of “smart” borders. Security and immigration are matters to be addressed in different texts, because adhere to different problems. The fact that some people should be identified through a profiling system also raises an ethical problem.

Bodil Valero remarked the privacy-issue. People will also provide information on education and health and Greens/Efa group would like to receive explanations about what is the reason for these provisions: perhaps the Commission’s intention is to gather information that cannot be collected in other ways. Furthermore, the 5-year period envisaged for data stocking is too long. She underlined that also the EDPS (European Data Protection Supervisor) has taken a fairly critical position on some of the elements of the proposal.
In his opinion, in fact, the EDPS states, among other things, that the establishment of ETIAS would have a significant impact on the right to the protection of personal data, since various kinds of data, collected initially for very different purposes, will become accessible to a broader range of public authorities (i.e. immigration authorities, border guards, law enforcement authorities, etc). For this reason, the EDPS considers that there is a need for conducting an assessment of the impact that the Proposal will entail on the right to privacy and the right to data protection enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which will take stock of all existing EU-level measures for migration and security objectives.

Last but not least, during a TRAN (transport and tourism) committee on Wednesday 22 March, different speakers representing the tourist sector expressed concerns about the costs generated by the ETIAS in the tourism sector. However, the TRAN Committee decided not to give an opinion to LIBE.

NEXT STEPS

As soon as the two co-legislators will have defined their position a trilogue  could be launched which can bring to an agreement on first reading. As things currently stay an agreement will probably go hand in hand with the other “ENTRY/EXIT” legislative proposal.

 

Immigration detention and the rule of law: the ECJ’s first ruling on detaining asylum-seekers in the Dublin system

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON EU LAW ANALYSIS (May 5,2017)

by Tommaso Poli (LL.M. candidate in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the University of Essex, School of Law).

One of the most controversial issues in immigration law is the detention of asylum-seekers. This issue was not initially addressed by the European Common Asylum System (CEAS), but is now addressed in some of the second-phase CEAS measures (the CEAS consists of the Asylum Procedures Directive, the Reception Conditions Directive, the Qualification Directive, the Dublin Regulation and the EURODAC Regulation).

In particular, the second-phase CEAS measures contain detailed rules on detaining asylum-seekers in two cases:  a) general rules in the Reception Conditions Directive, which were the subject of a first ECJ ruling in 2016 (discussed here) and a recent opinion of an Advocate-General; and b) more specific rules in the Dublin III Regulation, applying to asylum-seekers whose application is considered to be the responsibility of another Member State under those rules. Recently, the ECJ ruled for the first time on the interpretation of the latter provisions, in its judgment in the Al Chodor case.

As we will see, the Court took a strong view of the need for the rule of law to apply in detention cases. Moreover, its ruling is potentially relevant not just to Dublin cases, but also detention of asylum-seekers and irregular migrants in other contexts too.

The rules on detaining asylum-seekers in the context of the Dublin process are set out in Article 28 of the Dublin III Regulation. First of all, Article 28(1) states that asylum seekers can’t be detained purely because they are subject to the Dublin process. Then Article 28(2) sets out the sole ground for detention: when there is a ‘significant risk of absconding’. If that is the case ‘Member States may detain the person concerned in order to secure transfer procedures in accordance with’ the Dublin rules, ‘on the basis of an individual assessment and only in so far as detention is proportional and other less coercive alternative measures cannot be applied effectively’.

Next, Article 28(3) sets out detailed rules on time limits for ‘Dublin detention’; these are the subject of the pending Khir Amayry case. Finally, Article 28(4) states that the general rules on guarantees relating to procedural rights and detention conditions set out in the Reception Conditions Directive apply to asylum-seekers detained under the Dublin rules.

Al Chodor concerned the interpretation of the grounds for detention under Article 28(2): what is a ‘serious risk of absconding’?  The Dublin III Regulation offers some limited clarity, defining ‘risk of absconding’ as ‘the existence of reasons in an individual case, which are based on objective criteria defined by law, to believe that an applicant or a third country national or a stateless person who is subject to a transfer procedure may abscond.’ (Article 2(n) of the Regulation).

Facts

The case relates to an Iraqi man and his two minor children who were traveling from Hungary in the Czech Republic, without any documentation to establish their identity, with the aim of joining family members in Germany. After stopping the Al Chodors, the Czech Foreigners Police Section (FPS) consulted the Eurodac database and found that they had made an asylum application in Hungary. As a consequence, the Al Chodors were subjected to the transfer procedure according to Article 18(1)(b) of the Dublin III Regulation. In addition, the FPS took the view that there was a ‘serious risk of absconding’, given that the Al Chodors had neither a residence permit nor accommodation in the Czech Republic, while they were waiting for their transfer to Hungary.

So, they placed the Al Chodors in detention for 30 days pending their transfer pursuant to Paragraph 129(1) of the national law on the residence of foreign nationals, read in conjunction with Article 28(2) of the Dublin III Regulation. The Al Chodors brought an action against the decision ordering their detention to the regional Court, which annulled that decision, finding that Czech legislation does not lay down objective criteria for the assessment of the risk of absconding within the meaning of Article 2(n) of the Dublin III Regulation. That Court accordingly ruled that the decision was unlawful. Following the annulment of the decision of the FPS, the Al Chodors were released from custody.

The FPS brought an appeal on a point of law before the Supreme Administrative Court against the decision of the Regional Court. According to the FPS, the inapplicability of Article 28(2) of the Dublin III Regulation cannot be justified by the mere absence in Czech legislation of objective criteria defining the risk of absconding. That provision subjects the assessment of the risk of absconding to three conditions, namely an individual assessment taking account of the circumstances of the case, the proportionality of the detention, and the impossibility of employing a less coercive measure. The FPS has submitted that it satisfied those conditions.

The Supreme Administrative Court was uncertain whether the recognition by its settled case-law of objective criteria on the basis of which the detention of persons pursuant to Paragraph 129 of the Law on the residence of foreign nationals may be carried out can meet the requirement of a definition ‘by law’ within the meaning of Article 2(n) of the Dublin III Regulation, in so far as that case-law confirms a consistent administrative practice of the FPS which is characterised by the absence of arbitrary elements, and by predictability and an individual assessment in each case. So the Court decided to refer to the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling asking whether Article 2(n) and Article 28(2) of the Dublin III Regulation, read in conjunction, must be interpreted as requiring Member States to establish, in a national law, objective criteria underlying the reasons for believing that an applicant for international protection who is subject to a transfer procedure may abscond, and whether the absence of those criteria in a national law leads to the inapplicability of Article 28(2) of that regulation.

Judgment

The Court of Justice first of all ruled that Article 2(n) of the Dublin III Regulation explicitly requires that objective criteria defining the existence of a risk of absconding be defined by the national law of each Member State (paragraph 27-28). Then, determining whether the word ‘law’ must be understood as including settled case-law, the Court reaffirmed that in interpreting a provision of EU law, it is necessary to consider not only its wording but also the context in which it occurs and the objectives pursued by the rules of which it forms part (judgment of 26 May 2016, Envirotec Denmark, paragraph 27).

So with regard to the general scheme of the rules of which Article 2(n) of Dublin III Regulation forms part, the Court, referring to recital 9 of that regulation, states that the regulation is intended to make necessary improvements, in the light of experience, not only to the effectiveness of the Dublin system but also to the protection of fundamental rights afforded to applicants under that system. This high level of protection is also clear from Articles 28 and 2(n) of that regulation, read in conjunction. As regards the objective pursued by Article 2(n) of the Dublin III Regulation, read in conjunction with Article 28(2) thereof, the Court recalls that, by authorizing the detention of an applicant in order to secure transfer procedures pursuant to that regulation where there is a significant risk of absconding, those provisions provide for a limitation on the exercise of the fundamental right to liberty enshrined in Article 6 of the Charter.

In that regard, it is clear from Article 52(1) of the Charter that any limitation on the exercise of that right must be provided for by law and must respect the essence of that right and be subject to the principle of proportionality. Furthermore, it is worth noting that in this ruling the European Court of Justice explicitly aligns its interpretation to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), reaffirming that any deprivation of liberty must be lawful not only in the sense that it must have a legal basis in national law, but also that lawfulness concerns the quality of the law and implies that a national law authorizing the deprivation of liberty must be sufficiently accessible, precise and foreseeable in its application in order to avoid risk of arbitrariness (judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 21 October 2013, Del Río Prada v Spain, paragraph 125).

The Court then concluded by stating that taking account of the purpose of the provisions concerned, and in the light of the high level of protection which follows from their context, only a provision of general application could meet the requirement of clarity, predictability, accessibility and, in particular, protection against arbitrariness. It follows that Article 2(n) and Article 28(2) of the Dublin III Regulation, read in conjunction, must be interpreted as requiring that the objective criteria underlying the reasons for believing that an applicant may abscond must be established in a binding provision of general application. In the absence of such criteria, the detention was unlawful.

Comments

First of all, the Court’s ruling is likely relevant to the interpretation of other EU measures concerning immigration detention. In the Returns Directive, which inter alia concerns the detention of irregular migrants (as distinct from asylum seekers), the ‘risk of absconding’ forms part of the ground for detention (as well as one of the grounds for refusing to allow the irregular migrant a period for voluntary departure); and it is defined exactly the same way as in the Dublin III Regulation. As for asylum seekers who are detained on grounds other than the Dublin process, a ‘risk of absconding’ is an element of one of the grounds for detention under the Reception Conditions Directive, but is not further defined. But a recent Advocate-General’s opinion notes (at para 73) that this clause aims to prevent ‘arbitrary’ detention, which was a key feature of the reasoning in the Al Chodor judgment. This surely points to a consistent interpretation of the two asylum laws. It follows that arguably the Court’s judgment should be relevant not just to Dublin cases but to any immigration detention of non-EU citizens in any Member State bound by the relevant EU legislation.

Secondly, this ruling has reiterated the principle by which although regulations generally have immediate effect in national legal systems without it being necessary for the national authorities to adopt measures of application, some of those provisions may necessitate, for their implementation, the adoption of measures of applicability by the Member States (judgment of 14 April 2011, Vlaamse Dierenartsenvereniging and Janssens, paragraphs 47 and 48).

Most significantly, the Court has reaffirmed the primacy of Human Rights law in EU asylum law implementation, highlighting that the development of the EU asylum law itself depends on its compliance with Human Rights law. In particular, the ECJ’s ruling in this case first of all reflects the ECtHR’s interpretation of the ‘arbitrariness’ of detention, which extends beyond the lack of conformity with national law. Notably, it states that a deprivation of liberty that is lawful under domestic law can still be arbitrary and thus contrary to the general principles, stated explicitly or implied, in the Convention (judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 9 July 2009, Mooren v. Germany, paragraphs 73-77).

The Court’s ruling also reflects UN human rights norms. The Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 31 related to the nature of the general legal obligation imposed on State parties to the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which all EU Member States are State parties to, which reads that ‘in no case may the restrictions be applied or invoked in a manner that would impair the essence of a Covenant right’ (paragraph 4). Furthermore, the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 35 points out that “arbitrariness is not to be equated with ‘against the law’, but must be interpreted more broadly to include elements of inappropriateness, injustice, lack of predictability and due process of law, as well as elements of reasonableness, necessity and proportionality” (paragraph 12, see also HRC, Van Alphen v. Netherlands, paragraph 5.8).

Finally, the Court’s ruling has confirmed the constitutional value of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which assumes a critical value in this historical period, since, as with any constitutional instrument, the more society as a whole is going through difficult times (such as the perceived ‘migration crisis’ in Europe), the more important it is to reaffirm its principles and values.

Likewise Article 52 of the EU Charter states that in no case may restrictions be applied or invoked in a manner that would impair the essence of a Charter right; in the context of detention, a fortiori it can be also affirmed that essential elements of guarantee for that right, as the requirement of lawfulness and non-arbitrariness for the right of liberty, cannot be disregarded in any circumstance. The Al Chodor ruling puts meat on the bones of that fundamental principle.

Parliamentary Tracker : Rule of law in Hungary (LIBE hearing on February 27,2017)

by Luigi LIMONE (FREE Group Trainee)

This BLOG has already published or reblogged  several posts on the worrying situation of fundamental rights and rule of law principle in Hungary. The most recent tense debate of the European Parliament on this issue took place in the presence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor ORBAN in Strasbourg on April 27. It has been widely relayed by the press (See the video stream here ) and rumors on the possible expulsion of the Fidesz party from the EPP political family have not been confirmed by the facts.

However also the LIBE committee which is in charge of protection of fundamental rights and values follows closely since several years the situation in Hungary and its last hearing on the subject took place on February 27,2017. (see below)

 

Hearing on “The situation of fundamental rights in Hungary”      (27 February 2017)

In June 2016, Hungary’s President János Áder signed into law a package of draconian counter-terrorism measures, including a “sixth amendment” to the Constitution and amendments to laws governing the police, national security services and defence forces. The aim was to streamline the process to declare a state of emergency.

The package entered into force on 1 July 2016. Its measures rely on an extremely vague concept, a “terror threat situation”. This “terror threat situation” gives the executive wide-ranging powers that risk violating Hungary’s international human rights obligations. Such a  vague definition violates the principle of legality, according to which the law is to be formulated in clear and unambiguous terms.

The police, other law enforcement officers and the military are permitted to use lethal force in a “terror threat situation”. In addition, the “sixth amendment” provides for wide scope for sweeping restrictions on the rights to freedom association and peaceful assembly, privacy and freedom of movement.

Hungarian authorities have been particularly aggressive in their attempts to draw a link between refugees and the threat of terrorism. Since 2015, the Hungarian government has taken concrete steps toward keeping refugees out of the country and it has invoked a “crisis situation due to mass immigration”, a distinct state of emergency empowering the police and military forces to “assist” the asylum authorities.

At the same time, amendments to the Criminal Code have led to the criminalization of refugees and migrants who entered Hungary irregularly through its southern border fence, instituting a wide rage of sanctions, including prison sentences and mandatory expulsion.

Eleven people have been convicted for illegal crossing of the border fence aggravated by alleged participation in mass riot. They were part of a larger group of refugees and migrants stranded at the border between Serbia and Hungary on 16 September 2015, the day after Hungary moved to completely close its southern border. All of them, including a blind elderly Syrian woman and a wheelchair-bound Syrian man living with a disability, were alleged to have participated in a mass riot in their attempt to enter the country unlawfully.

In November 2016, one of the eleven, Ahmed H. from Syria, was convicted for committing “acts of terror” and was sentenced to ten years in prison and final expulsion from Hungary. He was found guilty of using a megaphone to request that the police communicate with the refugees and migrants at the border and of throwing objects at them.

According to the government’s chief spokesman, Zoltán Kovács. Hungary will submit proposals to the EU to protect Europe’s borders by automatically detaining any asylum seeker for the whole period of their asylum application. At a briefing in London, Kovács said that anyone seeking asylum through Hungary would be kept in “shelters” for the whole period of their application, even though they would be free to go back to their own country at any point.

As regards the right to privacy, the Hungarian system of surveillance employed by the Anti-Terrorism Taskforce was found contrary to European human rights law by the European Court of Human Rights (see Szabo and Vissy v. Hungary). The taskforce had been given broad surveillance powers, including opening correspondence and reading electronic communications. The Minister of Justice can order such surveillance on any individual on the basis of national security, without prior judicial authorization and without requiring the taskforce to produce any evidence to support its request. The Court concluded that the Hungarian law endowing the Anti-Terrorism Taskforce with these surveillance powers violated the right to privacy, as there were insufficient legal safeguards to ensure protection against abuse.

Faced with this complex situation, on 16 November 2016 the LIBE Committee decided to set up a hearing to present a comprehensive picture on the situation of fundamental rights in Hungary.  The hearing took place on 27 February 2017.

Following the opening remarks by Claude Moraes, Chair of the LIBE Committee, László Trócsányi, Minister of Justice of Hungary, took the floor. He clarified that the Hungarian government had always been open to dialogue and that Europe was facing a phase of deep  uncertainty intensified by the Brexit, the terrorist threat and the migration crisis.

In his opinion, the migration crisis is one of the most serious challenges Hungary is facing, since the country is placed at the external border of the EU. He said that Hungary was taking huge responsibilities to protect the EU borders in an efficient manner. According to him, all the EU institutions and Member States have to put themselves the same goals for an effective protection of the Schengen system. In order to overcome the migration crisis, the EU needs to  fight against irregular immigration as well as migrant trafficking, stop the tendency to mix up economic migrants and refugees and identify safe countries, as in the case of Turkey.

Miklós Szánthó, Director of the Centre for Fundamental Rights, a pro-government NGO,  dealt with the situation of democracy in Hungary and in the EU. He said that democracy, including fundamental rights and the rule of law, still existed in Hungary and that was proven by the existence of a Constitution as well as legal and transparent procedures. In his opinion, there exists no comprehensive definition of democracy within the EU, apart from two   elements which have been affirmed as fundamental marks of democracy, namely free elections and equal division of powers. He said that those elements were concretely realised in Hungary and that the EU, as provided by art. 4(2) TUE, should respect the way in which each Member State interpreted democracy and its values in compliance with its own perception of sovereignty. According to him, only Member States are entitled to frame their own legal framework relating to the protection of democratic values and fundamental rights and the EU should not impose supranational visions on national authorities.

According to Todor Gardos, Researcher at Amnesty International, the European Parliament should continue to put pressure on the Council and ask for clarifications about the situation in Hungary, since a number of serious threats to fundamental rights have been reported in the country over the last few years, such as uncontrolled use of imprisonment, weakness of the judiciary, restrictions on asylum and refugee rights, lack of protection for religious and ethnic minorities. For him, the most urgent threat is linked to the exceptional measures adopted by the government since 2015 with the aim of pushing refugees and migrants back at the Hungarian border with Serbia. Such measures could have extremely negative impact for vulnerable categories and children, which are massively sent to Serbia.

Gardos said that Amnesty International was extremely worried about the situation in Hungary, where refugees and migrants are more and more associated to criminals and terrorists. He mentioned, in particular, the story of Ahmed H, a Syrian national, living in Cyprus, who went to the border fence between Hungary and Serbia to help his parents enter into Europe to find international protection. Ahmed H. was arrested by the Hungarian police. He was accused of committing an act of terrorism, even though some videos have shown that he was just using his megaphone to talk with the Hungarian authorities and invite them to open the border. Hungarian criminal law is becoming increasingly stricter. The government is targeting Hungarian nationals nationals as well, on the pretext of controlling threats to national security and preventing terrorism.

In conclusion, Gardos said that Amnesty International was calling on the European Parliament   to continue to supervise the situation of fundamental rights in Hungary and, if necessary, ask for a visit to Hungary, in order to put pressure on the Hungarian criminal law system, with regard to trial transparency in particular.

Stefánia Kapronczay, Executive Director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, touched on two basic issues concerning fundamental rights in Hungary:

  1. a) freedom of expression. She said that the Hungarian government was increasingly restricting the national media market and limiting freedom of expression for civil society and NGOs with censorship and sanctions. For instance, several journalists were denied access to refugee camps during the crisis in 2015;
  2. b) the situation of active citizenship in Hungary. She reported several cases of silenced criticism, defamation against journalists as well as civil society activists and stigmatisation of civil organisations. She also said that the government was exercising strict surveillance over active citizenship and civil participation, with regard to NGO foreign funding in particular.

For Marta Pardavi, Co-Chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the most serious issue in Hungary right now is the respect for refugee human rights. She noted that Hungary was performing massive returns of migrants to Serbia, on the assumption that the latter was a safe country of origin or transit, and that in 2016 the government had decided to adopt further measures to deter migrants by closing access to protection. As a consequence, asylum seekers and migrants are now stranded in Serbia under inhuman and degrading conditions, since the situation in Serbia is becoming increasingly difficult due to overpopulation of refugee camps. She raised serious concerns over the abuses on migrants by the Hungarian authorities at the border with Serbia. Such abuses have been criticized by Frontex as well, but the Hungarian government has always refused to go into deep examination of what is happening at its border.

Conclusions

Whereas it is true that the Hungarian government has been elected under democratic principles and it should, therefore, be recognised as legitimate, a democratic society should always respect pluralism, human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law.

Like in Poland, a deterioration of the rule of law has been reported within the Hungarian society. The amendments to the Constitution and the new measures adopted by the Hungarian government since 2010 have had an adverse impact on human rights across sectors and have negatively affected the separation of powers, an essential element of democracy and the rule of law. All counter-powers, from the judiciary and the legislative power to media and civil society have been systematically weakened or brought under control of the executive. Most laws are pushed through via fast-track procedures, which bypass democratic rules and limit parliamentary and public debate and stakeholder participation.

The amendments to the Constitution have been introduced to create a favourable framework for the adoption of new measures which risk violating fundamental rights, especially for refugees. The alleged connection between migration and terrorism has led to new discussions concerning the adoption of a new law on detention. For many years, Hungary has been notorious for applying asylum detention very frequently. Actually, since 2015 detention has become the rule and detention measures were justified on the pretext of fighting terrorism and preventing threats to national security.

The Hungarian government has the duty to protect human rights during border control measures and provide access to effective procedures. The adoption of a new law on detention would undermine refugee and migrant human rights and should, therefore, be avoided.  Detention of asylum seekers should be a measure of last resort based on proportionality and  deprivation of liberty should always be accompanied by adequate safeguards, such as individual examination, access to legal aid and the right to an effective remedy.