The Belgian Council Presidency and the implementation of the Stockholm Programme

Justice reform and asylum regulations at the crossroads

, by Nico Segers

The Belgian Council Presidency and the implementation of the Stockholm Programme

The Stockholm Programme, a multi-annual programme (2010-2014) that was initiated during the Swedish Council presidency in 2009, aims to foster “an area of freedom, security and justice serving the citizen”. Such a project entails a broad scope and an unprecedented series of well coordinated efforts to make justice departments and law enforcement actors across member states more efficient and attuned to common standards.

The main preoccupation of the “Trio” of member states taking up the Presidency of the European Council (2010 and the first half of 2011), is the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty on all required levels. That would imply a progressive reshuffle of authorities between the European institutions, not at least with the difficult set-up of the European External Action Service (EEAS), to be headed by the High Representative of the Union for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton.

As Belgium now stands relatively more in the spotlights, both supplying the first-ever President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy as well as tenure of the Council presidency, there is a great opportunity to utilize the positive influence of a relatively small country in the vital areas of public diplomacy and European politics. In fact, Belgium received early in September a very good ranking about its improved coordination strategy towards foreign development aid in an independent report from the OECD Development Aid Committee (DAC).

Spain has put a primal emphasis during the preceding Council term on the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) instrument, whose elaboration and formation will be carried onwards by the Belgian and Hungarian governments. Continuity is the key and indispensible to ensure that overseeing the Lisbon Treaty’s effects will not be stalled or enacted at inconsistent speeds. This implementation process must run uninterrupted, as it affects all 27 signatories, just as all departments, offices and units involved in the reshuffle that will seek to uproot and integrate them into the EEAS.

The third power: less inclined to breach vested territorial and bureaucratic limitations?

The ECI and EEAS are of substantial importance, yet in this article I wish to highlight gaps and predicaments that need to be addressed with regards to the Stockholm Programme. Four key objectives are to be met in the process:

1. Substantial harmonization of judicial regulations (‘due process’)

2. The breakdown of rigid bureaucratic inertia and introverted departmental navel-gazing on all levels (local, regional, etc.) of the member states

3. Committing legally approval widening of the working terrain for cross-national investigations and trackdown of criminal networks

4. Further integration of ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) networks to monitor and track organized crime, the traffic of illegal goods and persons, and facilitation of extradition programs.

These things do not come into motion because of a mere signal from Brussels. Just as in the area of defence (CSDP), member states have in general solid reservations about transferring decisional authority on justice and security affairs to a supranational level, as well as the degree and nature of information exchanged. The dilemma about the latter is that the more levels of intelligence cooperation, the higher the chances of unwarranted disclosure of information towards third-parties, to whom the originator in fact refrained access rights to. Such fears motivate reluctance to multiply intelligence-sharing channels.

A major preparatory step to take is to ensure that national justice law systems are better attuned and compatible to one another via binding and well regulated agreements. To guarantee a proper functioning on that scale, cooperation would likely necessitate an EU-wide ‘trans-judicial districts’ coordinating agency. Yet such a federal notion of creating an entity that scrutinizes national efforts in justice cooperation is not included in the Stockholm Programme. Also, the new statutes for Europol might cut more red tape about joint investigation or search procedures, arrests and extraditions.

This ought to enhance and bolster higher levels of trust among the national apparati of judges and prosecutors and facilitate procedures on investigation and prosecution of criminal activities. Many victims of crimes are still very disillusioned because of the perceived impunity of their assailants. Many procedural penalties and law book clauses (often seen as backdoors) potentially jeopardize the proper conduct of investigations and ruling of cases.

Paving the road to update sluggish justice practices to the fast-paced dynamics of the 21st Century

One of the greater deficiencies in the justice system is the absolutist and intransigent bureaucratic-judicial culture, interpreted as a sluggish and enigmatic system of authorities dispersed among justice departments, mortgaged by a sheer lack of personnel and asymmetrical sharing of the workload. Not even mentioning the shortage of prison facilities to contain dangerous convicts from society. Seeing no move from the government to provide for more prison cells, judges often resort to pragmatic solutions or alternative penalties for convicts. This protracted issue is gradually being addressed in Belgium.

The Belgian Presidency ought to seize every chance to firmly illustrate that the EU does practice what is preaches, especially with regards to safeguarding human rights and democratic values.

Another great concern, often voiced by human rights watch groups and whistleblowers, involves the general tendency for a bolder approach of combating illegal migration and the forced containment of asylum seekers. Tackling illegal migration in a comprehensible and dignified way remains a painstaking challenge. With regards to asylum procedures, there is much controversy about the motivations of people seeking economic or financial gains under the guise of political asylum, while in reality they seek economic asylum. When coping with these asylum procedures that drain out tax money, the overall aim is to reverse the message of ‘Europe, a place where all are welcome and you can pick up a job very easily’.

Will Belgium and its justice apparatus please step up and prepare for launch?

The Belgian government annually commits a serious amount for development aid (the OECD forecasts that Belgium will reach the 0,7% Gross national income mark next year, while the EU target currently is pitched at 0,51%). In this context Belgium should rally other member states and lead the process to promulgate labor- as well as time-efficient asylum standards and prepare national justice for EU-wide deepening while continuing efforts to reduce poverty, strive for equal labor rights and helping countries to improve the living standard of the civil classes who are disparaged and nearly without income.

Gaining progressive results in the above areas could over time defuse anxieties about the asylum dimension of the Stockholm Programme. As long as the member states can agree on good practices towards a human and efficient vetting procedure for asylum-seekers.

The Belgian Presidency ought to seize every chance to firmly illustrate that the EU does practice what is preaches, especially with regards to safeguarding human rights and democratic values, involving effective justice cooperation, and equitable programmes for illegal immigration and an unprejudiced and ‘due process’ retention confinement of asylum seekers.

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