I thank members of the joint committee for taking the time to consider this matter. I am joined by my officials, Mr. Brendan Eiffe and Mr. James Moloney.
The issue under discussion is whether Ireland should opt in to the new Eurojust regulation and thereby maintain its membership of Eurojust. It is my view that Ireland should opt in and that the Oireachtas should approve the necessary resolutions to enable this to take place. Members of the committee need to be aware that a consequence of not opting in to the regulation will be that Ireland will have to withdraw from membership of Eurojust.
It may be helpful if I provide some background information on the matter. Eurojust is the European Union's agency for criminal justice co-operation. Its role is to provide assistance for members in criminal investigations which involve two or more EU member states. The structure of Eurojust is centred on a college of prosecutors comprising prosecutors from each of the member states. The prosecutors are based in The Hague in the Netherlands and the college meets regularly to discuss cases which fall within the remit of the agency. In Ireland's case, a prosecutor from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Dublin provides full-time representation on behalf of the State. The college’s primary role is assisting in clearing difficulties and logjams in multi-national criminal investigations and dealing with mutual legal assistance requests for evidence and surrenders under the European arrest warrant. The location of EU prosecutors under one roof at Eurojust facilitates the rapid exchange of information and the addressing of issues of relevance. The agency has contributed greatly in that regard and membership is highly valued among EU member states. For example, despite its position on Brexit, the United Kingdom has opted in to the new regulation.
As I said, this is not about Ireland joining Eurojust but remaining a member because Ireland is and has been a member since the inception of the agency 17 years ago. To clarify the position, Eurojust operates under the provisions of Council Decision 2002/187/JHA of 28 February 2002 setting up Eurojust with a view to reinforcing the fight against serious crime. The new regulation under discussion retains many of the provisions and structures of its predecessor, but it also provides a framework for modernisation of the agency. Because the new regulation comes within Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in the area of freedom, security and justice, annexed to the Treaty on European Union, TEU, and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, TFEU, there is a necessity for the Oireachtas to agree that Ireland should accept the measure.
The main features of the new regulation are that, in Chapter II, Articles 6 to 18, inclusive, it revises Eurojust’s governance structure by setting up an executive board to deal with administrative matters. Therefore, Eurojust’s college which consists of prosecutors from all EU member states can focus more strongly on operational issues. The ever-increasing number of Eurojust cases requires a more efficient way of handling cases. The new regulation will make Eurojust fit for this purpose. It does not replace the successful core concept of the college of supporting national authorities in their investigations and discovering links between cases; rather, in Articles 2 to 5, inclusive, it confirms the current proactive role of Eurojust in its operational, strategic and tactical work. In other words, the operational practices in place for the past 17 years and in which Ireland has played a part will not change. This work involves co-ordinating approaches to the most serious forms of criminality, including murder, people trafficking, child sexual exploitation, drug trafficking and terrorism.
Chapter III which includes Articles 19 to 25, inclusive, deals with operational matters and provides details of the operational structure of Eurojust, including a 24/7 on-call service for member states.
Of major significance, in Chapter IV, Articles 26 to 46, inclusive, is that the new regulation brings Eurojust into line with the data protection rules the European Union adopted last year, the GDPR and associated law enforcement directive, and takes into account Eurojust’s specific mandate to process data in the interests of fighting cross-border crime. Eurojust’s operations will also be subject to the scrutiny of the European Data Protection Supervisor as set out in Article 40.
In Chapter V the regulation addresses Eurojust co-operation agreements with third states and international organisations, both of which are subject to the aforementioned data protection provisions.
Eurojust's operations and budget are subject to the scrutiny of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. There is no expectation of a budgetary contribution from Ireland for the running of the agency. Ireland's national member is remunerated by the State in the same manner as any official of the State who is assigned to duties overseas. The small cost, when measured against the services made available to Ireland through membership, represents a small price to pay.
As Minister for Justice and Equality, I am the central authority for the provision of international mutual legal assistance for and from other states. In the past five years the volume of cases dealt with has doubled and is set to increase by more than 50% per annum. These statistics alone illustrate the increasingly transnational nature of serious crime. In the four years up to the end of 2018 the Irish desk at Eurojust handled more than 800 cases with an Irish dimension. They included cases involving serious international fraud, sexual offences and the trafficking of vulnerable young women into the State for the purpose of engaging them in prostitution. Transnational problems require transnational approaches. As Minister, I must ensure a comprehensive response to this issue and the State’s continued membership of Eurojust plays an essential part in this response.
Taking into account that the core function of Eurojust is to assist in criminal investigations, the fact that it has a proven track record in this area over 17 years and is subject to the most advanced data privacy protection regime in the world, there are few who would argue that it would not be desirable for Ireland to remain a member. It seems that there is an issue of principle. It cannot just be about what Ireland receives. It is about playing an active part in the European Union and ensuring the welfare of its citizens. Notwithstanding the negative effect on criminal investigations in the State, our EU colleagues would see an Irish withdrawal from Eurojust as a negative development. I need not remind committee members that in recent times Ireland has relied heavily on the solidarity and support of other member states. Membership of the European Union brings with it a responsibility to act collectively to help to solve the problems and threats the Union faces. Serious crime is certainly one of those threats. It would be unfortunate if Ireland was perceived, on the one hand, as seeking the support of the other members and, on the other, not being willing to play a part in the advancement and betterment of the European project.
As I said recently in response to a parliamentary question on this matter from Deputy Wallace who is a member of the committee, there are few who would argue that Ireland's membership of the European Union has not been of enormous benefit to Ireland's citizens, both economically and in terms of the progressive social development of the State. The freedoms enjoyed by EU citizens and the real and genuine protections afforded to their fundamental rights are the envy of many throughout the world. This commitment to protecting fundamental rights is not some empty aspiration but a reality backed up by formal structures such as the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament. The freedom of movement EU citizens enjoy is one very clear benefit of membership of the European Union. Unfortunately, there are always those who will seek to exploit privileges such as freedom of movement for their own nefarious ends and much recent EU law in the criminal justice sphere has been aimed at trying to counter the abuse of these freedoms, while also protecting them. The European arrest warrant is one such example. Another is Eurojust. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I do not believe it would be desirable to lose membership of Eurojust. International serious crime is an issue which affects all member states and their citizens and has countless victims. Co-ordination of measures to disrupt this activity and ongoing communication between states on such measures are not only desirable but essential. Eurojust provides an efficient and effective way of ensuring this co-operation occurs. I can think of no rational coherent reason Ireland should not be involved. Therefore, I commend the motions to the committee.