I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 and 53 together.
The meeting between the Government and the European Commission on 6 January took the form of bilateral meetings between the Irish Ministers with responsibility for chairing meetings of the Council and their counterparts on the European Commission. This was followed by a plenary session. My meeting with Commissioner Vitorino focused on the Irish Presidency programme for the Justice and Home Affairs Council. I also made a short presentation on that programme, and the outcome of my discussions with Commissioner Vitorino, at the plenary session.
On 22 and 23 January I hosted an informal meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council in Dublin Castle. The main purpose of such meetings is to allow joint consideration and an open exchange of views on topics of general scope. Meetings of this nature are not formal Council meetings and they do not arrive at formal conclusions or decisions. The Deputy will therefore understand that I am not in a position to detail the discussions which took place. However, I am more than happy to outline the matters under discussion.
The informal Council took place over a day and a half. On each day there were sessions dealing with individual topics which were organised around Presidency discussion papers which outlined the issues and posed questions for consideration. Over the course of the informal Council, Ministers discussed a range of issues — the question of a common EU returns policy, the draft Council directive on minimum standards on procedures for granting and withdrawing refugee status, organised crime, a European Commission proposal for a Council framework decision on the European evidence warrant and, in the context of civil law cooperation, the possibility of an EU instrument to deal with small claims. In addition, at my invitation, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Ruud Lubbers, addressed the Council and provided a UNHCR perspective on refugee protection issues including progress in relation to the development of a common EU asylum policy.
Deputy Seán Ryan has specifically asked about the proposed asylum procedures directive, discussions on which have not yet been finalised at EU level. The informal Council discussion was essentially an orientation debate on one important aspect of that directive namely, the safe third country concept. The directive, which is one of the central measures which was mandated by the Amsterdam treaty and by the Tampere European Council, aims to set out minimum standards for the granting and withdrawing of refugee status in member states.
The European Council, on 12 December 2003, welcomed the significant progress achieved in the negotiations on the adoption of this directive. While taking note of the persisting political obstacles that have been delaying the conclusion of negotiations, it reaffirmed the importance of developing a common European policy on asylum and invited the Justice and Home Affairs Council to complete its work as soon as possible to ensure that the first phase of the establishment of a European asylum system is fully implemented within the deadline set in Tampere.
The discussion at the informal Council on the safe third country concept was helpful in providing guidance on how to bring forward dialogue on this measure. There was an emphasis on the need for flexibility and a general consensus that safe third countries should be part of the directive. The Presidency now intends to reflect on these discussions and to bring forward a new text to reflect their outcome as soon as possible.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh also asked about the discussions on migration issues. These discussions focused on the practical implementation of various measures which have already been adopted at EU level in relation to the return of illegal immigrants. The discussions were aimed at providing the Presidency with a basis for progressing the practical implementation of return-related measures and were consistent with the Presidency focus in the JHA area on operational co-operation. Ministers had a positive exchange which identified practical ways to move forward on the implementation of a common return policy at EU level.