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Debates
Monday, 21 February 2005 - Strasbourg OJ edition

15. Criminal record/Criminal justice
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  President. The next item is the joint debate on the following reports:

– (A6-0020/2005) by Antonio Di Pietro, on behalf of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, on the proposal for a Council decision on the exchange of information extracted from the criminal record [COM(2004)0664 – C6-0163/2004 – 2004/0238(CNS)];

– (A6-0036/2005) by António Costa, on behalf of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, with a proposal for a European Parliament recommendation to the Council on the quality of criminal justice and the harmonisation of criminal law in the Member States [2005/2003(INI)].

 
  
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  Frattini, Vice-President of the Commission. – (IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Commission I should like to make some comments on both reports: the one tabled by Mr Costa and the one tabled by Mr Di Pietro. There are some important links between the two reports and the two initiatives. The first concerns the quality of criminal justice and the harmonisation of criminal legislation; the second, tabled by Mr Di Pietro, concerns a proposal regarding the exchange of information extracted from the criminal record.

It is my personal conviction, and one shared by the Commission as a whole, that the quality of justice is a fundamental element in the great project – now enshrined in the European Constitution – of creating a real European area of justice and freedom. It is obvious that the quality of justice is based on the principle whereby a Europe in which internal borders are disappearing has to ensure that the decisions made by its courts are, above all, enforced quickly and simply, because the response that people are awaiting depends on the credibility of the legal systems.

That principle obviously presupposes another, that is to say the principle upheld by those working on ‘mutual recognition’: a decision by a judge in one Member State can and must be recognised by the legal system of another Member State. That is the essential condition for establishing a European area of justice. Implementing such a principle of mutual recognition, however, requires a high level of mutual trust: there can be no mutual recognition without mutual trust among the judiciaries, the courts and the legal systems of the Member States. That is why the programme that the Commission is committed to carrying out contains a specific reference – requested by the European Council, by the way – to the quality of justice, which means decisions being enforced quickly and smoothly and implies a high level of mutual trust among the legal systems and judiciaries.

The rapporteur, Mr Costa, proposes creating a European mechanism for the evaluation of the quality of justice, a mechanism based on a Quality Charter for criminal justice. I think that is an interesting idea, since we know that in other, less sensitive areas, a mechanism for parallel evaluation and for monitoring the results of measures has worked and has helped to establish the principle of mutual trust. Thus the rapporteur’s proposal is an interesting one.

Besides, the Commission believes that on such a sensitive subject, which inter alia touches on Member States’ competences, it is necessary to set up an extensive consultation exercise and, above all, to listen to those involved. The Commission is working hard and will continue to work hard on both aspects, first of all by listening to the categories involved, that is to say the judges, the associations and the bodies representing the judiciary in the Member States. By the end of 2005 we intend to issue a preliminary communication on judicial training – that is, the training of judges – and then, in 2006, a communication on the evaluation of the quality of justice. We therefore intend to work along the lines suggested in Mr Costa’s report.

My final thought on this topic is that no mechanism for evaluating the quality of justice should bear upon or have a detrimental effect on the independence of the judiciary, either directly or indirectly. It would be a dreadful result if the principle of evaluating the quality of justice – which is a public service – should indirectly harm the independence of the judiciary, which is an essential requirement for providing the public with a quality service. A judiciary that is not independent certainly cannot be top quality. That, then, is why our aim will be to achieve high quality in justice while holding to the premise I have just mentioned: respect for the independence of our judicial systems and judiciaries.

With regard to Mr Di Pietro’s report, mutual trust, as I have already said, is clearly an essential element in the quality of justice and is vital in making the mutual recognition of decisions and procedures work properly. It is clear, then, that the proposal for a decision on the exchange of information extracted from the criminal record – a Commission proposal made last October – is a good example, in my opinion, of the real importance of applying the principle of mutual trust.

You will all recall the Fourniret affair, the tragic case of paedophilia that was instrumental in making Europe respond more swiftly. That case showed how poorly the exchange of information between Member States on people’s criminal records was working. We need strong measures. I am convinced that the text currently being examined, to which Mr Di Pietro has referred and will refer again, is just a first step. It is an urgent first step, for the short term. Clearly, the next step that the Commission is considering is to have a faster, computerised system for exchanging information, which, of course, must fully comply with personal data protection rules. Parliament will obviously have further opportunities to give its views on this more advanced proposal in the near future.

Clearly, in any case, we must now ensure that the register of criminal records in a person’s Member State of origin works as well as possible so that, when it receives a request for information, the register in that Member State of origin can supply all the necessary answers about the situation without delay.

Better relations among the national authorities responsible for criminal records must therefore be established and, clearly, the Commission expects to achieve further improvements in the longer term. As you all know, we have adopted a White Paper which proposes a rather more effective information exchange mechanism. We will be listening to the responses to the questions raised in the White Paper.

To conclude, the Commission will work closely with Parliament in permanent collaboration, because in exchanging information we have to find the right balance between the need for security, the need to protect people’s right to be safe, and people’s fundamental rights. In that respect I should like to refer once again to personal data protection, because such a balance will need to be debated very thoroughly here in Parliament.

 
  
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  Di Pietro (ALDE), rapporteur. – (IT) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, I am called upon to explain my report on the proposal for a Council decision on the exchange of information extracted from the criminal record. This proposal – as Mr Frattini has rightly stated – constitutes just a first step, which needs to be taken urgently.

The aim of this proposal for a decision will obviously be supported by everybody; the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – to which I have the honour of belonging – certainly supports it fully, as does the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, which gave the Council proposal in question its almost unanimous approval.

The aim is to improve the quality of justice in Italy, in Europe and in all the Member States. The tangible measure put forward in the proposal for a decision is to share the information contained in criminal records. In fact, such sharing was already provided for in the 1959 Convention. Technically, however, it is difficult to make such an exchange of information work and to keep it up to date, since at present, under the 1959 Convention, information is only networked once a year and requests are made without a pre-established time limit. The Council proposal thus has the benefit of making information available more promptly, until, of course, the computerised system that the Commissioner mentioned can provide the information even more quickly, virtually on line.

I should like to clear up a misunderstanding on the part of those who see a problem in the relationship between data checking and privacy. Criminal record data are for criminals as medical records are for the sick: they are factual data. The problem is who uses such data and how they use them. To that end we ask that the data should only be used by judicial authorities and with other judicial authorities, and only in relation to unappealable convictions. That is why the Council was right to include the concepts of ‘criminal record’ and ‘unappealable conviction’ among the terms to be defined prior to such decisions.

I therefore agree with this work in progress, which is to be put into effect while we await the decisions that will be coming in the White Paper, just as I also agree with the principles that you have just enumerated, Commissioner. You said that these decisions and, more generally, the recommendations that Parliament is preparing to make should depend on two principles, which I believe we can all subscribe to and which I certainly subscribe to, as you do. The first is that the decisions of the courts should be enforced quickly. The second principle – as you said – is that there should be mutual recognition of and mutual trust in the decisions made by courts in each individual country. Thirdly, you said that any evaluation of the quality of the work done by the courts must not affect the independence of the judiciary.

I fully agree with that view, Commissioner, and I would therefore ask you to have the Commission move on to more concrete measures relating to such issues. In particular, as well as listening, I would ask you to state what you will do if a Member State shows that it has no confidence in the courts so that, for instance, there is a Member State which has not yet implemented the European arrest warrant.

We therefore explicitly request that, when similar topics are debated, the Commission should put pressure on Member States that have not yet implemented them, otherwise it might be thought that those Member States have no confidence in the decisions of other courts and other Member States and that they do not intend to implement the courts’ decisions straight away at all.

Similarly, we believe you are right to say that the independence of the judiciary must be respected, but we would also like to know what the Commission proposes to do when even members of the government in a particular Member State do not respect the judiciary and go so far as to make a mockery of it in the courts themselves. I believe, then, that the Commission also has the duty to issue directives and recommendations, so that the efforts we are making to improve the quality of justice in Europe and in the Member States are not derailed by a particular Member State for its own very special reasons.

 
  
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  Costa, António (PSE), rapporteur. – (PT) Mr President, Mr Frattini, ladies and gentlemen, implementing the area of freedom, security and justice is one of the most stimulating challenges facing the EU, of which the most important element, as we proposed in the Hague Programme, is the need to ensure high quality justice throughout Union territory, without prejudice to the plurality of the existing judicial systems in the 25 Member States.

In accordance with the Hague Programme, as is already the case with Tampere, the cornerstone in building the area of freedom, security and justice is mutual recognition, as Mr Frattini has just reminded us. In order for mutual recognition to exist, however, there must also be mutual trust, and, as Mr Di Pietro highlighted just now, mutual trust is not a matter of faith. Mutual trust must be built up and must work effectively. We must acknowledge that among our 25 Member States – among the judicial authorities of our 25 Member States – such mutual trust does not exist to a satisfactory degree. Mutual trust must be stepped up. I therefore begin this initiative report by proposing that there should be a mutual evaluation mechanism among the various Member States. Clearly, such a mechanism will respect the independence of judicial authority, and will involve the national parliaments and the judiciary’s governing bodies. Accordingly, our evaluation will be the result of a broad range of views on the quality of criminal justice in each of the Member States.

Secondly, I feel that it is crucial that this evaluation should be an objective evaluation, and in order for this to be the case I propose that a Quality Charter for Criminal Justice should be created. The Charter should be created on the basis of the interpretation of the right to a judge in the European Declaration of Human Rights, on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, in accordance with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Communities, and on the basis of both United Nations and Council of Europe recommendations. This Quality Charter must act as an objective reference framework enabling evaluation of the different criminal justice systems in the different Member States. In this way, we can spread best practice, we can have benchmarking exercises and we can ensure that all European citizens, wherever they may be in EU territory, enjoy high standards of quality.

We are all aware, however, that in addition to mutual recognition, there must also be a minimum level of harmonisation. The Council has set out the criterion for the harmonisation of material criminal law, and our report proposes that we endorse the Council’s proposal. The Council has called on the Commission to prepare for harmonisation of the list of offences referred to in the Constitutional Treaty at the earliest opportunity, so that by the time the Constitutional Treaty enters into force the preparatory work will have been completed and the Council can quickly, in conjunction with Parliament, adopt the harmonisation standards called for in the new Treaty.

With regard to procedural law, we feel that we must be selective, yet ambitious as to the scope of our action. We therefore propose four key areas: firstly, the harmonisation of standards relating to the gathering and assessment of key evidence, an issue that the Commission has said it is already working on; secondly, harmonisation enabling sentences to be served, and ensuring that any preventative measures applied are executed; thirdly, the minimum rights of detainees in any Member State; and, finally, the consideration of further conviction in respect of acts already subject to harmonisation measures.

With this report Parliament calls on the Council and the Commission to speed up their work so that all of us, working together, can make a contribution to an area of freedom, security and justice with higher quality criminal justice in Europe.

 
  
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  Brejc, Mihael (PPE-DE). (SL) Thank you, Mr President. In the political documents of the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats, for example the documents from the congress and other documents of our party in the European Parliament, we stress the importance of the security of people and their property; after all, we promised this to our electorate. On the other hand we are faced with a growth in increasingly serious forms of crime and terrorist acts.

It is entirely clear that no individual Member State of the European Union can alone ensure its own security any longer. We need cooperation and joint action, and we need to seek out and promote all those activities that enhance our security. In this sense my group supports the proposed Council decision on the exchange of data generated from criminal records, as well as the report of rapporteur Mr di Pietro.

We are somewhat surprised, however, that the Commission only intends to establish a new computer system for data exchange between 2008 and 2010. I have the feeling that the exchange of data is more a political than a technical question, for if serious political will exists, then the Commission should speed up the construction of an adequate information technology system, since it is clear to anyone that we are in the information age and that construction of an adequate information technology system cannot be such a complicated issue. Obviously this is being impeded by some other, weightier issues, such as trust or the quality of individual branches of power. In this regard I propose to the Commission that it does indeed speed up the construction of the information technology system. Thank you.

 
  
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  Roure (PSE). (FR) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, the main concern of European citizens is that the European Union should guarantee them a high standard of living and protect their rights. We must therefore ensure that all European citizens benefit from the same rights, the same quality of justice and the same access to justice, wherever they are in Europe. In this context, it is vital to improve judicial cooperation in criminal and civil matters. In addition, freedom of movement in Europe enables criminal networks to profit from the opening up of the European Union's internal borders while at the same time exploiting the lack of European coordination with regard to justice and thus evading capture. We must therefore now adopt the necessary mechanisms to meet the new challenges now facing European judicial cooperation.

The exchange of information extracted from the criminal record provides European magistrates with specific mechanisms making it possible to speed up proceedings so that criminals do not go unpunished. For example, it will be possible, as you say, to put an end to known cases of paedophilia more quickly. Such mechanisms and practical measures must be put in place in order to improve mutual trust in Europe's judicial systems, which is an absolute necessity. This is because the current lack of trust constitutes a major barrier to achieving mutual recognition of current practices and to reaching an appropriate level of approximation of judicial systems. I also join with António Costa in calling on the Commission to put forward proposals based on the principles of mutual recognition of decisions and of minimum harmonisation.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to express my pleasure at the proposal to extend judicial cooperation to certain aspects of family law, which is included in the legislative programme for 2005. I very much hope that we will continue working along these lines.

 
  
  

IN THE CHAIR: MR FRIEDRICH
Vice-President

 
  
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  Duquesne (ALDE). (FR) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to begin by congratulating the rapporteur, Mr Costa, on his report and on the excellent conclusions that he set out, which, by the way, have been approved almost unanimously by the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.

In my opinion, this report sends a strong signal from Parliament to the Commission and the Council. It bears witness to our desire to ensure a higher quality of justice for all European citizens, I would even say for anyone within the territory of the European Union, thanks in particular to the Quality Charter for criminal justice and to the proposed evaluation system. Mutual recognition of decisions taken in criminal matters in the various Member States assumes that all the States have confidence in each other’s judicial systems. That is why we need to define common basic standards that are better harmonised whilst maintaining justified diversity, as Mr Costa has reiterated.

This is more than just procedure, however. Ensuring and checking that judges are properly trained, open-minded, level-headed, alert, efficient, conscientious and able to manage the existing means as well as possible clearly does not run counter to the essential independence they must have. We need to increase the transparency of the justice system and improve people’s perception of the working methods of judges, who sometimes suffer from a lack of credibility and trust.

Finally, I believe it is essential for us to ensure that our recommendations are followed up. We need action, not just intentions, Commissioner. That is why it is important to set up a follow-up committee made up of experts, magistrates, lawyers, users of the justice system and representatives of national parliaments with the task of assessing and evaluating the way in which our recommendations are put into effect. If we manage to implement these recommendations, we shall genuinely succeed in making the European Union a State under the rule of law. These are issues that are essential to the functioning of our democracies, respect for the law and respect for citizens' rights.

With regard to Mr Di Pietro's excellent report, I completely agree with the analysis and proposals that it contains, but I would like to stress the fact that the proposal put forward is modest, is limited to the current legal framework, which dates back to 1959, and therefore does not meet the need for the provision of information regarding criminal records. I think there was a desire to respond to the emotions aroused by the Fourniret case. We will wait impatiently, as Mr Frattini announced, for more general proposals, which are essential if we are to combat terrorism, serious crime and crime in general more effectively. The small step we have taken does not release us from moving rapidly on.

 
  
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  Buitenweg (Verts/ALE). (NL) Mr President, this evening, we are once again discussing the magic word ‘mutual recognition’ as the cornerstone of European judicial cooperation. It does, of course, presuppose that the Member States work together effectively, that they can look beyond their own borders and know how things are done elsewhere, that they are also agreed on a number of basic standards, for example in terms of law of criminal procedure and, above all, build on the trust in each other and on the reasons why they can indeed trust in each other. Mr Costa’s proposal is of particular importance for building confidence in efficiency and sound administration of justice, whereas the main thrust of Mr Di Pietro’s report is to improve cooperation in terms of information. My group gives its wholehearted support to both reports and I would like to thank you warmly for all the work you have done on these and the pleasant cooperation, but much more is needed than these small steps forward. There is a host of new proposals in the making, and they all constitute small steps forward, on paper anyway, for in my experience, Member States very often put the brakes on. To them, the idea of mutual recognition mainly appears to be a way of not having to change anything at national level. We all tend to be interested only in our own patch, and others have to respect the decisions that are made about it. I can tell you that my group is not afraid of looking further afield, although we are a little hesitant about this enormous host of new rules, for such quantities often affect transparency, the defences of people who are forever being faced with changes, and also the clarity of what we are doing here. I can say that my group is in favour of a European Public Prosecutor’s office; we are in favour of a European criminal code, of Europe-wide rights for suspects and for victims, of the sharing of information and, above all, in favour of a hefty investment in the in-depth training of all police and judicial officers in European cooperation. The fact is that, ultimately, it is on the workfloor, rather than here, that this will need to be put into practice. I hope that we can all join forces in a major effort, including a financial injection, in order to ensure that everyone is well-informed about this.

 
  
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  Krarup (GUE/NGL). (DA) Mr President, both reports are expressions of the well-known ambition to extend the power of the EU institutions at the expense both of the Member States and ultimately, therefore, of democracy

Of Mr Di Pietro’s report, I can only say that it concerns a matter belonging within the remit of the Council of Europe and not of the EU.

Mr Costa’s report is full of fine-sounding idealism, but the ideals and the good intentions suffer from the unfortunate defect of generally lacking a basis in reality. I would first of all point to the fact that, in a number of Member States, criminal procedure and the prison systems contain numerous gross infringements of fundamental human rights. Should not reality be cultivated over and above airy ideals? The report’s single ambition is to cultivate mutual trust in the principle of mutual recognition of the other Member States’ legal decisions. Yes, but what if the Polish, Greek or Italian judge, counsel for the prosecution or prison authority does not deserve to be trusted? What matters is surely what happens in reality. The report’s second objective is to force the Member States to punish specific acts, as per Article 271 of the Constitution. If reality had had a role to play and if the criminologists had been asked, a clear answer would have been received. What we have here is, at worst, barbarism and, at best, arbitrariness.

 
  
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  Borghezio (IND/DEM).(IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, we have talked about the quality of justice and we have examined the report, which seems to be based on an attempt to bring forward the Treaty provisions, particularly Article III-271 on the assessment of particularly serious criminal acts, such as those connected with terrorism.

It is fair to ask, then, whether we are not pushing ahead too far with this rather optimistic vision of the quality of justice and mutual recognition of judiciaries. Indeed, precisely on the sensitive subject of terrorism, some very serious things are happening, such as decision number 2849104 by the judge for pre-trial hearings in Milan, Dr Forleo, on the subject of terrorism. The decision, concerning the activities of some people charged with terrorism (whose names were placed on both the United Nations and the European Union lists), makes a strange distinction, invented by the judge herself, between terrorists and guerrillas. The judge in question specifically writes that ‘violent or guerrilla activities, even if carried out by armed forces other than regular forces, cannot be prosecuted even under international law, provided there is no breach of international humanitarian law’.

We are faced with Community laws on terrorism that have been stripped of meaning. We are faced with the betrayal of the civilised stand against terrorism adopted by Europe – including in this Chamber. It is a very serious matter, and I feel it is my duty to condemn it.

 
  
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  Libicki (UEN).   (PL) Many thanks, Mr President. Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, when debates on accession to the European Union were held in the new Member States, including my country, Poland, the key arguments we put forward related not only to economic growth and national security, but also to personal security. This issue is all the more important because crime is rising throughout Europe, unfortunately also in the new Member States, and radical measures must be taken to stem this constant rise. A great many new types of crime have appeared, for example the well-publicised problem of Internet crime, and all these developments mean that new regulations are required. They also mean that there is a need for harmonisation, and this is why we welcome both Mr Di Pietro’s report on the exchange of information from the criminal register and Mr Costa’s report on the quality of criminal justice in the European Union.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the harmonisation of criminal law, or indeed of any other kind of law, must not merely mean that everyone is brought down to the same level, or that differences are eradicated to the detriment of national traditions, customs and needs. The latter are the basis upon which national legislation has been established, and if harmonisation were to take place in too mechanical a fashion, local traditions could be harmed. Most importantly, countries should not have to bring their legislation into line with laws and customs in other countries where criminals are treated with particular care, where they are gradually transformed into victims while the victims are forgotten, and where criminals can in fact expect greater protection than victims.

This relates in particular to the issue of whether detainees should be granted the right to be seen by a psychiatrist, who would have the task of immediately assessing the detainee’s behaviour, and potentially absolving him or her of guilt. It may well be appropriate for this to happen at a later stage in the judicial procedure, but it need not occur at the very beginning. It must not result in criminals enjoying greater rights than victims, even though this is something that is unfortunately becoming increasingly common in modern legislation and judicial practice. It is unacceptable for the victim to be viewed as already having irrevocably become a victim, while at the same time the criminal is considered to be some sort of new victim who must be rescued, as this is quite simply untrue. The criminal should always remain a criminal and the victim a victim.

The exchange of information from the criminal register is another issue worth considering. It should not be forgotten that the lengths of time after which criminal convictions are deemed spent vary between the different Member States, and steps should be taken to avoid situations in which someone is regarded as having a criminal conviction in one Member State, although this is no longer the case in another Member State.

Many thanks, Mr President. I have finished, and there is no need for you to use your gavel.

 
  
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  Claeys (NI). (NL) Mr President, in the explanatory note to its proposal, the Commission states that recent tragic paedophile cases have brought to light major dysfunctions in the exchange of information about convictions among the Member States. Commissioner Frattini mentioned the Fourniret case a moment ago. A French paedophile, having been convicted in his own country, was able to go about his business undisturbed in Belgium, because the French authorities had not thought it necessary to provide the relevant authorities with information about him. The proposal that is now being debated is far too long in coming. It is, after all, a supplement to the Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, which dates back to 1959. Moreover, the proposal is inadequate and does not offer an answer to a large number of problems. The Member States must update their criminal records and make them available more quickly. They must also provide information requested by other Member States more promptly and use standard forms to do it. Those are a few steps in the right direction, but this is all, of course, in anticipation of the introduction of a fully-fledged, automated system of data exchange. The Commission must set about this at the earliest opportunity, certainly when it claims that the system will not be in place for another few years – itself a bad omen. There are, of course, a huge number of legal implications, and these will need to be discussed at length. Once this House has voted on the present proposal, we must certainly not create the impression that the problems relating to the exchange of information have been resolved. The Commission has used an apt example to illustrate that this is clearly not the case. Member States are not required to inform the state where convicts live when that is not the state of their nationality. In other words, these measures will enable Fourniret, whom I have already mentioned, to slip through the net once again.

 
  
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  Kudrycka (PPE-DE).   (PL) Mr President, both the Tampere Programme, and later the Hague Programme, identified the mutual recognition of judgments in criminal cases as one of the European Union’s goals in the field of criminal law. Effective judicial cooperation based on mutual trust is required to achieve this goal, as a lack of such cooperation can mean that criminals hide in other countries in order to evade responsibility for their crimes. This in turn leads to a rise in feelings of impunity, which results in increased crime levels in Europe. It is for this reason that my political group welcomes the Costa report, which contains recommendations to the European Commission relating to the establishment of a quality charter for criminal justice, as the fundamental rights granted to defendants, victims and barristers by the proposed charter may at the same time be used as criteria for a mutual assessment of the quality of justice. Although a specific legal basis for such an assessment will not be provided until the Constitutional Treaty is in force, I believe that a general legal basis can already be found in the Treaty of Maastricht. In my opinion, it would therefore be a good idea for the European Commission to comply with the report’s recommendations by starting to develop the criteria and methods to be used in carrying out such assessments. This task will be complicated somewhat by the fact that allowance must be made for the varying legal systems which are in place in the different Member States and which are based on different legal traditions and cultures, as well as for the different judicial systems. The methods for carrying out such assessments should also ensure that credible conclusions are reached based on reliable analyses. It is worth noting that mutual assessments of justice should also be backed up by other measures, such as those that ensure the independence of the judiciary from political influence is not only respected, but also enhanced. I thank you.

 
  
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  Lambrinidis (PSE).(EL) Mr President, criminal justice in Europe needs to be independent but not beyond evaluation and beyond examination. European citizens need to have confidence in the criminal justice system, they need to be confident that their fundamental rights will be respected, they need to be confident that transparency and quality will be present in any court in the European Union.

We recently had a very bad experience in Greece: the discovery of bribery and corruption in the judicial system. It is a discovery which has severely shaken the confidence of Greek citizens in their judicial system. Although the Greek judicial system is now putting its house in order, that is not enough. As other countries in Europe which have faced similar corruption in their judicial system know, this is very, very difficult. We are therefore being called upon to bring in European support. How can Europe provide support? By evaluating special procedures and best practices. And where does the problem lie? Anyone who contests the importance of evaluation is being conniving. Even if a Member State believes that its criminal justice system is so exceptional that it has nothing to learn from the others, it should at least help the others to learn from it and, as judges themselves are involved in the quality map, there is no problem about their independence with this proposal.

 
  
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  Drčar Murko (ALDE). (SL) Thank you. In view of the extensive range of the provisions in the Constitutional Treaty for Europe regarding the convergence of national legislations in the area of criminal, material and procedural law, we may conclude that the plan for a single criminal law area is taking on an increasingly clear outline. Setting it down in the Constitutional Treaty is the result of legislative development since 1990, and not its beginning, and it relies in particular on the principle of mutual trust. In view of the different constitutional orders and criminal law traditions, this trust must be based on specific, comparable, minimum criteria.

We support this orientation, but parliamentarians also have a duty to monitor closely the methods of unifying legislations, especially in terms of the urgent need to strengthen the protection of basic human rights. If we were not attentive to the balance between these two elements, criminal law would be effectively unified, but it would not necessarily be democratically legitimised. Criminal law is also an identity card for the quality of democracy. Thank you.

 
  
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  Allister (NI). Mr President, I have no difficulty with the sensible exchange of information about criminal convictions between Member States, but only the politically blind could fail to recognise the proposals in the Costa report as part of the harmonisation process that is under way in the criminal justice system across Europe. That, of course, is in anticipation of the EU Constitution, within which that harmonisation has a key role to play.

I for one am opposed to a criminal justice system established on the continental model, with its inherent assault upon the essential building blocks of our distinctive and historic British common law system, which include not least trial by jury, habeas corpus, and the separation of the judiciary from the investigative process.

This Costa report, despite its plausible verbiage, is part of that process of harmonisation aimed at creating a single criminal justice system. That is not serving the interests of the British nation in my view and therefore I will oppose that report.

 
  
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  Wieland (PPE-DE). (DE) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, it is sometimes the case that the Commission, the Council or Parliament – or two of these institutions, or all three of them – are too many steps ahead of the public or a particular group; in such cases we act with too much haste and too much ambition, and are then forced to carry the weary upon our shoulders. The issue we are debating tonight is one for which we all bear responsibility, because what is of vital importance is the results we achieve – or rather, those we do not achieve. Commissioner, it is not merely that we are struggling to keep up with the real nature of crime today, given that for many years now organised crime has no longer been the only kind of crime that crosses borders; we are also struggling to keep up with individual crime.

In both cases we are also struggling to give the public what it wants. The public has a right, and indeed the political will, to ensure that twenty-first century crime is not fought with nineteenth century methods. Unfortunately, the impression is sometimes given that information is requested and delivered by telegram, and it therefore needs to flow better. Despite the numerous fears that have been expressed, this would not mean any reduction in the level of data protection; after all, information relating to certain types of specialised crime committed in Kehl is just as important in Offenburg as in Strasbourg. Our priority in exchanging of information of this kind is the public’s right to protection, and not the criminal's right to privacy.

Nor is the issue at stake here that of trust between Member States; it is quite simply a matter of whether the public trusts Europe, and the extent to which it trusts us to do a good job of handling this issue. If there is a conclusion to be drawn from all of this, then it is that we are actually asking – as a leading German newspaper has done – whether the public wants a single criminal code, and the answer to that question is ‘yes’.

The conclusion that should be drawn from this report is that everyone should state clearly whether they want genuine improvements to be made or not, and that in any case software problems should not be used as a smokescreen.

 
  
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  Fava (PSE).(IT) Mr President, Mr Frattini, ladies and gentlemen, I do not wish to add anything to the reports by Mr Di Pietro and Mr Costa, with which I am in absolute agreement. I should like, instead, to reflect on a contradiction that we are being called upon to face this evening.

Everyone knows that only a strengthening of judicial cooperation can make a significant contribution to the fight against terrorism and organised crime, and that implies mutual recognition of judicial decisions, exchange of information and harmonisation of guarantees relating to legal procedure. We also know, however, that many Member States do all they can to hinder such judicial cooperation in every way. Your mandate, therefore, in our opinion, also consists in standing up to the Council and making sure that all the European institutions firmly adhere to that objective.

Greater political will is needed to enable us to carry out what the European Constitution provides for and prescribes, which we do not want to remain unfulfilled. Precisely for the sake of consultation and judicial cooperation, Mr Frattini, we urge you to intervene respectfully but firmly with the Italian Parliament and the Italian Government, partly because you used to be a minister in that government yourself. Italy is the only country not to have implemented the European arrest warrant. Something that might have been just serious until yesterday is, you will agree, an absolute paradox today.

 
  
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  Ek (ALDE). (SV) Mr President, this debate is about confidence and trust. In every Member State, every prison and every detention centre, there are nonetheless people who feel they were given unfair trials due to the fact that they did not know the language, that the evidence was not evaluated correctly or that they were brutally treated by the police or while they were in custody. This is in spite of the fact that we have rules in place in Articles 6 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and, above all perhaps, in rules forming part of Community law within the EU.

If people are to dare to make use of the four freedoms, we must also have rules governing the security not only of goods and capital but also of individuals. For people to be able to assert their rights, current rules require national legal remedies to have been exhausted. A court can request an advisory opinion during a trial, but an individual cannot. We must, then, introduce the opportunity for individuals to request personal enquiries or special representatives so that they are given the same rights as courts. Only then shall we be able to talk about confidence and trust.

 
  
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  Coelho (PPE-DE).(PT) Mr President, Mr Frattini, ladies and gentlemen, there is work for us to do together if we are to improve the standards of quality and efficiency of justice. We must be mindful that the cornerstone of our European themes is the independence of the judicial system and the protection of citizens’ fundamental rights, at both substantial and procedural level. In case there is any doubt – and I am happy to say this again – I wish to compliment Mr Costa on his excellent report, which states that European citizens must be guaranteed the right to justice, both by the Union, whereby they are guaranteed comparable treatment, regardless of the Member State in which they happen to be, and by the Member States, depending on their respective powers, whilst ensuring that the differences between the various judicial systems do not stand in the way of attaining high quality justice and protection in the area of freedom, security and justice.

I agree with the rapporteur that mutual trust must be strengthened in order that there can be mutual recognition of judicial decisions, thereby contributing towards the gradual development of a European judicial culture. I endorse the idea of adopting a European Criminal Justice Charter, which would be the basis for evaluating how well the judicial systems in the Union work. I also support the idea of setting up an objective and impartial system for mutually evaluating the quality of justice, based on comparable statistical data, which should be put into practice at the earliest opportunity and should involve both the European Parliament and national parliaments.

I should also like to commend Mr Di Pietro for his work and for the proposals that he is putting forward on the reduction of time-limits and the conditions for access to personal data. In other words, the current system of exchanging criminal record information is not effective. It is essential that a computerised system be created for Member States to exchange information, offering quick access to this kind of information throughout EU territory, and I welcome Mr Frattini’s new ideas on the subject.

 
  
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  Moraes (PSE). Mr President, this is an important report because it emphasises two key areas which have not been emphasised enough previously. Mr António Costa has taken an important step forward in signalling that it is the quality of justice, and not just mutual recognition, which is key. If anyone in this House doubts this issue, they should look at the 'Copenhagen criteria'. The quality of justice in many of the accession states and the need for improvements was an essential part of joining the European Union.

Nor should any of the existing 15 Member States be complacent that they have all the right answers and the highest quality of justice. Look at how we deal with minorities and vulnerable people. That is where this issue will be tested.

The Quality Charter for Criminal Justice in Europe should not be something that Member States fear. They should welcome it, because this is one of the most visible areas of cooperation in the European Union that our citizens recognise. They see it in the media, they want to see solutions at a European level, they want to feel safe in a European Union which delivers swift justice and protection for the innocent.

 
  
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  Varvitsiotis (PPE-DE).(EL) Mr President, I shall confine myself to a few thoughts on Mr Di Pietro's report, which I fully support.

The rapporteur's report contains positive elements because, on the one hand, it specifies the dates and, on the other hand, it highlights the need to speed up procedure, in the event of urgent cases, to 48 hours.

However, the Commissioner's attention should be drawn to the fact that the issues addressed in the reports by both Mr Di Pietro and Mr Costa may be a step in the right direction but they cannot be seen as a daring step.

I believe, for example, that the application of the principle of mutual recognition in the field of criminal convictions must be an immediate priority. Also, the terms 'conviction' and 'criminal record' need to be clearly defined and the terms 'offence' and 'punishment' need to be harmonized.

I truly believe that the integration of the European Union cannot come about if we do not proceed rapidly to unify rules relating to justice. However, the Commissioner's intervention today did not convince me that the Commission will proceed at such a rapid pace in this direction and that is a pity.

 
  
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  Cederschiöld (PPE-DE). (SV) Mr President, the common legal area is based upon mutual recognition. In recognising each other’s judgments, we must be able to rely upon the quality of the legal systems, rely upon equal treatment, rely upon effective due process and rely upon fair trials with counsel and, if need be, interpretation. Let us compete on an upward trajectory where legal quality is concerned. Thank you, Mr Costa, for a constructive report.

I turn now to the exchange of information, which is a more sensitive area. Mr Di Pietro has improved the proposal, but I should like to emphasise three points. Firstly, data protection will have to be of the same quality within the sphere of combating crime as it is within the internal market before data is exchanged. Secondly, the European Data Protection Supervisor must express his or her opinions on sensitive issues. Thirdly: in addition to the Member States’ being informed of how the information is used, the individual too must be told what information has been given out.

We have been given a Commissioner who, I know, listens and who understands these issues. I hope that Commissioner Frattini will include these three elements in the future when it comes to increasing data protection in order to ensure that we obtain the same quality of data protection in the sphere of combating crime as we already have in the internal market. In this connection, I really pin a lot of hope on Commissioner Frattini’s further efforts. I wish to thank him for the efforts he has already made in the area of data storage and believe that these will also bear fruit in the area of data exchange.

 
  
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  Esteves (PPE-DE).(PT) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, the issue of the quality of criminal justice and the harmonisation of criminal legislation is a core theme in the EU’s global justice project. Criminal justice is the most hotly debated area of human rights – its reciprocal nature, its conflicts and the fact that it is based on a principle of essential dignity. The criminal justice issue therefore goes to the moral core of European political culture. It is therefore of pressing importance that we pursue an active policy aimed at enhancing the quality of criminal justice and at harmonising Member State legislation.

The emergence of a European Constitution, which incorporates a binding Charter of Fundamental Rights and constitutes a system of values characterised by unity and integration, demands higher quality justice and the harmonisation of criminal legislation. Criminal law is in fact material constitutional law and synthesises all fundamental constitutional values. The absence of harmonisation in this area will imply non-compliance with the principle of equality among citizens, and, by extension, non-compliance with the Constitution. The harmonisation of the criminal justice system must not therefore be done half-heartedly, nor must it be merely the basis for mutual recognition of judicial decisions; it should be an end in itself. A concerted policy, by virtue of the very fact that it is a concerted policy, does not jeopardise the Member States’ decision-making powers in this area.

The European Constitution’s system of values also implies that the harmonisation of legislation must cut across the entire criminal justice system. It should not solely consider the main strands of the process and the serving of sentences, but should be extended to cover the substantive rules, the politics of defining offences and to the criteria for setting sentences. Security should not be the sole concern; we should also be concerned with humanising criminal justice.

If Europe does not embrace this scheme, its Constitution’s justice system will be, to quote Kafka’s satirical metaphor, a system of open doors through which nobody can enter.

 
  
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  Frattini, Vice-President of the Commission. – (IT) Mr President, I am grateful to the rapporteurs and the Members who have spoken, even for calling on the Commission to act and to act quickly. I shall try to give not exhaustive answers – clearly I will not have time for that – but some information that may be useful to Parliament.

By the end of April, the Commission will present a communication on mutual recognition and the development of the principle of mutual trust. This communication will include and touch on most of the issues covered by the two reports that we are examining today, and will deal with the evaluation of justice, training for judges and the harmonisation of a number of procedural rules. In that respect, I would also add that by the end of the year we will be putting out a Green Paper on the presumption of innocence: many Members of this Parliament have highlighted the need to reconcile the right to safety, and hence the right to have crime brought under control, with legal guarantees for the accused.

In early 2006 we will be publishing a second Green Paper dealing with the gathering of evidence, which will certainly be followed by more complete initiatives on the implementation of alternative sentences as well as an interesting – and, I hope, extremely useful – initiative: a framework decision, which we expect to draw up during 2005, on alternative control measures to temporary custody. You are aware that the subject of temporary custody, or detention prior to conviction, is one in which people’s rights to freedom have to be weighed against the state’s right to prosecute criminals. These, then, are just a few examples of initiatives – but ones I believe to be important – which the Commission will be putting forward over the coming months.

Ladies and gentlemen, I will be happy if the Member States in the Council are as bold as you have been today regarding the exchange of information on criminal records. The Commission would certainly like to move faster on the computerised information exchange system. We started a debate last month at the Luxembourg Council of Ministers and we intend to continue it. There are technical problems, however, as well as the political ones which someone pointed out. We still lack that degree of mutual trust that we need to allow data on past convictions to be entered into an electronic search engine, which in technical terms could be set up very quickly. As Mr Di Pietro rightly said, it is not a question of new data but of data on convictions, which can be used by judges. We will therefore be very careful to prevent any use of such data that falls outside the rationale given by the judicial authority – which we obviously have to trust – when it asks to see the information.

To conclude, I believe that this subject needs a more united Europe. It needs a more united Europe because we have to harmonise our criminal justice systems, which are unfortunately highly diverse, and we have to be sure of the legal positions when – and let us emphasise this – we respect the independence of the judiciary. Perhaps we should worry about harmonising the rules: the rules about what a criminal association is and how and why the head of a criminal organisation can be punished vary too much from one country to another. That, then, is what we should worry about: harmonising the criminal law systems a little more. That is a job that we will do wholeheartedly. In the end, we will carefully monitor how well the Member States adhere to these principles.

In three days’ time, I will be presenting the Commission communication on the European arrest warrant to the Council meeting of Justice Ministers, and I will take the opportunity to say quite clearly that unfortunately – and much to my regret – Italy is the only country in Europe that has not yet adopted the necessary national legislation, and that there are also a few countries that have adopted national legislation but, as one of you pointed out, have tried to reintroduce filters that are not in keeping with the European spirit. The arrest warrant legislation serves to speed up the implementation of certain procedures; if we want to speed it up in the case of terrorism and organised crime, all Member States must have confidence in the system, and we will keep a watchful eye open to ensure that Europe’s rules are fully observed.

 
  
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  President. The debate is closed.

The vote will take place tomorrow at 12 noon.

 
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