Thursday, 29 April 2021
European Union Regulation: Motion
I thank the Deputies for their contributions. There were some important and technical issues raised and I will try to get answers for the Deputies on some of those points.
We all agree that co-operation with Europol makes sense. The threats that we face are continuing to evolve. Criminals will always be ready to exploit the advantages that they can gain from new situations and technologies and I am thinking about the Internet and how fast this is changing in our everyday lives. Globalisation and increased mobility of people also present new opportunities for criminals. I am conscious that there have been four significant terrorist attacks in Europe since September 2020 alone. Terrorism remains a significant threat to our freedom and to the way of life of the citizens of the European Union.
I have no doubt that criminals will exploit the Covid-19 crisis in ways that we have not even imagined yet. The European Commission is of the view that the full impact of the Covid-19 crisis on security is not yet apparent but it could potentially shape the landscape of serious and organised crimes in the EU for the mid to long term. Given how everything is changing, we must ensure that Europol has the capabilities and tools to support member states effectively in countering serious crime and terrorism. The political guidelines for the von der Leyen Commission stated that the EU would leave no stone unturned when it comes to protecting our citizens.
While this appears to be a highly technical proposal from the Commission, it is simply about keeping people safe. As I said earlier, the opt-in allows Ireland to participate in the negotiation process. It is not clear if all of the issues raised in the draft regulation will be part of the final agreed instrument. There may be elements of the proposals that would be of real value to Ireland and some elements that would be of less importance to us. With that in mind, I do not propose to go over all of the key provisions of the regulation again but there are a number that I would like to focus on.
First, I refer to co-operation with third countries. The 2016 regulation gave the power to the European Commission to conclude co-operation agreements on behalf of Europol with third countries. Since then, no new agreements have been reached and negotiations are underway with only one third country, New Zealand. There is a requirement to put such agreements in place in a quicker manner and Ireland will support any changes which will allow that to happen. The amending regulation proposes changes to allow the executive director to be authorised to transfer certain data to third countries in specific situations on a case-by-case basis. The circumstances for such transfers will need to be properly regulated.
Concerns have been raised in this House and in the other House on data protection. Europol already operates to the highest standards in this regard. Given the importance of the processing of personal data for the work of police in general, this draft regulation puts a particular focus on the need to ensure full compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and notably the rights to the protection of personal data and the respect of private life.
The regulation also outlined a more detailed designated position and the tasks of the Europol data protection officer, highlighting the importance of this function in the EU data protection architecture. There are new safeguards on the processing of personal data for research innovation processes and new provisions on the keeping of records of categories of data-processing activities.
Questions have been raised about the provision on "private parties". By "private parties" the regulation is referring to private non-state actors which are legal persons. This would include Internet service providers and social media companies. Criminals increasingly use the cross-border services of private parties to communicate and carry out illegal activities such as child pornography, radicalisation or credit card fraud.
The new rules would allow Europol to engage directly with private parties in member states. The new provisions respond to the problems faced by private parties and law enforcement authorities when co-operating on crimes in which the offender, victims and relevant IT infrastructure are under multiple jurisdictions within the European Union and beyond.
The new provisions would also allow Europol to support law enforcement authorities in its interactions with private parties on, for example, the removal of terrorist content online. These provisions are highly important.
I refer also to the provisions in relation to the parliamentary oversight and accountability of Europol. The European Parliament has been supportive of a stronger role for Europol. A resolution in the parliament in July 2020 stated that "a strengthened mandate should go hand-in-hand with adequate parliamentary scrutiny". The European Parliament will require detailed justification for the necessity for any new data processing capability at Europol and will call for strong data protection safeguards.
Provisions contained in the draft introduce new reporting obligations for Europol to the joint parliamentary scrutiny group and I support these provisions. To enable effective political monitoring, Europol should provide a joint parliamentary group with annual information on the use of these new provisions.
Deputies will be aware that Ireland only recently joined the Schengen Information System, SIS, which enables Europe's law enforcement authorities to check and share data on banned, missing and wanted individuals, as well as lost or stolen property. This is the largest law enforcement database in Europe and connecting to it has already enhanced our national security and strengthened our co-operation at a European level.
This legislative initiative is linked to a separate legislative initiative that would allow Europol to enter data into the Schengen Information System, SIS, on the suspected involvement of a third country national in a crime in respect of which Europol is competent. Ireland is automatically bound by the SIS proposal, which the Government supports.
Finally, a range of other smaller but, still important, provisions are contained in the draft regulation that will add to the existing tasks of Europol, including supporting member states special intervention units; supporting member states through the co-ordination of cyber attacks; supporting investigations against high-risk criminals; supporting the Commission and the member states in carrying out effective risk assessments; providing threat assessment analysis; allowing Europol staff to give evidence in criminal proceedings in member states; and clarifying that Europol staff may provide operational support in member states should they be requested to do so.
The benefits of Ireland's full participation in Europol will always far outweigh any small aspects we do not like or do not seem to be relevant to us. As Minister of State, I would like to support An Garda Síochána in having access to all of the international systems and networks available to help it solve crime. International co-operation in tackling crime is essential in the modern world given the nature of serious and organised crime and terrorism. Consequently, full and active membership of organisations such as Europol is essential.
Once again, I ask the Deputies to support this motion and to support Ireland's continued, active engagement in Europol.