Vera Jourová: We will be strict with the US on Safe Harbour

V?ra Jourová [European Commission]

Brussels is moving forward on the Safe Harbour agreement with the US, and aims to finalise discussions by May, said EU Commissioner Vera Jourová.

European Commissioner in charge of Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Vera Jourová is a Czech politician. She spoke to Lucie Bednárová, from EURACTIV Czech Republic.

Your portfolio is extremely wide and covers many topics. What will be your priorities for this year?

My main priorities are the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) and EU data protection reform. We also have to move forward with the Equal Treatment Directive, and the Women on Boards Directive.

In the autumn, I am going to meet representatives of member states and key NGOs in the area of fundamental rights. We are going to talk about tolerance and non-discrimination, and about the need to tackle anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim moods in the EU. I also contribute to the Commission’s work on internal security and the fight against terrorism. We will present an EU security strategy in April.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asked you to ensure the EPPO can be established in 2016. However, you are still facing some resistance from several member states. How do you persuade those countries?

My impression from Council meetings is that we are all clear about the need to have this institution. I also feel the support from the European Parliament. Even if some member states have different opinions, I can certainly say that we are moving in small, but decisive steps. My aim is to have the final text approved by the Council by December.

What is currently being negotiated?

Later this week, we will discuss the structure of the EPPO, relations with European delegated prosecutors located in each state, the selection process, and the division of competences with member state representatives. I am going to insist that the European public prosecutor should be able to decide how to proceed with a legal case – whether it is to be passed to a relevant national court, or whether the prosecution stops. I have to also assure member states that we are not going to push them to change their national criminal procedures.

From my point of view, the most important thing is to keep the EPPO proposal in [good enough] shape so that it is still worth setting it up. We have to avoid situations where we have so many compromises that the whole model becomes an empty box. We still need to keep in mind that it is a procedure that will deal with people. Defendants have rights, such as the right to a speedy and fair trial, among others. There is a need to do all we can and not make it even longer.

Your next task is to ensure the swift adoption of EU data protection reform. The package was supported by the European Parliament last spring, and it is now up to member states to give their opinion. At what stage are the negotiations, and what obstacles have you encountered?

Data protection reform is very important for consumer trust in the Digital Single Market. Initially, progress was slow in the Council, but there is now strong momentum to finalise the reform by 2015. The biggest issue in recent months has been the so called “one-stop-shop” for data protection [a cooperation mechanism between the data protection authorities].

We tried to find a solution which would be functional and quick. The main idea is that in the event someone misuses your data, or [uses it] in contradiction to what you had agreed to, you can turn to the data protection authority in your country. You do not need to travel to Spain, to sue a Spanish company, for instance.

At the same time, we are working to make data protection obligations for institutions and businesses more accurate and effective. We are talking about who is going to be concerned. There are companies that are not dealing with personal data and it makes no sense for them to have specific data protection officials. On the other hand, companies whose business models rely on data processing need to address privacy concerns from the start. This is essential to gain consumer trust.

When are you expecting to reach a compromise?

We are trying to put the reform to the vote in the EU Council by June at the latest. Just after that, we could start the trilogues with the European Parliament. I believe that together with the Latvian Presidency, we can make it.

You are negotiating with the United States on Safe Harbour, a data protection agreement to protect the privacy of EU citizens . The European Commission wants the US to implement 13 recommendations to improve Safe Harbour. Your objective is to finalise these discussions with the US by May. Is there any progress?

We received a guarantee that the US will control the system more often. We are now solving the issue of responsibilities over the transfers of personal data from companies under the Safe Harbour Framework to its subcontractors and business partners.

More complicated is the issue of if and how the US secret services could use the data we are sending to the US for security reasons. The US has assured us that the internal rules of secret services guarantee the safety of this data. We are analysing it and asking the US what it means exactly. We need to be sure about the interpretation of these rules and their actual application. I have made it very clear we are going to be strict about it.

Is there a possibility to suspend the data-sharing agreement?

Yes, there is. But it is a plan B. I still believe we can manage to strengthen Safe Harbour. I want to finalise discussions by May.

In 2012, former European Commissioner Viviane Reding presented a proposal for the Women on Boards Directive, which aims to break the glass ceiling barring female talent from top positions in Europe’s listed companies. Some member states do not agree with it…

First, I would like to stress the name of the directive could be confusing. The proposed legislation aims to help not only women, but any underrepresented gender, which could be, in some cases, men.

I am visiting those member states which are against the proposal. I gained the support of Austria, and now I am planning to go to Germany, the Netherlands and also to my mother country, the Czech Republic. I still need to get one big and two small countries on board.

The proposed Maternity Leave Directive has been dormant in the Council of the European Union for a few years. Will you try to bring it back to life?

The European Commission is not blocking anything. Progress depends on the Council and European Parliament. Together with representatives of the European Parliament and the Latvian Presidency, we are trying to find out what the situation looks like. If we do not achieve significant progress by mid-2015, we will withdraw the proposal. I see signs in the European Parliament that it could “awaken” this proposal though.

In the context of the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, the European Commission started working on a new security strategy, which should be ready in April. How would you like to contribute to this strategy?

I am in charge of the issues concerning criminal law. I am preparing a proposal about the extension of European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS) on people who are not from the EU. I would also like to get some resources for the special training of people who work with suspects. Apart from public prosecutors and judges, it also concerns prison and probation services. The aim is to prevent the spread of radicalism, which is present mainly in jails.

In the area of legislation, I think member states should accept a common definition of terrorism and the so-called foreign fighters. Several states does not consider planning a trip overseas with the aim of joining the services of foreign power as a crime. At the same time, there is a need to strengthen the cooperation between Eurojust and Europol, and also to extend Eurojust into non-EU countries such as Turkey.

Last but not least, we have to fully implement the EU Money Laundering Directive, which should contribute to the prevention of financing terrorist activities. The proposal of confiscation of criminal assets, which is a completely new initiative, is part of that. We are now trying to find how far we can actually go, and also whether it is a correct approach to confiscate a property of someone who is a suspect, but has not yet been accused and charged.

Former Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radi?ová has joined your team. What will she do?

Iveta will serve as an external adviser. At our first meeting, we had a long debate about immigration and its roots and sociological aspects, and also about how to handle this issue. Next time we will address maternity leave, and relevant aspects of family and labour law. I am really looking forward to our cooperation.

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