An overview of the EU’s week

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I try in this blog to describe weekly European news affecting the legal profession. Although I don’t expect sympathy, it can be a head-scratching challenge, since there are not always weekly developments on tap.

Policy-makers receive daily updates of EU news, and I scan the headlines for items of interest to English solicitors. There are plenty of newsworthy events, many of which are not reported in UK newspapers, and some of which could have an impact on professional practice. So I shall run through this week’s out loud, to give you a picture of what is happening in wider Europe.

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The one topic which has been reported widely in the UK is the continuing negotiation among governments around the recent Brighton conference on the future of the European Court of Human Rights. The slant in Brussels is somewhat different to that taken by a section of the UK media, who are gung-ho for cutting down the Court’s powers. Comments in the Euro-press say that the UK government, in trying to limit the power of the Court, is doing the work of the Russian government, which is also hostile to the Court - not surprisingly, given that 25% of the applications to the Court are against Russia, not known as a haven for human rights. They ask whether the UK should be in bed with Russia on this topic.

The long-running saga of the counter-terrorism agreement that transfers data on European air passengers to the USA - called PNR, after ‘passenger name records’ - has been continuing its way through the European parliament. It was the parliament that brought a successful action for annulment of the initial EU-US PNR agreement before the EU Court of Justice in 2004.

The original text, which obliged airlines to transfer 19 data items on passengers, was judged contrary to EU data protection rules. Parliament then refused to approve an agreement put together in 2007, before obtaining a right of veto on international agreements under the Lisbon Treaty. Parliamentary concerns include the absence of guarantees that the data will be used only to combat terrorism and organised crime, and not to combat illegal immigration, counterfeiting or minor offences. Despite parliamentary agitation from a number of political groups, the package has now passed.

The European commission has finally realised that economic growth should be a priority. I described recently how lawyers are caught up in the push for growth, and indeed the president of the commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said at the launch of a report this week that it was incomprehensible that governments are dragging their feet over growth-friendly legislation, such as opening up the internal market in services (which is usually a code-phrase for deregulation and liberalisation of the professions). He was speaking at the publication of an ideas paper on how to get Europe's record number of unemployed into jobs, including setting an appropriate minimum wage. Most member states have such a wage. Germany and Austria are among those that do not, and the Nordic countries have collective bargaining systems for many sectors in place of a minimum wage. There are four million vacant jobs in the EU, but people are reluctant to move as a result of language, culture and the complexities of cross-border pensions, social security rights and taxation. (I have moved cross-border to work, and can testify to these complexities.)

Related to the economic crisis, but trying to boost income through the recovery of money illegally hidden from governments rather than through growth, was a resolution debated last week in the parliament. It called for an end to banking secrecy in the EU and early agreement with Switzerland on revision of the 2004 savings taxation agreement between Switzerland and the EU. The European commission and the Danish EU council presidency are keen to make progress on tax evasion and tax havens, but Luxembourg and Austria - because they fear that they would be forced to ease some of their own banking secrecy rules - still refuse to give the commission a mandate to renegotiate the agreement with Switzerland. Part of the problem is that a handful of countries, including the UK, have negotiated separate arrangements with Switzerland (called ‘Rubik agreements’). The EU institutions would like to see the Swiss concessions in such agreements applied across the EU.

The principle behind the Rubik agreement is that taxpayers will be allowed to continue to deposit assets anonymously and legally in a Swiss bank subject to payment of a percentage of the assets as back taxes, to legalise their past situation, and payment in the future of taxes equivalent to what they would pay if the assets were declared.

Well, that is the wider week, rich in developments, and some of them I hope useful to you.

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs

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