During the days last week that our election campaign came to its climax, and then yielded its interesting result, the EU threw out various announcements useful to lawyers.
You may think that, with the Brexit talks beginning next week, there are more important topics on which to focus. But these various EU developments provide a telling snapshot of the state of the EU at a time when we on our side are gearing up to begin negotiations.
The extent to which our Prime Minister’s mandate has been changed by the election is hotly debated as I write. None of the old answers – hard or soft, for instance – appear as settled as they were last week. The EU, on the other hand, is sailing full steam ahead.
First, the European Commission launched a few days ago its ‘Find a Company’ service on the European e-Justice portal. I have often praised this portal as a resource for lawyers, with comprehensive legal information at both national and European levels.
It has a growing ‘Find a …’ section, which covers lawyers, notaries, legal translators and interpreters, mediators, and now companies. That means that the national electronic directories containing details of these various groups across the EU are linked up, allowing lawyers to search in one place across Europe for someone (a lawyer, say) or something (a company now) in accordance with certain criteria.
The ‘Find a Lawyer’ function has been operating successfully for some years, covering nearly all of the EU, and available in all EU languages. The Law Society of Northern Ireland has just added its database to the directory (I have given up asking when our own Law Society will do the same, one of just a handful of hold-outs across member states).
‘Find a Company’ enables searchers to find company details on-line, and in due course even to purchase the details for a fee, through a single search engine. At present, the search facility covers 10 countries – Denmark, Germany, Greece, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden and Norway. But the portal promises greater coverage soon, and I know from my experience with ‘Find a Lawyer’ that other member states will join, given the usefulness of the exercise for citizens and businesses.
The resource will continue to be of value to solicitors even after Brexit, since the portal is open to any users, whether based inside or outside the EU. The data itself, though, is restricted to companies registered in EU and EEA member states, arising as it does out of a directive on the interconnection of central, commercial and companies registers. The portal informs users that, if they wish to access information and/or documents from those registers which are not yet part of the ‘Find a Company’ page, they can find links to the respective national registers on another page, where indeed the link to our own Companies House appears.
Also last week, the European Commission reminded everyone that roaming charges in the EU for mobile phones will end this week, on 15 June . Europeans travelling within EU countries will pay domestic prices for roaming calls, SMS and data. That will affect law firms and their clients.
There is a useful page with frequently asked questions. For instance, the roaming offer applies provided that you are more often at home than abroad; calls received abroad in the EU will be free; and there are special arrangements for those who live in border regions where the network might pick up signals from providers in different countries.
Clearly, the roaming offer will cease to apply to the UK when we leave the EU, unless our Brexit deal covers it.
There were two interesting developments for lawyers arising from the meeting of EU justice ministers last week. One will likely never apply to the UK, since the UK has already opted out of it. Twenty member states reached political agreement on the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). The EPPO will be an independent prosecutor with the power to investigate and prosecute criminal cases affecting the EU budget, such as corruption or fraud related to EU funds, or cross-border VAT fraud. The issue now moves to the European Parliament for agreement.
The ministers also devoted time to unaccompanied minors in migration. In 2015 and 2016, 30% of asylum applicants in the EU were children, many travelling without their family. Among other things, the ministers affirmed a European Commission communication on the subject from April this year. More resources will clearly be focused on such children in the future.
Come on, our government! Find in the remaining days the energy and vision to negotiate a deal with 27 other countries that will pass through our new parliament. We all need it.