Towards greater integration – The establishment of the EU IT agency
Desk Officer, COREPER II Co-ordination Division, European Union Department
On the afternoon of 2 December 2010, you could read the following news in the news ticker: “The EU ministers of the interior endorsed the establishment of the EU IT agency, with the headquarters in Tallinn, Estonia. The joint Franco-Estonian proposal concerning the seat of the agency submitted by Mr. Marko Pomerants, Minister of the Interior of Estonia and Mr. Brice Hortefeux, Minister of the Interior of France received the unanimous support of the member states”.
The attentive reader of this news will have noticed a couple of key words – the creation of an EU agency with its headquarters in Tallinn, Estonia, and a joint Franco-Estonian proposal. No doubt this news will have raised questions like: Why such an agency? What tasks should it perform? And why a joint proposal?
The European Union has been creating different agencies since 1975. They all have clearly defined objectives. Although in general these objectives coincide with the tasks performed by the European Commission, life has shown that further specialisation through an agency is a more efficient solution. There are a number of areas in which the agencies have proved themselves – the safe use of chemicals (ECHA), the protection of the exterior borders of the EU member states (FRONTEX), or the development of vocational training (CEDEFOP), just to name a few. The European Council decided in 2003 that if new agencies were created in the future, the new member states with no previous agencies would be preferred for the location of the headquarters.
The creation of each of the EU agencies has been preceded by a concrete need. The necessity of the agency at hand arose from passport-free travel within the Schengen Area. More precisely, travel by three different groups – those living in the Schengen Area, tourists wanting to visit the Schengen Area, and refugees seeking international protection in the Schengen Area.
The vast majority of Europeans have grown so accustomed to passport-free travel that crossing an international border in a car or train stirs up as much emotion as crossing the county line. However, the increased freedom of travel also brings with it a greater crime risk. To be able to feel equally safe in each of the member states, it is indispensible that national police exchange operational information with their counterparts in other member states. The extent of the information and the exchange is of course strictly defined. Indeed, without the possibility of sharing information, the police would have great difficulties ascertaining whether a suspicious vehicle has been declared missing in another member state (if the travel documents presented are indeed authentic) or what is the origin of a suspicious firearm. This is the kind of information exchanged through the Schengen Information System, or SIS.
In order for visitors from third countries to freely move about in the Schengen Area, the consulates of the member states issue visas that grant entry to all the countries of the Schengen Area. Here, too, sharing information between countries in real time is of the essence. The Visa Information System – VIS, which is in the making – will be an integral part of this information exchange.
The third group whose freedoms are of concern in the Schengen Area are those seeking international protection in case of a natural disaster or armed conflict. They may not possess any kind of identity documents, or those that they have may not have a sufficient standard of security. The fingerprints of refugees are saved and stored in a system named EURODAC. This system decreases the chance of the abuse of the asylum system, as new fingerprints are compared to the ones already recorded in the database.
At the time of writing the current article, the regulation establishing the IT agency is receiving its final inter-institutional polish. It is fairly certain that the agency will be created and that it will be a new agency. Still, this agency will not appear from nothing. The colloquial name of the agency is the EU IT Agency. The official full name, however, reads the European Union Agency for operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security and justice. The three systems that were explained above are all covered by this clumsy name. France has already played an integral role in the development of two of the systems – the SIS and the VIS – over a lengthy period. In addition, the servers that house these systems are located in Strasbourg, France.
Hosting the headquarters of an EU agency is, without a doubt, an important tool that helps a member state become more profoundly integrated with the union. When the principle decision to create an IT agency was made at the end of 2009, there were two member states interested in hosting it. One of them was France, who hosts most of the servers the agency would run. The other was Estonia, a country known for its excellence in the IT sector, which hoped to provide a natural environment for the agency. Estonia has focused throughout its candidacy on the relative success of its IT sector.
Although each country had every right to pose its candidature separately, and each country had its respective strengths, bilateral negotiations between Estonia and France led to the presentation of a common proposal. This Franco-Estonian proposal draws from each of their respective strengths. The Estonian Government has promised to provide the agency with office space, while the agency will only be responsible for the running costs. Additionally, Estonia will invest some 3 million EUR in the programme connected to welcoming the Agency, including the launch of a full-fledged European School curriculum. There have been significant investments made in establishing the data centre in Strasbourg. The Franco-Estonian proposal makes full use of these investments.
The result is a truly European effective solution. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that this process has strengthened co-operation between the respective French and Estonian ministries. No doubt, the two countries are different – one being small, the other large; one being an old, and one a new member state. But getting to know each other lays the groundwork for future closer co-operation. And is that not the essence of the European Union?