As Commissioner Didier Reynders concludes in his introduction to this book, ‘…there will always be a need for the outstanding service Eurojust does for the safety of Europe’. I could not agree more. As I write this chapter, war is raging on Europe’s borders, and we are all confronted with one of the greatest and saddest challenges that we have had to face in our recent history, and one that impacts directly in the title of this chapter: freedom, security, justice.
I wish I did not have to start off with these words, but how could I not? My most sincere and deepest solidarity and sympathy go to the people of Ukraine: to the women, men and children that are suffering terrible losses and unspeakable fear from a brutal and unjustified act of aggression. We stand by you. Justice will be served.
And, of course, these reflections around the future perspectives and challenges of Eurojust in the midst of its 20th anniversary, would have been very different had it not been for this major challenge, in which Eurojust has courageously assumed its responsibility as the hub for international cooperation in cross-border investigations, including war crimes.
In the past few weeks, the International Court of Justice has issued an order for Russia to immediately suspend military operations in the territory of Ukraine; the International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened an investigation on the crimes committed in the territory of Ukraine and is working closely with Eurojust and the national prosecution services to support domestic investigations. Eurojust is leading a united and coordinated response by supporting the joint investigation team (JIT) with Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland, and by fostering close cooperation and exchange of information among national authorities. This is a necessary response to the illegality of Russia’s actions and a reminder that a united response from Europe, grounded in law, is vital.
In this context, the European Commission has shown courage and vision by taking up a coordination role to bring together the different actors involved in the response to the war in Ukraine. In the area of justice, this has been done mainly through two work strands.
In order to coordinate actions taken at a national level to freeze the assets of individuals and companies subject to Union sanctions, the Commission set up, under the leadership of Commissioner Reynders, the Freeze and Seize Task Force. Eurojust is a key player in the task force and has supported its work from the outset, showing a strong commitment to providing national authorities with the best support possible in tackling crimes committed in the course of the Russian aggression. Eurojust’s work is a testament to the unquestionable importance of Union level cooperation when facing cross-border and international threats: only through cooperation can breaches of the European Union’s sanctions legislation be thoroughly investigated and flows of money to the Russian war machine stopped. This is why cooperation needs to go beyond Union borders and is being established with the European Union’s international partners.
Very early in the war, the world had to witness hideous crimes being committed in Ukraine that could amount to serious war crimes. Here, the Commission has also reacted by providing the necessary support for the competent authorities to do their work effectively, and the role of Eurojust in the investigations into war crimes in Ukraine has been crucial. Only a few weeks after the war began, a JIT was set up between Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine with the indispensable legal and technical support of Eurojust. As we have seen with past atrocities, such as those carried out in Syria, bringing justice to victims requires the strongest effort and maximum coordination. Evidence and testimonies from witnesses on the ground have to be securely stored, chains of custody must be established and maintained and, at the appropriate moment in time, decisions will have to be made about where prosecutions should take place. The Genocide Network, hosted by Eurojust, is also a very valuable source of expertise that could be incorporated further into the work of Eurojust in the future, including in decisions on where best to prosecute cases.
These are all areas where Eurojust is called to provide invaluable support, as it proved capable of doing in the past, and the Commission will stand ready to provide the means to do it effectively, including by proposing new legislation to accommodate its mandate to new circumstances and needs.
We must ensure that these important tasks, together with the daily work that Eurojust carries out, continue with the same efficiency and even more in the future. To do this, the Agency needs to be equipped with the right digital infrastructure; we need nothing short of a digital revolution in the European justice sector. This has been on the European Union’s radar for the past couple of years, largely because of an evolving security threat landscape coupled with the accelerating pace of technological developments. The need to digitalise justice has become even clearer during a global pandemic that kept courtrooms closed and justice only flowing in countries that had the right digital infrastructure already in place. As is the case for judicial institutions all over the world, Eurojust must modernise, and the Commission will do everything it can to make this happen.
Digitalisation in Eurojust means a better digital system for managing cases. Gone are the days of logging details in an Excel spreadsheet; not with 10 000 cases per year, growing by 17% on average! In December 2021, the European Commission made a proposal to create the legal and technical conditions for a state-of-the-art system with features such as secure digital communication channels, the means to share large files securely, and access for representatives from third countries that have cooperation agreements with Eurojust. The system must allow Eurojust staff to quickly join the dots between related cases, evidence and suspects, especially in terrorism cases, where missed connections cost lives. Eurojust’s Counter-Terrorism Register will greatly benefit from these improvements.
Digitalisation will also help with the management of joint investigation teams. These are already one of the most successful tools for cross-border investigations and prosecutions in the EU. JITs can be better managed digitally with an instant messaging tool, a system to exchange large files and temporarily store them, and a mechanism to trace who is sharing what evidence during an investigation to ensure its admissibility in court. The Commission is working to make a digital platform for JITs legally possible.
As internal work will continue on the digital overhaul of Eurojust over the next few years, there are ways in which the current working methods can be strengthened. Member States must continue to provide information on national judicial proceedings when they concern criminal offences with a cross-border dimension, including on terrorism, as is their legal obligation. In turn, Eurojust must provide feedback to the Member States wherever connections between cases could be established. Information must freely and safely flow in both directions. A permanent arrangement should soon be agreed with the ICC so data can flow more easily in the future, in particular for investigations of war crimes where multiple European countries are involved. Eurojust is already an important bridge between EU Member States’ investigations and the ICC, and there is a way to strengthen the ties further.
Beyond becoming digital, Eurojust’s horizons are also international; to fight crime effectively, prosecutors must be able to share information and discuss cases. The European Commission will be negotiating even more partnership agreements for Eurojust, with countries such as Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey. And the list could certainly grow, including with regional organisations that share the same goals and working methods, such as IberRED and others.
Once the infrastructural creases are ironed out, working methods strengthened, and new partners on board, Eurojust can take on a more proactive role, beyond its role as a one-stop shop for judicial cooperation in Europe. Eurojust is ideally placed to determine where the prosecution of a cross-border case should take place, or even to initiate investigations on behalf of national authorities in some cases.
I have had the opportunity to cooperate with Eurojust ever since its first steps back in 2002, from my position as a central authority in the Ministry of Justice of Spain, and I was already fully aware of the immense added value of Eurojust in cross border investigations. I am now able to see its functioning at European level, and it is not only a privilege to be part of Eurojust’s management structure as the 28th Member of Eurojust’s Management Board, but also a unique opportunity to have a comprehensive overview of the truly European dimension of its activities and to experience first-hand the unrelenting dynamism and exemplary professionalism of its staff. Eurojust is always there to tell us about how judicial cooperation is working on the ground, how the European Arrest Warrant is being used, whether there is a need to do more on the transfer of proceedings, what the latest information on trafficking is… Eurojust is our eyes and ears on the ground in the landscape of cross-border judicial cooperation. Through our excellent cooperation, we can better fulfil the Commission’s task to improve the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice.
The European Union can be proud to have an agency as valuable as Eurojust; this is really European cooperation at its best. It is why, as far as the future challenges go, I have no doubt in Eurojust’s capabilities to grow further and ensure that no cross-border criminal case is lost.
Happy birthday to Eurojust. I look forward to seeing what the next 20 years will bring!