Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have thrown into sharp relief the issue of asylum policy in the European Union. Tunisian asylum seekers arriving in Italy (Lampedusa) and Malta, and many more attempting the brutal and treacherous journey across the Mediterranean have, in EU institutions, raised the question of why Europe remains without a comprehensive asylum and refugee policy despite many years of talk dating back to the Amsterdam Treaty – this provided the legal basis and the 1999 Tampere programme which set out in detail the way Member States would create a common asylum and immigration blue print.
A variable policy
From a peak in 1993, the past few years have seen asylum numbers falling. The political imperative for a common policy was weak and fell prey to domestic pressures within individual EU countries.
A complex set of pressures from national media, right wing politicians, and right wing agenda setting for centre and centre-left parties in the EU have tended to paint an EU Asylum Policy as a “liberal option” creating more opportunities for potential refugees rather than greater restriction. The reality is that a Common Asylum policy can move in a more just and fair direction or in a more restrictive one.
Since 1999, most Member States have delayed or opposed movement on the key building blocks of a new system. Both the European Commission and European Parliament have demonstrated a real willingness to move ahead. Crucially, following the Lisbon Treaty, EU asylum and immigration law is now adopted jointly by the Council (Member States) and the Parliament.
Common asylum policy today
So where are we today? While some elements of a common system since Tampere have been attempted, a ‘first phase’ of instruments have left decisions on granting protection varying considerably throughout the EU, with asylum seekers concentrated in a limited number of countries, leading to serious concerns over their detention and other conditions of entry and stay.
With new powers under Lisbon, the Parliament in particular is pushing hard to adopt an “asylum package” in the knowledge that the EU must play its part in a world where the over-whelming majority of asylum seekers are ”pushed” into neighbouring developing countries rather than reaching Europe.
Today the political and legal battle is on to adopt such an “asylum package” whose core elements are firstly the Dublin II Regulation which lays down the criteria to determine which Member State is responsible for examining an application, the Qualification Directive of 2004 ‘recast’ lays down minimum standards for qualifying third country nationals or stateless persons eligible for subsidiary protection and the Asylum Procedures Directive, which sets down minimum standards on procedures for granting and withdrawing refugee status including the definitions of ‘safe country of origin’, ‘safe third country’ and procedural guarantees (legal circumstance and representation standards).
With the Reception Conditions Directive and European Refugee Fund, the political aim of the progressive parties in the European Parliament is to push these elements in a just and fair direction. The centre-right and right in the European Parliament are more concerned with restrictive policies and often collude with Member State delays in the European Council.
As spokesperson for the second largest group in the European Parliament – the Socialists and Democrats – I’m determined to see a progressive and common asylum policy.
The effects of bilateralism
It was Europe’s Member States who, in 1999, called for common standards. Instead we have seen often unfair and inconsistent national policies implemented often bilaterally. Meanwhile, trafficking becomes more organised, with asylum seekers and their families suffering greatly in a chaotic and restrictive system- public opinion remains hostile and largely unsympathetic even to their exploitation and plight particularly in Southern Europe with its hazardous detention and reception policies including outrageous “readmission deals” such as the one nearly implemented between the EU and Libya.
Those who care about this issue need to maintain the political pressure, particularly now that the European Parliament has equal legislative power with the Member States of the European Union.