Wednesday

21st Oct 2020

EU free movement put into question at Vienna summit

EU politicians are threatening to dismantle the bloc’s free-movement rights amid calls to revamp asylum rules, due to the surge in the number of people seeking refuge in Europe.

On Thursday (27 August), the bodies of up to 50 people, who had suffocated, were found in the back of a refrigerated food truck on the outskirts of Vienna.

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News of the tragedy came the same day EU and Western Balkan leaders and ministers met in the Austrian capital for a summit on migration issues.

“We cannot continue like this with a minute of silence every time we see people dying”, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said, referring to previous EU gestures of respect for migrant deaths.

Earlier the same day, Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, warned media the EU’s asylum regime, the so-called Dublin regulation, which requires point-of-entry countries to process claims, risks collaspe.

“I believe that we will need a quick solution for the entire system because otherwise countries will go at it alone and no longer adhere to spirit of the European Union,” he said.

He added the EU should consider letting people apply for asylum from their home countries.

“We should think about the possibility of making an asylum request in the country of origin in order to ensure better redistribution to European Union countries”.

Earlier on Wednesday, Kurz said that a European Union “without borders inside is in danger” if its external borders aren’t secure.

Italy’s foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni made similar comments in Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

“The way things are going, there is a risk of Schengen [the EU’s border-free zone] being called into question and having to go back to the old frontiers,” he said.

Beginning of the end of current rules

Maintaining open internal borders is sacrosanct to the European Commission.

But the Brussels executive is now becoming more vocal on the possibility of reforming the so-called 'Dublin' rules, which, if applied correctly, would require EU states to return the vast majority of asylum seekers to their EU point-of-entry - Hungary and Italy.

Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud on Thursday said “structural changes” will have to be introduced into the system.

Returns to Greece are banned following a 2011 European Court of Human Rights ruling on “degrading” conditions in its migrant holding centres.

The “structural changes” involve relocation and redistribution of asylum seekers in times of crisis.

The commission has already proposed a new mechanism to cover Italy and Greece for the next two years. But it’s planning to propose a more permanent solution by the end of the year.

“This would imply a change to the Dublin rules,” said Bertaud.

Other changes

Other changes to the rules may also be possible once the commission terminates an evaluation of the entire system sometime next year.

But most member states have shown little appetite for the commission’s Italy and Greece relocation ideas.

EU leaders at summit in July rejected mandatory quotas, opting instead for a voluntary system, which then fell short of what the commission wanted.

The commission had called for 40,000 asylum seekers to be relocated.

EU states have pledged 32,256 places. Austria and Hungary have pledged zero.The UK opted out. Denmark was never involved to begin with.

Urgency

Meanwhile, the need for asylum reform and for immediate action was underlined by Germany on Thursday.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Vienna the “Dublin system isn’t working”.

German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the same in an op-ed published in French daily Le Figaro on Thursday.

“What you are witnessing now is the end of the Dublin system”, Kris Pollet, a policy advisor at the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles, told EUobserver.

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