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11th Dec 2019

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EU should take charge of asylum, says EP negotiator

  • European Parliament's negotiator Cecilia Wikstroem wants to exempt children from the Dublin regulation. (Photo: European Parliament)

Cecilia Wikstroem once hid a family of refugees in her house, but the Swedish liberal MEP is adamant that the best way to deal with migrants is through legislation, not the goodwill of individuals.

In 2013, she was made responsible for negotiating the European Parliament’s position on a proposed update to the Dublin regulation, which stipulates that asylum claims must be processed in the first EU country that migrants enter.

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Wikstroem is taking the same role for yet another reform of Dublin, which was outlined by the European Commission on 4 May.

“We could find the political will to save our banks from collapse. We can afford to save people from drowning in the Mediterranean and give them a dignified reception when seeking asylum in the EU,” she told EUobserver in an interview.

A record 1,255,640 people applied for asylum in the EU last year. Germany and Sweden registered almost half of the claims. Ten EU countries filed less than 0.1 percent or none at all.

But even before last year's peak influx, Wikstroem had already argued that the system was “a mess” and had to be replaced because forcing EU border states to deal with all asylum requests put an unjustified burden on them.

“If the Dublin regulation was applied rigorously, virtually all asylum seekers would have their claims examined in Greece and Italy, which of course is completely unreasonable,” Wikstroem wrote last year.

“I have some understanding of the reason that these states stopped registering asylum seekers, meaning they could easily get to the EU country of their choice. That in turn made Sweden and Germany bear a disproportionate responsibility for European refugees.”

'Tough economic language'

The commission’s latest proposal largely preserves the principle of first country responsibility, but introduces a safety valve whereby applications would be transferred to other countries when a state faces a disproportionate number of applications - more than 150 percent of its capacity.

The commission proposes that any state that fails to meet its responsibility will pay €250,000 for each person they refuse to relocate.

Wikstroem welcomed the proposal, saying that the binding redistribution mechanism was a step in the right direction.

“But 150 percent is a very high ceiling, it should be enough that a country reaches 100 percent of its reception limit,” she said.

She also welcomed the idea of forcing opt-out countries to pay, saying “everyone should take their responsibility”.

She said leaders including Hungary's Viktor Orban and Slovakia's Robert Fico “don’t understand any other language than a tough, economic one”.

“It’s good that we are putting a price tag on this attitude,” she added.

But she is disappointed that the commission stuck to the first-country principle in the proposal. It is not efficient, Wikstroem argues, and must be immediately scrapped for unaccompanied minors.

“Lone children should not be sent around Europe as parcels,” she said.

The European Court of Justice ruled in a 2013 case referred by the UK that unaccompanied minors who had applied for asylum in several countries should be dealt with by the authorities in the countries where they last applied - in other words, the first-country principle did not apply to them.

But the latest commission proposal reaffirms the first-country principle, stipulating that responsibility in such cases rests with "the member state of first application", unless it can be shown that it is not in the child's interests.

Wikstroem accused the commission of going against European case law, calling it a “disgraceful” proposal.

The commission told the EUobserver it had proposed to exclude lone children from the first-country principle by an amendment presented in June 2014, but had not been able to get an agreement.

"Against that background, and in view of the proposed changes to streamline the current Dublin rules, the commission decided to propose a different rule," the commission said in an emailed statement.

Ditch 'crisis' label

In the future, Wikstroem hopes that the first-country principle will be abandoned completely.

“I understand the commission proposed this because there is not political will among the member states for a far-reaching proposal right now,” she said.

“But for the system to be really fair and efficient, we need the EU agency for asylum to handle claims and distribute asylum seekers. The proposal is a step in the right direction.”

A protestant priest and convinced European federalist, Wikstroem has said in the past that Europe needs a common asylum policy to show it is more than an internal market.

Shortly after 800 people died when an overloaded vessel capsized in the Mediterranean last year, she argued for Europe to become a humanitarian superpower and provide legal entry for refugees.

Today, she admits that Europe has failed tremendously to live up to the challenge.

“[The response] has failed people in need. But it has also strained relations between European nations up to the point of threatening the European project. It’s a much bigger issue than the 1.5 million refugees fleeing Syria.”

It does not have to be this way, Wikstroem argues, and urges Europeans to stop talking about a migration crisis.

“Earlier this spring, I visited Lebanon, a tiny country where one in four people is a refugee. Europe is the world’s richest continent. The refugees in the EU have added 0.2 percent to our total population. There is no crisis to talk about, other than our failure to act.”

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