Monday

12th Apr 2021

EU ministers try to crack asylum deadlock

  • Hungary's border fence: first cursed, now praised (Photo: Freedom House)

Redistribution of migrants remains the worst sticking point as EU ministers discuss the latest attempt to rewrite Europe's 'Dublin' asylum law.

A draft of the proposal by the Bulgarian EU presidency, seen by EUobserver, foresaw burden sharing if there was another crisis, as in 2015, when one million people came to Europe from war-torn Syria and beyond.

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But the text included no binding quotas and allowed member states that did not want to take in migrants to choose, under certain conditions, to do other things to help, such as providing experts or money, with restrictions.

The new-model asylum laws were aimed at preventing escalation to the stage when a mandatory redistribution system would have to kick in, EU officials said.

A novel "early-warning system" would make sure the events of 2015 would never be repeated, they said.

They urged member states to take into account the urgency of the situation - preventing a new migration crisis - when deciding the proposal's fate.

"It's important to find a solution now, before the next crisis hits us. We need to show responsibility," one EU civil servant told EUobserver.

EU interior ministers will discuss Bulgaria's ideas on how to reform the so-called Dublin regulation, which currently governs EU asylum rules, in Luxembourg on Tuesday (5 June).

Leaders will also seek compromise at a summit at the end of the month.

The talks come amid expectation that migrant crossings from North Africa to Italy and Spain will steadily increase as the weather improves.

The Greek-Turkish land border has also seen greater pressure despite an EU deal with Turkey to hold back refugees.

But Hungary has already described the proposal as "alarming and dangerous", drawing up the battle lines between anti-immigration hardliners and frontline countries, such as Italy, who insist that other EU countries do their bit.

German chancellor Angela Merkel also said in an interview over the weekend that the compromise would probably take "several more weeks".

Those who drafted the Bulgarian text say it combined all the ideas put on the table during the past five months of negotiations.

The European Commission originally put forward its Dublin reform proposal two years ago, but the toxic issue got stuck in the EU's legislative plumbing as consecutive presidencies tried and failed to make everybody happy.

"Dublin is not for or against one member state," one EU official told EUobserver.

The proposal is a "fair balance between responsibility and solidarity", a second official said, using Brussels vocabulary for properly registering migrants on the one hand, and for sharing asylum seekers on the other.

The entire asylum reform - which also includes better border management and sanctions for those who abuse the system - should not be thrown out, the EU officials added, just because of disagreement on "allocation" of migrants.

Three phases

The aim of the proposal was to set "clear criteria to determine [which member states] is under pressure, so there is no debate around it, and who is responsibility to act", one of the EU officials said.

Besides allocation of migrants, it tackled a range of asylum-related issues, such as border protection, a speedy return policy, and measures with regards to third countries.

Under current rules, EU countries where migrants first land were required to process their asylum requests, putting Italy, Greece, and Spain at the forefront of the problem.

The Bulgarian draft aimed to tackle the tracking of applicants to determine which member state was responsible for the application and to avoid "secondary movement" inside the EU.

The proposal set out three stages of migratory pressure - points at which various measures would kick in automatically, depending on whether the number of asylum applicants exceeded 120 percent, 140 percent, or 160 percent of the fair share of an EU country, which was calculated on the basis of its population and GDP.

A mandatory relocation system kicked in at the second point.

Member states not willing to take in applicants were allowed to do so to cover up to 50 percent of their obligation, by sending experts or other assets or by paying for applicants they refused to take care of.

There would be no assigned quotas for EU countries, but each member state would be obliged to shoulder a percentage of the burden.

In the most extreme scenario, EU leaders would call the shots on relocation, but officials said that if all the previous measures had been taken, the EU should, never again, reach that tipping point.

Turning tide

At the height of the migration crisis three years ago, Hungary's premier, Viktor Orban, was condemned for building a fence along the country's souther border.

But Orban is now being hailed as a hero by other populist politicians in Europe.

His fence has also won praise, as more and more parties address popular anxieties by taking a strong anti-immigration line.

Orban's government - hot on the heels of a landslide election victory - is also going further.

It tabled a legislative package last week to criminalise the work of NGOs who help migrants to lodge asylum requests or inform them about their rights.

A proposed amendment to the constitution would also state that an "alien population" cannot be settled in Hungary, rejecting the EU's efforts to distribute migrants around the bloc.

The Hungarian leader has the support of his Visegrad allies - Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic - on the issue.

Over the weekend, Czech prime minister Andrej Babis pushed back on the idea of making countries pay for not accepting migrants.

He pointed out that elections in Slovenia over the weekend - won by an Orban-supported anti-immigration party - showed that the Visegrad point of view was spreading.

"This opinion on migration will prevail in the whole of Europe … we have to stop migration outside the European continent and help the people in Africa and Syria [instead]," Babis said.

Austria's premier Sebastian Kurz - who takes over the EU's rotating presidency in July - has backed a tough anti-immigration stance.

Italy's newly formed anti-establishment government has also criticised the Bulgarian draft Dublin reform.

"Italy and Sicily cannot be Europe's refugee camp," anti-immigration Lega party leader and newcomer interior minister Matteo Salvini said on Sunday.

They added that the plans condemned Italy and other Mediterranean countries to bearing too much of Europe's burdens.

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