Monday

17th Feb 2020

Analysis

Aquarius, Dublin: Is EU losing grip on asylum reform?

  • The EU is stepping up returns (Photo: Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI))

Over a year ago, the European Commission laid out five scenarios for the future of Europe, from less cooperation to deep integration.

On Wednesday (13 June), Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, appeared to add a sixth, telling people on twitter that the "EU's own survival" is now at stake given the fall out of over migration.

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The tweet comes on the back of widespread backlash against the handling of Aquarius rescue migrant, first blocked by Italy and Malta and then sent to Spain to disembark its 629 passengers plucked off the Libyan coast.

When Italy last summer asked EU states to open their ports to rescue boats, they all turned their backs. At the time, the centre-left government under Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni threatened to shut down Italian ports, after imposing a code of conduct on rescue boats.

But by denying Aquarius docking rights, Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, has tossed a new spanner into the EU migration policy machinery.

The tensions and divisions have only mounted since - and all ahead of this month's EU summit, where leaders are supposed to reach some sort of political agreement on the 'Dublin Regulation'- essentially, the rule that governs that a refugee's asylum claim is handled in the country in which he first entered the EU.

That prospect appears increasingly slim with France and Italy fighting over the Aquarius case, after French president Emmanuel Macron said Rome had acted with "cynicism and irresponsibility" in turning away the Aquarius.

The French president has himself pushed a hard-line against asylum seekers by passing new legislation to toughen laws and crack down on refugees passing through Ventimiglia on the Italian border.

Austria's chancellor Sebastian Kurz has since called for an 'axis of the willing' with Germany and Italy to stop irregular migration and push them back.

The idea, well received by Germany's interior minister, Horst Seehofer, was met with a cold shoulder from his boss, Angela Merkel who wants a more European approach. The two, in coalition in sister conservative parties but increasingly at odds, underscore the bitterness over migration throughout much of Europe.

If anything positive is to come out of the EU summit later this month, it may be a tacit nudge of approval on other less contentious EU asylum reforms like the qualification regulation, reception conditions directive, and the Union resettlement framework.

Others, like some senior MEPs, are losing patience.

"If EU leaders fail to agree to reform our common European migration and asylum system during the next Council meeting, we have to bring the council to court under article 265 of the Treaty for 'failure to act'," said liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt.

His threat comes ahead of the summit, but in the wake of recent election gains by populists and right wing politicians in Austria, Germany, Italy, Slovakia and possibly now Sweden.

Testy Luxembourg meeting

Those gaps came into sharp relief at an EU ministerial meeting in Luxembourg last week when Belgium's nationalist interior minister Theo Francken declared Dublin reform dead, much to the chagrin of the European Commission's migration chief, Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Bulgaria's EU presidency, despite its efforts to iron out differences, was also at a loss at the Luxembourg meeting, given its own proposals on Dublin were flat out rejected.

The Visegrad group of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia refuse any mandatory relocation of asylum seekers in the Dublin reform.

All except Slovakia face legal battles in the European Court of Justice for refusing to relocate 120,000 mainly Syrian refugees from Greece and Italy.

The Bulgarian EU presidency had also tried to reach a compromise on issues like the length of time a member state had to be responsible for an asylum seeker. Nothing worked.

Months of detailed work on top of efforts by three other previous EU presidencies appear to have been wasted, a message that is likely to resonate with the upcoming Austrian EU presidency - the very one whose government in Vienna recently called for the "axis of willing" against irregular migration.

Opinion

The Aquarius migrant boat - and the EU policy failings

The precarious situation the Aquarius and its passengers found themselves is a consequence of EU member states' failure to manage migration in a strategic and coordinated manner, where member states beyond those receiving new arrivals are part of the solution.

EU ministers try to crack asylum deadlock

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

EU states tackle Dublin asylum reform 'line by line'

A Friends of the Presidency group, set up by the Bulgarian EU presidency, has sifted through the European Commission's proposal to reform Dublin, an EU asylum law that has sparked widespread political tensions and divisions.

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