31st May 2023

MEPs lay out asylum vision as majority back fence funds

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MEPs spearheading a raft of reforms laid out their vision of a new EU-wide asylum system on Wednesday (19 April), prior to a European Parliament plenary vote granted the use of EU money to fund external border fences.

Financial support for the infrastructure of border fences was buried in an amendment tabled by the centre-right European People's Party on a European Commission budget report, and voted through by 322 MEPs against 290, with 20 abstentions.

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"The amendment passed, but we managed to stop the final report. No EU money will go to finance EU walls!," said the socialists, in a tweet.

The amendment is likely to appease hawkish EU states. But it is also likely to cast a shadow over the wider-EU asylum reforms presented by the MEPs earlier in the day.

Among their key ideas is making relocation — where asylum seekers arriving in places like Italy or Greece are sent to other member states — binding in times of crisis.

They also want to the keep the temporary protection directive, currently being used to host millions of Ukrainian refugees, on the EU rule book.

When there is no crisis declared, then relocations (so-called 'solidarity' in EU parlance) will be voluntary.

EU states can also make other forms of contributions, which are placed in a solidarity pool pre-determined by the European Commission.

Will member states agree?

Such relocations still remain the most contentious part of a formula that seeks to balance solidarity and responsibility among EU states.

Sweden, which is steering the current EU presidency, is attempting to get the nuts and bolts sorted.

But last month, an EU diplomat told reporters that the political issues over such solidarity will most likely be dealt with by the upcoming Spanish presidency.

This broadly falls under the scope of the asylum and migration management regulation, a bill that seeks to govern the future EU-wide asylum system, as well as a separate crisis regulation.

The fine print of a complex set of numerous proposals, all interlinked, have yet to be internally agreed in the Council, representing member states.

The Swedish EU presidency aims to get an internal agreement on the regulation on asylum and migration management.

But wider fears still remain that the council won't reach an overall agreement in order to enter negotiations with the parliament, against a looming deadline.

The parliament insists on a packaged approach, whereby all the files need to be finalised before a final agreement can be signed with the council.

"That's the position for now and I really would insist to do that because otherwise we will not have a European asylum system," said Birgit Sippel, a German socialist MEP.

The right and the far-right team up

Dissent is also fomenting within the parliament from the rightwing European Conservatives and Reformists Group, along with the far-right Identity and Democracy Group.

The pair demanded a plenary vote for Thursday (20 April) seeking to scupper the parliament's mandate to enter talks with the council.

Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a Spanish socialist MEP who heads the parliament's civil liberties committee, described the ECR move as a paradox given the migratory pressure facing Italy.

"It is an irony. It is a paradox," said López Aguilar, noting that Italy's far-right prime minister Georgi Meloni presides over the ECR.

Italy recently imposed a state of emergency on migration given a spike of arrivals on its shores since the start of the year.

For their part, the ECR want more external border controls and fewer NGO rescue ships at sea, a demand also put forward by Meloni.

The asylum and migration pact, under talks, was first proposed by the European Commission in September 2020.

Crisis bill

Among them is a regulation that deals with so-called 'crisis moments', broadly defined as an exceptional and unexpected mass arrival of people.

López Aguilar, who is the parliament's lead on it, says the European Commission must be given the powers to force member states to relocate asylum seekers.

"If a state of crisis is declared by the commission, then there is a solidarity response, which is translated into binding solidarity relocations, of which all of the member states are bound," he said.

They would then be distributed according to family ties, by cultural or linguistic links, or where they obtained diplomas, he said.

"Meaningful links will help those to be relocated to stay in the countries where they are to be relocated" he said.

That is going to be a red line for some member states, given the political toxicity surrounding relocations.

Previous efforts to relocate some 160,000 people from Italy and Greece met stiff resistance from Hungary and Slovakia, entrenching divides with the so-called Mediterranean 5 composed of Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Spain and Italy.

It means that even if the council manages to agree on the outstanding files, it still remains unclear if the positions between the co-legislators will somehow be bridged in time.

This comes despite promises among the upcoming rotating EU presidencies to push the files forward in the hopes of creating the legal basis for functional EU-wide asylum system sometime next year.

"Of course, we are ready to negotiate and ready to compromise. That is the rule of the game here," said López Aguilar.

He said if the European Parliament is able to build a majority among its differing political groups, then the 27 member states will have to do the same.

That entails obtaining a qualified majority in the council, a scenario it is keen to avoid.

This article was updated on 20 April, 2023 at 9.33 to reflect that while the amendment had passed, the final report did not. The headline was also updated to reflect the discrepancy

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