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28/09/2016

Commission launches legal broadside on asylum rules before summit

Global Europe

Commission launches legal broadside on asylum rules before summit

demandeurs d'asile à Bruxelles, parc Maximilen, 20 Septembre.

[Joel Schalit/Flickr]

The European Commission today (23 September) launched a broadside of legal action against EU countries for not putting the bloc’s asylum laws into practice, bringing to 75 the total number of such cases open against member states.

It was announced as Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker prepared to meet EU heads of state and government in Brussels this evening to discuss the refugee crisis.

Juncker plans to get support for a long-term EU-wide refugee resettlement programme, a new European border and coast guard, a credible returns policy for migrants not needing asylum, and the opening up of channels of legal migration.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans announced 40 new infringement proceedings against 19 nations, which can ultimately lead to large daily fines. 35 cases were already open.

The laws set out standardised procedures for granting asylum, ensuring that there are decent reception conditions, such as housing, and grounds for granting international protection.

The system was completed in July this year, but the flood of hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war and turmoil across the Middle East and Africa in recent months has strained it to the limit and exposed divisions within the European Union.

“I honestly believe that one of the reasons why the asylum system isn’t working is because member states aren’t applying the rules,” Timmermans said.

Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Romania, Sweden and Slovenia face new or existing infringement proceedings.

The Commission must ask the European Court of Justice to impose fines if countries do not put EU law into practice at national level.

The legal action was announced before EU heads of state and government meet tonight (23 September) in Brussels to discuss the refugee crisis.

The summit follows last night’s meeting of EU interior ministers, which agreed on the resettlement of 120,000 refugees across the EU. That is an emergency measure separate to existing EU asylum law.

The deal was forced through by a qualified majority vote against the opposition of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. Poland opposed it but voted for the deal, under pressure from France and Germany.

>>Read: EU backs refugee plan in teeth of east European opposition

Timmermans told reporters that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker would present a list of proposals to EU leaders at tonight’s summit.

Yesterday’s agreement was just a first step, he said. More money and staff were needed to help countries process asylum applications and to protect borders.

The European Commission has earmarked an additional €1.7 billion to help the bloc tackle the continent’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said she hoped member states would match the commitment, which will be “used inside the European Union to improve emergency reception facilities and the capacity of the most overburdened countries to cope.”

“We simply lack the resources to do it on our own and it is about time that member states stepped up to the plate,” said Timmermans at a Brussels press conference.

Juncker’s proposals include:

  • A new long-term EU system of refugee relocation, which will be proposed in March, and reform of the Dublin Regulation on asylum
  • Introducing a credible and effective return policy for migrants not needing international protection
  • Stepping up diplomatic efforts with countries such as Libya
  • Strengthening Frontex to protect the EU’s borders, and taking steps to set up a European border and coast guard
  • Opening legal channels for migration, including the revision of the bloc’s Blue Card scheme.

Some of those ideas were tabled by Junker at an earlier summit on migration, but were given short shrift by EU leaders. Since then, the crisis has worsened considerably.

>>Read: Juncker suffers double blow on migration

What if countries say no to refugee resettlement?

The UK has an opt-out on EU asylum policy which it exercised to avoid being part of the mandatory resettlement programme. Denmark and Ireland also have opt-outs, but have opted in.

Last night’s agreement does not allow member states to opt out of resettling their quota of refugees.

Under “exceptional circumstances” they can apply for a temporary 30% cut in numbers.

Previous iterations of the agreement suggested fines for non-compliant countries, but that route has now been closed off.

Slovakia challenge

Slovakia will go to court to challenge quotas for distributing asylum seekers approved by European Union interior ministers, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said on Wednesday.

“We will go in two directions: first one, we will file a charge at the court in Luxembourg… secondly, we will not implement the (decision) of the interior ministers,” Fico told reporters before leaving for the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels.

Fico said on (22 September) Tuesday that the quota system would not be imposed on Slovakia as long as he was in office. “We have been refusing this nonsense from the beginning, and as a sovereign country, we have the right to sue,” he said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said he would propose to European Union leaders that the bloc’s members boost payments to the EU budget by 1% and cut EU spending by 1% to help cope with the refugee crisis.

Such a step would raise €3 billion, Orbán told journalists at a news conference at meeting of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU).

“We should repeat this as many times as necessary to have the amount of money that we need to handle the crisis,” he said at a meeting of the CSU, the sister party to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

Background

Ahead of today’s EU summit, US President Barack Obama pressed European nations to take their "fair share" of refugees.

The statement, which came after a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday (22 September), is likely to be seen as a warning to those who opposed the deal.

But his call will be diluted by accusations that Washington has not done enough to address the crisis, despite being the leading humanitarian donor to the region.

Further Reading