A mechanism allowing the suspension of visa-free travel for third countries was adopted by the European Parliament last week, but controversial legal issues remain over the increasing problem of 'fake' asylum-seekers, often Roma from the Western Balkan countries.
The European Parliament backed EU member states last week (12 September) in their initiative to put in place a protection clause allowing the Schengen area to reactivate visa requirements for third countries that present a 'migration risk.'
By the beginning of next year, if an EU member country is faced with a sudden increase of irregular migrants or rejected asylum applicants, it will have to notify the European Commission. Brussels may then propose suspending visa-free travel for the country or countries of origin for an initial period of six months.
If the situation doesn’t improve, free travel with these countries may be indefinitely suspended. Such a tough measure would require a new legislative procedure that could take months or years to enter in force. Nevertheless, this measure, sometimes described as a 'Sword of Damocles' remains a major political threat to third countries, that need to take concrete steps to reduce their emigration flow to the EU.
The vote in the European Parliament was tight – with 52% in favour and 41% against, Social-Democrats and Greens in majority. The new 'suspension mechanism' is still subject to debate among MEPs. The shadow rapporteur, Tanja Fajon (Socialists & Democrats), who urged her colleagues to vote against it, said the decision will “cause chaos”.
Western Balkans’ countries targeted
Although the EU Commissioner for Home and Justice Affairs, Cecilia Malmström refused to target specific third countries, the problem emerged in 2010, just after visa obligations towards most Western Balkan countries were first lifted.
Then citizens from Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia reputedly arrived in EU member states requesting asylum for economic reasons. In the first half of 2011, the Swedish Interior Minister, Tobias Billström, told the press that asylum seekers from Macedonia were among the 'Top 4' of nationalities immigrating to Sweden, along with Somalia and Afghanistan.
According to a recent report published by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the largest number of asylum-seekers to the EU, at over 53,000 or 50% more than in 2011, came from the six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia), which were recently granted visa-free travel to the Schengen area.
Belgium, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands reportedly saw their asylum systems coming under pressure from unfounded asylum requests.
In Macedonia, investigative journalists discovered that fake tourist agencies were organising regular trips to Brussels for Macedonian Roma for €130, promising them that once they’d get there, asylum protection in Belgium was a done deal. According to witnesses, the agency allegedly belonged to one of the coalition partners in the Macedonian government, a Roma deputy, who categorically denied it.
A majority of the victims were of course rejected and sent home.
But the pressure on the asylum systems in the member countries and the delays they faced because of the “fake requests” caused governments across Europe to demand a coordinated response.
'A step backwards for the Parliament'
Speaking to EURACTIV after the vote, shadow rapporteur, Tanja Fajon, said the report was a “step backwards” compared to the April draft. She said the new mechanism would be a “political tool to be used by European Governments and puts in jeopardy the EU’s neigbourhood policy”. More importantly, she accuses the rapporteur, Agustin Diaz de Mera and those who supported the report of “giving up competences that the European Parliament has according to the co-decision in the Lisbon Treaty when it comes to a very sensitive matter”.
According to the text of the report, the procedure for activating the temporary suspension of the visa-free travel will not require a co-decision procedure, the Parliament will only have to be informed of the new measure.
Ulrike Lunacek (Greens) said that “giving up control power is a political mistake of the Parliament that will be difficult to rectify”.
An EU source speaking to EURACTIV dismissed the concerns over a “politically motivated use of the mechanism” as unfounded, as the proposal will always have to come from the Commission after “a duly motivated” notification of the member state. Moreover, the Commission takes “all relevant information into account, the figures and data from the State(s), the circumstances, the previous years, but also reports from Frontex and the consequences such a decision would have on the EU’s external relations.”
The European Commission questions part of the amendments adopted by Parliament, especially as it affects Europe's partners. MEPs also amended the EU visa regulation towards those third countries which require visas from certain EU citizens, while their own nationals are exempted from needing such to enter the EU. This affects mainly the USA and Canada, where many Eastern EU citizens still need a visa to enter.
With this new set of measures, the EU will be able to put more pressure for reciprocity on those countries. But the European Commission feels that it has been excluded from the process.
Michele Cercone, spokesman of Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, told EURACTIV that “the Commission regrets that the powers conferred on the Commission with regard to the revised reciprocity mechanism are, in the opinion of the Commission, not in compliance with Articles 290 and 291 of the TFEU [EU treaty]. The Commission therefore reserves the right to make use of the remedies available under the Treaty with a view to having this point clarified by the Court of Justice."
Brussels officials believe that the type of control over the procedure that they have been given is contrary to the Lisbon Treaty.