Parliament approves Stockholm programme, with prison add-ons

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The European Parliament yesterday (25 November) approved the Swedish EU Presidency’s proposals for the next five-year plan on EU justice and home affairs. But MEPs failed to agree on controversial same-sex rights, while Italian MEPs secured an add-on to get extra funding for overcrowded prisons.

The Parliament supported the amended Stockholm Programme text by 487 votes to 122, amid 49 abstentions – notably from Green members. The agreement was sealed when a consensus was reached between the EU assembly’s ‘big three’ – its centre-right, socialist and liberal factions. 

According to MEPs, the agreement, which outlined a broad blueprint for the next five years, will make for greater burden-sharing on immigration and asylum issues. 

Parliamentarians made a number of more detailed proposals, notably calling for a directive and the introduction of a European strategy to tackle violence against women and child abuse. 

MEPs agree to disagree on same-sex partnerships 

On the issue of mutual recognition of civil partnerships – notably same-sex couples – across EU borders, MEPs failed to reach an agreement, reflecting what is a very sensitive debate, a Parliament spokesperson told EURACTIV. 

Instead, a compromise amendment was framed between the socialists and the centre-right to guarantee freedom of movement for all EU citizens, including both married couples and those in registered partnerships “and to avoid all kinds of discrimination on any grounds, including sexual orientation”. 

In so doing, MEPs effectively postponed a more detailed policy debate on this thorny issue. “This is a problem to be addressed in the coming five years – they left it be for now,” the spokesperson said. 

Italians push for prison funding 

Meanwhile, Italian MEPs from both left and right succeeded in having an add-on clause calling for EU funding to build new prisons in member states facing prison overcrowding. 

Making this concession to the Italians was deemed necessary, as they have been the most vocal of the many Mediterranean countries which feel they carry a disproportionate burden when it comes to EU immigration and asylum pressures, the spokesperson argued. 

Finally, the debate in Strasbourg gave a clear indication of the Parliament’s growing confidence in making its voice heard on these issues. 

Reflecting this mood, Justice, Freedom and Security Commissioner Jacques Barrot reminded MEPs that once the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, the European Parliament’s influence on these matters is likely to increase greatly, as co-decision (joint responsibility between the Parliament and European Council) will henceforth apply to a large swathe of Stockholm Programme policies. 

Swedish Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy Tobias Billström spoke before the European Parliament on the aspects of the Stockholm Programme related to asylum and migration issues. 

"Managed well, migration can benefit everyone – not just the EU countries, but also the individuals who migrate and their countries of origin. If we are to reach the goal of becoming a dynamic and growing economy, we will have to be open to migration," he said. 

Justice, Freedom and Security Commissioner Jacques Barrot argued that "the Stockholm Programme is a pragmatic instrument that will have to be implemented by the Spanish Presidency". 

"You parliamentarians will become co-legislators," he added. 

Portuguese MEP Rui Tavares from the Parliament's leftist GUE/NGL group said he would have favoured a concrete and precise Stockholm Programme that advanced the notion of a Europe of citizens. "Unfortunately, there is in this programme a tendency for the vague, for the inconclusive and for generalities, and I must say that the lack of democratic control is a part of this problem," he said. 

Tavares also called for the opening up of legal immigration channels. 

Responding to criticism that the programme was "too general", Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask argued that "of course a five-year programme cannot be detailed. We are not writing paragraphs here. Described here are the overarching ambitions and frameworks, and that is extensive enough". 

"Also included," she added, "are protection of privacy and respect for the rights of the individual. The programme also proposes that the Commission should investigate how we can reinforce the protection of personal data". 

UK Green MEP Jean Lambert said "regrettably, we still do not have the right balance when it comes to border control and protection for those who need it". 

She went on to note that FRONTEX must guarantee respect for human rights and ensure effective access to the EU's protection system for asylum seekers. "Such considerations should be included in the forthcoming review of the agency," Lambert said. 

"We also eagerly await further proposals on legal migration which are an essential piece of the jigsaw of a coherent EU migration policy," she concluded. 

In relation to the sensitive issue of same-sex civil partnerships, Evelyne Paradis, European director of policy at the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) said that the resolution is "very welcome since it illustrates the will of the new European Parliament to pursue the work initiated in the previous term, in order to achieve mutual recognition of all marriages and civil partnerships legally registered in one member state".

Kris Pollet, Senior Policy Officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles  (ECRE) said that "member states must take the new co-legislative powers of the European Parliament in the field of asylum seriously, and work together with MEPs in a constructive way to establish a solid legal framework for a true Common European Asylum System that is based on high standards of protection for refugees". 

He added that "the right to seek asylum in Europe is meaningless if people in need of protection are denied access to the territory. The draft Stockholm Programme is vague on how asylum seekers can gain access to the EU. It does acknowledge the problem and states that border controls should not prevent refugees from finding protection in the EU but does not include concrete proposals in order to make the rhetoric a reality". 

The 'Stockholm Programme' is the Swedish EU Presidency's proposed legislative agenda in the area of justice and home affairs (JHA) for the 2009-2014 period. 

The current JHA agenda, the Hague Programme, expires this year (see EURACTIV LinksDossier for more information). 

According to the Swedish Presidency, the Stockholm Programme aims to "define the framework for EU police and customs cooperation, rescue services, criminal and civil law cooperation, asylum, migration and visa policy". 

Of these issues, immigration and asylum policy has arguably become the biggest political 'hot potato' for the EU, with a number of Mediterranean countries in particular (including Malta and Italy) calling for greater assistance from their northern counterparts. 

In an October 2009 European Parliament debate, the draft Swedish plans were welcomed by liberal MEPs, but described as weak on immigration by southern Europeans (EURACTIV 12/10/09). 

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