Sweden revives EU homeland security plans

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The Swedish EU Presidency’s proposals for a new justice and home affairs agenda, adopted by European heads of state and government at their meeting in Brussels last week (10-11 December), should lead to much-needed action in areas such as immigration and asylum, experts told EURACTIV.

The final draft of the programme was described by a European Commission official as the broadest ever “roadmap” of its kind. 

The point was echoed by UK Socialist MEP Claude Moraes, who said that unlike its Tampere and Hague predecessors, the Stockholm blueprint covers “the entire JHA area”. 

Moraes, who sits on a parliamentary taskforce dealing specifically with these issues, told EURACTIV he believes Stockholm offers the EU a potential “shift in gear” to finally “make some concrete progress” in debates which have effectively been frozen for many years. 

The controversial and politically-sensitive questions of immigration policy, asylum, fundamental rights and security have caused numerous fractures among EU member states during the past decade. 

Increased Parliament involvement will ‘speed things up’ 

However, with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament now has equal lawmaking rights with the EU Council of Ministers in a whole swathe of JHA areas, something Moraes and others believe will unblock a number of key debates. 

A Commission official told EURACTIV he believes key decisions will be reached much more quickly in future, as extended co-decision powers over JHA under Lisbon see the Parliament become more involved. 

Moraes, meanwhile, claimed “it’s about certainty more than speed”. No matter how controversial these subjects are, “we will actually be able to legislate,” he said, arguing that when “light is shone on these issues” in the democratic forum of the Parliament, “it should get things moving”. 

The Stockholm Programme, despite being deliberately vague, nonetheless begins to point in the right direction, the Commission source noted. For example, on the thorny issue of the increased numbers of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants seeking to enter the EU via the Mediterranean, the programme acknowledges the need to bolster Frontex, the EU agency for external border security. 

This should, eventually, lead to increased sharing of assets – boats, planes and personnel – between EU member states in responding to vessels packed with illegal immigrants, something that is conspicuously lacking at present, according to Italian MEPs. 

With the Stockholm Programme identifying Frontex as a key component of broader strategies to combat illegal immigration, it should pressure member states into doing more together, as well as giving more assets to the Commission to build up FRONTEX’s capabilties in the Mediterranean, Moraes believes. “It’s up to us to fill in the blanks,” he said. 

Towards an EU asylum policy? 

While the Commission source said that the executive was “happy” with the Swedish roadmap, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV that in fact the EU executive had been “unhappy” that there was no progress on mutual recognition of asylum – an area where many member states have been reluctant to move too quickly. 

Elaborating on this point, Kris Pollett, senior policy officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), said that the lack of willingness among member states to go for higher standards of protection for refugees and to achieve a Common European Asylum System is reflected in the programme through “ambiguous language on harmonising asylum legislation”. 

Pollett said ECRE is “very disappointed” by the vague wording of the programme in this regard, while Moraes claimed the final draft places too much emphasis on security and control in relation to crossing borders, visa controls and crime. 

Above all, the programme focuses strongly on citizens’ rights, setting itself the goal of making European citizenship a “tangible reality”. 

United Nations refugee agency UNHCR welcomed the adoption of the Stockholm programme, but called on the EU to ensure that migration management objectives do not overshadow refugee protection principles. 

"The measures proposed in the Stockholm Programme should help put an end to disparities in asylum practices between the EU member states," said Judith Kumin, UNHCR Director for Europe. "The priorities confirmed today should bring the Common European Asylum System closer to its goal of ensuring fair and efficient asylum outcomes across the Union." 

On practical cooperation, UNHCR encourages EU member states to support fully the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in its work to improve consistency and quality in asylum decision-making. UNHCR looks forward to working with and providing expertise to the work of the EASO, including as part of the Office's Management Board. 

Among other concrete steps in the programme, the EU will consider creating a "transfer of protection" framework within the bloc. UNHCR hopes that such an arrangement will enable refugees and other people with international protection to enjoy more free movement rights within the EU, in the same way as all other legally present non-EU nationals. This would be an important step needed to ensure fair treatment of people who are granted protection. 

UNHCR supports the call by the EU for more responsibility-sharing and solidarity among member states and is ready to contribute to these efforts, but appeals to states to keep the focus on high standards of protection. Some member states face more pressures on their asylum systems than others, owing to large arrival numbers. Responses to this situation should include amendments to the Dublin Regulation, now under discussion in the Council, the agency points out. 

In addition to the many ongoing challenges for refugee protection in the EU, the Stockholm Programme reiterates the desire of the Union to cooperate with third countries, including those hosting large refugee populations. UNHCR welcomes the European intention to continue promoting accession to the Geneva Refugee Convention and its Protocol. UNHCR can provide advice on the EU's strategies and actions outside its borders, including on resettlement of refugees to member states under a proposed Joint EU Resettlement Programme, it says.

Regarding possible "new approaches" concerning access to asylum in main transit countries, potentially those along the Southern and Eastern borders of the EU, UNHCR urges attention to be given to the reality that conditions in some transit countries are currently inadequate to ensure respect for the basic rights of asylum-seekers and refugees. More work is needed to provide durable solutions for refugees and others in need of protection in the EU's neighbouring countries.

The 'Stockholm Programme' is the Swedish EU Presidency's proposed legislative agenda in the area of justice and home affairs (JHA) for the 2010-2014 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).

The Parliament in November endorsed the Swedish plan by a large majority (EURACTIV 26/11/09).

  • Feb-June 2010: Commission to propose legislative action plans based on Stockholm Programme roadmap.
  • 2010-Dec 2014: Legislative lifespan of Stockholm Programme.

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