Plea for a European asylum agency

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Middle Eastern Germans and pro-asylum seeker graffiti. Berlin, December 2015. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

According to a study by the Centre of European Economic Research (ZEW), a European asylum agency with far-reaching responsibility for processing refugees and implementing asylum procedures would be a more cost effective and fairer system, writes Friedrich Heinemann.

Prof. Dr. Friedrich Heinemann is the head of Corporate Taxation and Public Finance Research at the Centre of European Economic Research (ZEW) and is a Professor of Economics at the University of Heidelberg.

More and more people seem to want to take the ‘easy way out’ when it comes to the refugee crisis. “Ceilings” and “border closures” should be the means by which we deal with the issue. Others want to rely on quotas and spread those who need help around Europe. The problem, unfortunately, is that all of these solutions threaten Europe’s open borders, the Schengen area. The ‘easy way out’, clearly, involves sealing the borders. Closely-monitored, sealed borders are a costly obstacle to European trade and will ultimately affect European prosperity. Moreover, quotas are not going to work by themselves. So long as EU member states have diverging rules regarding accepting refugees and so long as the refugees themselves oppose the quotas, stricter border controls will have to be in place.

So where can we find a viable solution? Open borders within Europe are only likely to remain a reality if the EU finally finds a truly European solution to its asylum policy woes, beyond relying on a simple quota system. The Mannheim-based Centre of European Economic Research (ZEW) has come up with a proposal that involves establishing a European Asylum Agency (EAA). The EAA would have comprehensive responsibility for processing refugees and implementing asylum procedures in all EU countries. People seeking protection in a member state would be processed by the agency, which would be financed by the Brussels budget and which would set up a network of reception facilities throughout the EU.

Giving responsibility for the refugees to such an agency would have many advantages: The asylum procedure would be cheaper and fairer than the current system of relocation. Costs could be reduced due to the fact that the cases could be processed more quickly by the agency’s managers than they currently are. Currently, asylum officials have to deal with individuals from many different countries of origin and there are high costs involved in the training necessary to process people from such diverging backgrounds and cultures. In contrast, the EU officials that would staff the EAA network would be highly specialised in dealing with such cases. As a result, the ZEW study concluded that the time and money saved through these measures would yield savings of anywhere between 16% and 40%.

The other advantage of a European process would be that the ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of offering the worst conditions for refugees would stop. In the current system, each EU country can make life as miserable as they like for refugees in order to deter them, thus shifting the burden to their neighbours. Member states such as Germany, which do not participate in such practices, must then bear the costs as a result. Ethical misconduct has become financially beneficial and nations that embrace it are getting a free ride. There are also problems in the way quotas are calculated, where capacity is calculated by analysing a country’s population, GDP and unemployment rate, and then subsequent way in which they are implemented. While countries like Germany and Sweden have accepted refugees in numbers double or even triple their allotted quotas, other countries in Central and Eastern Europe have only taken a fraction, sometimes just 5%; in the case of Slovenia and Slovakia, they have only fulfilled 1% of their obligation.

The existence of the EAA would bring an end to this as well. Conditions would be uniform throughout the bloc, as the EAA would be responsible for refugee welfare throughout all 28 members. A quota system could only be effectively and fairly implemented through the creation of an EAA. Refugees would no longer be turned away by the miserable conditions offered by the nations of south and Eastern Europe, they would be allocated to a host country by the agency, based on their needs and various other factors.

The study also concluded that the costs needed to run the agency, even during a year like 2015 when the number of refugees was massive, would be sustainable and affordable. The EU budget would have to contribute some €30 billion to make the plan work. Spread across all member states, this increase is manageable and would only account for one two-thousandths of European GDP.

The nature of such a European solution and its redistributive effect would relieve countries such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden and bring to task others such as Poland Spain. Looking forward, though, from a position of responsibility, all EU states would be winners in such a scenario. Europe would demonstrate its ability to act in time of crisis and the internal borders would remain open and free movement preserved. There would be no losers. 

Subscribe to our newsletters