Harlem Désir: ‘Refugee status is a competency of the member states’

Harlem Désir [Andy Mabbett/Wikipedia]

The French Minister of State for European Affairs told EURACTIV that France is against the establishment of refugee quotas. He also suggested creating a European civic service. 

Harlem Désir is a former MEP and first secretary of the French Socialist party. He is currently France’s Minister of State for European Affairs.

On the question of migration, the Commission has proposed establishing quotas for the number of refugees to be taken in by each country. Does France support this position?

We agree that the reception of asylum seekers must be shared out. But we think it should be done on a voluntary basis, not in line with quotas, as the European Commission is proposing. Four or five countries currently receive around 70% of the EU’s refugees, so it is only right that we share the effort. We are in favour of an emergency allocation system, to enable all countries to play their part in the reception of refugees. But this should stop short of a fixed quota system.

Each country must decide whether or not to confer political refugee status. That remains under the competency and sovereignty of member states. I think it would be tough to reach a unanimous agreement on transferring this competence to the EU. So the Commission must help establish these criteria, based on the population and the number of refugees already present in each country. But we will not go as far as a system of quotas.

So we have a proposal from a right-wing Commission president, and you in the Socialist party refuse to abandon sovereignty on the question of asylum. Isn’t this a paradoxical situation?

I believe we need a global immigration policy. It cannot focus on one aspect, like border control, or the reception of refugees. So we support the Commission’s proposal in this sense. And we need to share out solidarity. At the moment France is one of the few countries taking in refugees.

So a quota system would benefit France?

Yes, that’s why we are not opposed to it in principle. But I think it will be difficult, bearing in mind the positions of the different member states, to switch to a completely shared asylum policy. The issuing of residence permits is still a national issue, even if we have common rules, like the Dublin Regulation.

History links the asylum seekers’ countries of origin with their chosen countries of immigration in Europe. Those from Pakistan go to Great Britain, the Syrians go to Sweden, and those from West Africa find it easier to go to France, or countries like Italy. This will not change, but in an emergency situation, the 28 must agree to welcome migrants. President Hollande told the European Council in April that France was prepared to receive 500 to 700 extra refugees in the coming months. I think each member state should make its own proposals.

You do not support the Commission on immigration, but this is a very important issue in France…

What we support is a coordinated response to the drama unfolding in the Mediterranean. We have to both patrol the borders and increase rescue missions at sea. We support the tripling of operation Trident’s budget, and we have provided two new boats and aerial surveillance to the effort.

But we also have to take down these gangs. This will require action and cooperation with the countries of origin and transit, like Niger. The international community, particularly the nearby countries like Turkey, Egypt and Algeria, also needs to help establish a government in Libya.

Libya has been a failed state since the civil war and international intervention in 2011. We must fight the networks of smugglers, as well as the terrorists groups they finance by putting people on death-trap boats in the Mediterranean.

And a further dimension is needed: development aid to help the transition to democracy in the migrants’ countries of origin. We have to work on cooperation between our two continents. This is why there will be the EU-Africa summit in Malta this November.

After the re-election of the Conservatives in the United Kingdom, David Cameron plans to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership in 2016. And to negotiate new concessions from the EU. What is the EU prepared to accept?

We have to listen to the Brits. We will discuss their proposed reforms. Anything that can improve the functioning of the EU is in line with the priorities fixed by the new Commission. But it has to be done without amending the treaties. We will not accept any reconsideration of our basic principles, like freedom of movement. I think the British know this. There would be strong opposition in the majority of states. Reforming the treaties would not make Europe more efficient. It would open an uncertain process, which would take years and be doomed to failure. We are not prepared to put European cohesion at risk at a time when we face many major challenges. The forces of fragmentation cannot be allowed to win out.

Negotiating opt-out clauses flies in the face of the solidarity principle. Would it not be risky today to renegotiate specific clauses of the United Kingdom’s EU membership?

The EU already consists of different levels. The United Kingdom plays no part in some common policies, like the euro or Schengen. But we cannot personalise the rules for everyone. We think the United Kingdom’s place is in the EU, and the fact that Cameron now has a majority should allow him to convince the British people of this. It’s in the interest of the UK and the EU, when you consider the big challenges like immigration or the fight against terrorism. In the east of the continent, there is war in Ukraine, in the south there is war in Syria and Iraq, in the Mediterranean there is instability and war in Libya. We can’t respond as individual countries. The EU members need to play their part in the common policies and responses that have to be implemented. Changes to the way in which the Union functions, based on precise proposals, will be discussed. But it would be a great mistake to dismantle Europe.

Manuel Valls, has given you several missions as part of the European strategy he announced to the Council of Ministers on 6 May. What are they?

I had made proposals for youth integration. After the attacks in January, we decided to give a new dimension to civic service. This is a question of transmitting our collective values, to make sure that young people understand them. Other countries made the same decision to strengthen their systems of civic service. So we, along with Italy and Lithuania, asked the European Commission, to look into the possibility of a European civic service. We would like all young people that do civic service to be able to carry out part of it in another European country, a bit like Erasmus students. They could be hosted by associations from other countries.

We also need an Erasmus for apprentices. This is path to high achievement. Erasmus would allow them to do part of their training in another country, either in a branch of the same company or in another company, with language support.

The third project is the European student card, which would allow students to benefit from the same advantages wherever they are in Europe. Of course the universities will have to agree.

You recently wrote to Martin Schulz about the plenary sessions. What was your objective?

The treaties require the European Parliament to hold 12 sessions in Strasbourg. The 2015 and 2016 agendas schedule additional sessions in Brussels. We are paying close attention to the length of the Strasbourg plenary sessions. They go on until Thursday, but some of the opponents of the European Parliament’s French seat are trying to subvert the treaties by shortening these periods. But we are very attached to Strasbourg’s status as one of the seats of the EU.

The Presidency of the European Parliament will be renewed in 2016, and according to convention, a right-wing president will take over. In this case, all the European institutions will have right-wing presidents. Is this a problem for you?

The European institutions have five year mandates. The mandate of Donald Tusk lasts 2.5 years, and then there will be another election, as with the president of the European Parliament. Jean-Claude Juncker started his mandate by showing his political determination with his investment plan, which should be adopted in June. He charged the Commission with a new economic doctrine, at a pace that should not endanger the recovery. This is a turnaround from the discourse of two or three years ago. He also concentrated the agenda on several priorities. So we support his action. The European institutions need to show stability and continuity in their actions.

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