Brussels, 11 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of the EU's Irish presidency and the European Commission came to the debate at the European Parliament expecting to have to defend their patchy record in forging and implementing a common immigration and asylum policy.
However, it was not so much the lack of specific legislation or its piecemeal application that came under attack, but the assumptions behind current policies. Deputy after deputy -- most of them coming from the left of the political spectrum -- queried the overall precedence given to curbing illegal immigration, securing the EU's borders, and ejecting unsuccessful asylum applicants.
"But above all, when we're talking about the promotion and defense of the basic rights of people, there is considerable delay and contradiction [in passing legislation] both in the council and the member states."
Instead of what many members of the European Parliament (MEPs) described as this "repressive" approach to immigration, they demanded greater attention to the rights of migrants and creating opportunities for legal immigration.
The overview given by Michael McDowell, minister for justice, speaking for the EU's current presidency, reported the most progress on measures intended to keep immigrants out. "In the area of illegal immigration, the Council [of EU member states] reached agreement in the case of transit for the purpose of removal [of illegal immigrants] by air and the decision on the organization of joint flights," he said. "On an operational level, various joint projects were carried out at land, sea, and air borders, including the establishment of an ad hoc center for border-guard training. The council also adopted a program of measures to combat illegal immigration across maritime borders."
The EU's internal affairs commissioner, Antonio Vitorino, admitted far fewer measures have been adopted by EU member states -- who have the final say in the field -- when it comes to integrating legal immigrants, allowing access for students, protecting victims of traffickers, or securing EU-wide minimum standards for refugees.
This imbalance was seized upon by representatives of both the European Parliament's socialist and liberal factions. Liberal MEP Sarah Ludford set the tone: "States have been more zealous about toughening borders and deporting illegal immigrants than on making sure immigrants are legal and integrated. The council passed a grudging directive on long-term immigrants, and one on family reunification. But there's been no rush to implement the 2002 antitrafficking framework decision to catch the criminal gangs."
Ludford cited the recent deaths of 19 Chinese shellfish gatherers in England, who she said appeared to have been the victims of human traffickers.
Similarly, Elena Paciotti, an Italian socialist, said the EU needs a comprehensive program to tackle asylum seekers and integrate immigrants, instead on focusing only on measures of turning them away at the borders. She also criticized existing legislation as flawed. "On immigration in particular, as called for by Parliament on numerous occasions, it's important to determine a common program for citizens coming from third countries and their residents not only to concentrate on repressing illegal immigration," she said. "But above all, when we're talking about the promotion and defense of the basic rights of people, there is considerable delay and contradiction [in passing legislation] both in the council and the member states. Measures are being adopted which do not respect the basic rights [of immigrants] and proceedings have been brought to the [European] Court of Justice on, for example, family reunification."
A number of speakers evoked UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recent speech before the European Parliament, in which he criticized the EU's immigration policies as "mean."
Robert Evans, a British socialist, referring to Annan, called on the EU to adopt a scheme along the lines of the "green card" program operated by the United States allowing for controlled legal immigration. Echoing Annan, Evans said immigration pressures on the EU can only increase, and that current practices feed human trafficking. On the other hand, he said, the EU needs planned migration to respond to its aging population.
Representing the largest faction in the European Parliament, the conservatives were, on the whole, supportive of the current policies, preferring to emphasize the tightening of border controls and fighting cross-border crime and drug trafficking.
Both the Irish representative and Commissioner Vitorino rejected criticism that EU immigration policies are "repressive." Vitorino said EU member states have no choice but to seek a balance between accommodating asylum seekers and managing their borders and migration flows. He said incremental progress had been made in both areas over the past five years, adding that this is the "normal way of building Europe."
Vitorino left little doubt that when it comes to weighing the rights associated with immigration and asylum against the security and support of a largely skeptical EU public opinion, the latter must win out. "I will recall your attention to the fact that when we talk about reinforcing our external border security, and guaranteeing our internal security, we do it not in a repressive way, but in the name of freedom," he said. "Because it is to preserve the freedom of movement [of EU citizens] and the [abolition] of our internal borders that we need to reinforce the security of our external borders. It is in the name of freedom that we should be more efficient in integrating legal migrants. And for that purpose, we need to guarantee to our own public opinion that we have the situation under control."