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EU: Summit Will Address Immigration, Asylum Policy

Leaders from the 15 countries of the European Union are gathering today and tomorrow in the Finnish town of Tampere to discuss immigration and asylum policies. Anthony Georgieff reports from Tampere that the EU leaders will look at ways to control the influx of immigrants, including pressuring candidate states to tighten their own visa requirements.

Tampere, Finland, 15 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- High on the agenda for EU leaders in Tampere today is a discussion of what to do about illegal immigration. Echoing mainstream political sentiments throughout the Union, German Interior Minister Otto Schily has said that "something must be done" to reassure West Europeans that the influx of refugees and immigrants from outside the EU will be stopped.

Britain's Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Jack Straw has said: "The problem we have all got since the collapse of the Berlin Wall is that the (asylum) system has been increasingly used as a means of evading immigration controls."

Western Europe is seen as a beacon of hope for refugees from Eastern Europe as well as from the Third World. An estimated 4 million people have entered EU countries since the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and its Central European satellites. Many of these immigrants are perceived to be seeking better economic prospects, rather than fleeing political persecution.

The meeting in Tampere will discuss a joint proposal by Germany, Britain, and France calling for a clear distinction between genuine asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. The three countries want EU states to coordinate regulations covering housing, health and other benefits for asylum seekers, to prevent what is known as asylum shopping -- when refugee pick the country with the greatest benefits. And the trio agree that the situation in Kosovo no longer justifies the temporary shelter of Kosovar refugees in EU member states.

It is unclear how such "coordinated" policies will be implemented on a pan-European level. Most EU countries are party to the Schengen agreement, which establishes common immigration and police policies among participants, as well as passport-free travel. But some EU states, including Denmark, Britain, and Ireland, are not yet part of the Schengen agreement, while other countries -- such as Norway -- are not members of the EU but do have special agreements with Schengen.

Significantly, the joint German-French-British proposal acknowledges that public opinion is some part of Europe shows increasing "concern about the presence of foreigners." This is a reference to the rise of right-wing, populist parties, some of which promote xenophobia. Joerg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, which less than a fortnight ago surged to second place in Austria's general elections, is the latest example.

Analysts in the West diverge in their opinion on whether the proposals to be discussed in Tampere will curtail the right of genuine refugees to seek asylum within the EU. Our correspondent in Tampere spoke with Pernille Boeggild, a senior analyst at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen. Boeggild says one current of thought in the EU is that increasing aid to poorer countries can encourage those countries' citizens to stay put.

"In a way, if you go into these country plans, which are on the table now, they talk about preventing the streams of refugees by stopping them from moving out of their home country. At the same time, the current plans talk about supporting these countries and linking the aid policy with foreign policy. At a certain level, I see this as a good idea because asylum and immigration policies cannot be isolated."

But Boeggild says that if that strategy is coupled with tighter visa requirements, the net result could make it harder for East European refugees to gain asylum.

"But of course if you imagine that the European Fortress builds its walls even stronger than they are now, it will have consequences for refugees originating anywhere, including the eastern parts of Europe."

Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, has said that the Tampere summit will be "a turning point in the history of the Union." EU countries must work out a framework for shared responsibility for large flows of refugees, such as those seen during the Kosovo crisis, Lipponen has said.

A special emphasis will be put on intensifying border security on the EU's external borders. This will include putting pressure on EU applicant states in the East, such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. These countries will have to tighten their border and visa procedures and bring them in line with the EU.

Lykke Friis is a senior analyst at the Danish Institute of Foreign Affairs. He told RFE/RL that adhering to the Schengen agreement on immigration may be tricky for EU candidate states:

"Then of course you have the great difficulty of asking these countries to implement the Schengen criteria because it costs a lot of money, and there is the risk of creating new dividing lines. If you ask the Hungarians to control their border in a Schengen-like fashion towards Slovakia and Romania, this is where you have one of the core problems in the actual enlargement."

EU Commission President Romano Prodi announced this week that he'll recommend that six more countries begin negotiations to join the EU. That announcement is expected to make the issue of enlargement even more important to the discussion of immigration policy. Friis says:

"As has been manifested by the elections in Austria and also by the public sentiments in Germany, there is a strong fear that enlargement will lead to an influx of refugees coming over the borders, so it is difficult today how this will actually turn out. It will certainly be one of the core negotiations issues."

The Tampere meeting is expected to produce few concrete results, however, as the issues dealt with -- immigration, crime, and legal cooperation -- are extremely sensitive. It could take years before all EU countries' laws are in harmony.