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EU: Leaders Agree To Fight Illegal Immigration, Organized Crime

Tampere, Finland, 18 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Fifteen EU leaders have just concluded a special European Summit in Tampere, Finland, by adopting a declaration aimed at fostering cooperation in legal affairs, curbing illegal immigration, and cracking down on cross-border crime.

Most leaders with whom RFE/RL's correspondent spoke at the summit expressed satisfaction with its results. One of them was Denmark's Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen:

"The conclusions we have reached on this set of extremely sensitive areas are very satisfactory. They provide us with a concrete framework for further legal and immigration cooperation and harmonization, and we in Denmark are particularly happy that they also make a specific case of the need to combat xenophobia and discrimination against non-EU citizens."

Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, told RFE/RL:

"Our objective in Tampere has been to make the area of freedom, security, and justice a reality. And I can say that the decisions we have reached today are a milestone towards that objective."

In an indirect reference to the rise of xenophobic and extreme parties and groups in Europe, the latest example of which has been the recent electoral victory of the Austrian Freedom party led by Joerg Haider, Lipponen added:

"These are questions that are of fundamental importance, and we have a duty to keep them at the top of our political agenda for years to come."

The summit was the first EU meeting to tackle the issues of international crime and immigration at such a senior level.

The final declaration sets the framework for establishing a common European asylum system and for the simultaneous approximation and recognition of sometimes wildly divergent legal practices. It also creates guidelines for the establishment of new pan-European judicial and police bodies to fight cross-border crime and for cracking down on money laundering -- including the lifting of bank secrecy in cases of suspect transactions.

The summit identified several areas of cooperation as particular priorities. One of them is closer cooperation with the countries of origin of most refugees, and the establishment of readmission agreements with those countries. A common asylum system is planned first and foremost to determine which country should be responsible for the processing of an asylum claim -- the country of entry into the EU, or the country where the application is filed -- and to establish minimum standards for the efficient processing of applications. The main idea is to prevent so-called "asylum-shopping" where refugees move from one EU country to another in search for the highest benefits.

Another priority area is border management and the full implementation of the Schengen agreement, which has been incorporated into the EU legal framework with the Treaty of Amsterdam.

Applicant countries in central and eastern Europe cannot hope to become members of the EU unless the implement Schengen to its letter, EU leaders said at the Tampere summit. In practice, this will mean the imposition on visas by front-running candidate states on eastern countries with more distant accession prospects, for example, in the Balkans.

However, various EU officials told RFE/RL that no changes in the visa regime for third country nationals are envisaged in the immediate future.

EU leaders have also agreed to improve the civil rights of non-EU citizens legally residing in the Union. These are likely to include the right to vote in local elections, and the right to social security and education. But the most contentious point -- the free movement of third country nationals' labor force, remains undecided.

In legal cooperation, the Tampere summit produced an agreement on the simultaneous recognition and approximation of the various EU states' legal practices. This is envisaged to make a legal decision taken by a court in one member state, automatically recognized in all others. A significant consequence of this will be the gradual abolition of extradition procedures, which at the present time can take years to complete. Extradition will be replaced by the tentatively called Eurowarrant which, when issued by the authorities in one state will be valid in all others.

The EU summit also decided to set up Eurojust, a body to coordinate the work of EU public prosecutors, to establish a joint task force consisting of EU countries' police chiefs, and to found a European police college for the training of law enforcement officers able to operate at a cross-border level.

Types of crimes identified as priorities for the time being are juvenile and urban crime as well as smuggling of people and drugs trafficking.

Lastly, the EU summit also decided to crack down on money laundering by making it easier for financial and police authorities to freeze and seize assets, and to make cross-border arrests. The envisaged measures include the lifting of bank secrecy in cases of suspect transactions.

Prior to the summit, there had been concern from human rights groups such as Amnesty International that the EU might seek to close itself off to third-world refugees fleeing persecution at home. Amnesty has said that asylum and protection measures cannot be subordinated to immigration control, and has said that as a result of restrictive EU immigration measures already in place the number of refugees in the EU has dramatically fallen in recent years.

But the ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exiles), a non-governmental pressure group, has disagreed with Amnesty. ECRE officials said in Tampere that they were pleased with the outcome of the summit, saying its decisions assured the access of genuine refugees into the EU.

ECRE's Friso Roscam Abbing, a lobbyist in Brussels, said, "You cannot say that the final document of the Tampere summit is Fortress Europe...indeed, we believe it is a step in the opposite direction."

Analysts say the Tampere summit has laid the groundwork for legal, police, and immigration cooperation, but the real work -- to get the details agreed upon and implemented -- remains to be done and still may take years to complete.

This was acknowledged at the summit by Romano Prodi, the chairman of the European Commission:

"We have the task to control all the decisions, and it will be necessary to get the goals that we decided upon this morning implemented on a European level, with the principle of subsidiarity applying [throughout the decision-making process]."

Some observers already are criticizing the summit in Tampere as focusing too much on goals and too little on ways to quickly reach them. One critic is Baroness Sarah Ludford, an MEP [Member of the European Parliament] from London and the European Liberal Democrats' spokesperson on legal affairs. She spoke to RFE/RL by phone from London:

"I do think that [the summit] was a bit thin in concrete benefits and initiatives. For instance, it would have been good to see a Europe-wide freedom of information law that would reinforce the rights of citizens against their government." Baroness Ludford added that "it also is a pity that the summit did not agree on a European Union charter of fundamental rights that would be legally binding."

She said that politicians must not lump together illegal immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution, and they must do more to fight racism and xenophobia. She said loose language puts millions of third country nationals and residents of the EU at risk of racial discrimination.