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EU: Seville Summit Lays Path For Common EU Immigration Policy (Immigration Series Part 1)

Called into action by right-wing gains in recent elections, European Union leaders tried at this weekend's Seville summit to reassert their authority over the key issue of immigration. A number of important commitments were agreed on to fight illegal immigration and to harmonize the bloc's policies on the issue. If the Seville decisions are put into practice over the coming months and years, the EU could become a much more difficult destination for would-be immigrants. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas was in Seville to follow the summit and files this first in a four-part series on the EU and immigration.

Brussels, 24 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union summits are often criticized for their tendency to produce carefully worded compromise decisions lacking a true commitment to reform.

With 15 member states, spurred by often diverse interests, compromises appear unavoidable. However, the results of this weekend's Seville summit show that compromises do not always equal inaction or stagnation.

Most Western media have paid close attention to the summit's failure to agree outright to slap sanctions on non-EU countries that do not cooperate in the fight against illegal immigration. Similarly, objections to setting up an EU border-control force were often highlighted as an example of discord stunting progress.

Yet, all things considered, the Seville decisions represent an important step toward the creation of tight EU-wide immigration and asylum policies. Perhaps the most significant feature of the summit was that the need for greater integration was accepted by all member states. Thus, the disagreement over whether to threaten uncooperative non-EU countries with sanctions was, at root, a debate over means, not ends.

Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Denmark said the threat of sanctions was the most effective way of securing cooperation. Sweden and Finland led the opposition, which maintained that long-term aid aimed at relieving poverty is a better answer. France, which is loath to jeopardize relations with its former African colonies, determined the battle's outcome by casting its weight behind the Swedish position. Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen summed up the resulting compromise as follows: "Relations [between the EU and its] partner countries must be viewed in their entirety, and automatic punitive sanctions are out of the question. If a country does not honor its contractual commitments, then, of course, relations will have to be reviewed and, possibly, aid given. In any event, assistance to relieve poverty cannot be touched."

However, future cooperation agreements with non-EU countries will contain clauses committing the parties to combating illegal immigration. The end-of-summit communique says failure to honor those commitments could be met with unspecified reprisals, provided there is unanimity within the EU.

The decision to postpone the creation of a common EU border police had more to do with fears for national sovereignty prevailing over perceived benefits of joint action. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a supporter of the proposed border force, said countries with shorter or less-sensitive external borders could afford to ignore the urgency felt by others.

Yet even here progress was made. By the end of the year, the first joint border-control operations will take place and a new coordinating body of national officials will be set up in Brussels. Border-control practices and the training of officials will begin to be standardized next year.

Ironically, Germany was one of the main forces resisting speedy integration of asylum policies. Schroeder said important aspects in the treatment of refugees claiming asylum should be decided by national governments, not the EU. "The question of access to labor markets, given the differences in national labor markets, is better regulated at the national level than the EU level. But we'll be returning to this question," Schroeder said.

Germany's careful stance on sensitive asylum issues is partly a function of the upcoming elections in September. But even here, Seville took important steps toward pan-European integration. By June next year, the EU will have a "minimum definition" according to which immigrants must be accepted as refugees. Also, rules for reuniting the families of immigrants will be streamlined. By the end of 2003, procedures for granting asylum should be standardized.

But, as ever, much will depend on the political will of EU leaders to follow through on these promises. In this instance, given the growing importance of immigration issues in election campaigns all over the EU, governments are under enormous pressure to deliver. In reflection of this, ministers and presidents often described the Seville decisions as "messages" to their constituents, appearing very aware at Seville that immigration can be ignored only at their peril.

(This is the first of a four-part series on immigration.)