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EU: Commission Wants More Coordination On Immigration Policies

The European Commission yesterday adopted a number of documents aimed at streamlining EU immigration and asylum policies. The documents will first be discussed at a meeting of the bloc's justice and home affairs ministers in Luxembourg tomorrow, and then at the Thessaloniki summit in Greece later this month. As RFE/RL reports, the commission proposals represent a move toward a stricter and more closely regimented EU approach.

Brussels, 4 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European Union officials routinely acknowledge the bloc's inescapable need to embrace immigration, at least to a degree.

Most experts agree that in less than 10 years, the aging populations of a number of EU member states could put their social systems -- and consequently, their budgets -- under serious pressure.

Increased immigration seems an obvious remedy, but the topic remains highly sensitive and largely unpopular in most member states.

Jean Louis de Brower , who heads the immigration department at the European Commission, says the proposals unveiled yesterday proceed from the assumption that immigration is a fact of life, which the EU should turn to its advantage.

"According to a famous saying, immigration is neither a problem nor a solution. It is a human phenomenon of a permanent and universal importance, and we need to adopt a positive approach to it, all the more so [because] Europe is heading toward a demographic and economic situation that will create an increasing number of shortfalls. These shortfalls, in turn, could help immigration play an important and valuable role, provided it is well-contained, well-managed, well-accepted and generally welcomed [by the public]," de Brower says.

The way the European Commission proposes to ease the debate in member states is to offer publics greater control and coordination over immigration and asylum policies, while simultaneously advancing harmonizing and centralizing measures. Thus, the commission has specified a number of key areas where it wants to see quick progress.

The first is a common visa policy, entailing the EU-wide standardization of visas and residence permits.

Secondly, the commission wants to move ahead with a joint border control authority, which exists today in an embryonic capacity under the control of the member states. The commission also promotes financial "burden-sharing" between those member states which have longer and more contested borders and those which are freer of such pressures.

Thirdly, an "integrated return policy" is in the offing, replete with proposals to create a clear EU-wide legal basis for the "removal" of illegal immigrants involving more than one member state. A key test for an EU "removal policy" will be the planned repatriation of thousands of Afghan refugees, scheduled to start later this month.

De Brower said today that all necessary preparations have already been made and that it is now up to member states to launch their own operations.

"Everything is now in place for the implementation of the plan," he says. European Commission officials have been to Kabul and organized reception facilities. "The main operators have been chosen," de Brower says. And, "as usual in these cases," it is mainly the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration that will be involved.

But de Brower says, "as you are certainly aware, the decision to trigger the implementation of the plan comes from the member states themselves. That is to say, the commission is in charge of the coordination but has no say on deciding who should be repatriated and when."

There is widespread agreement in the EU that the current system of processing asylum claims needs urgent reform. One proposal currently under discussion is a controversial British idea to set up "processing centers" for asylum seekers outside of the EU, where claims would be dealt with. Those given refugee status would be admitted into the EU. Others would be returned to their countries of origin.

Countries mentioned as potential sites for such centers include Albania, Romania, Ukraine, and Turkey -- all of them on main transit routes into the EU.

De Brower says a "substantial number of legal, financial, and practical questions remain." However, he says if member states want to "experiment" with the idea, the commission is ready to assist.

He says he believes small-scale pilot schemes could provide answers to most of the pertinent questions.

Before setting up such a center, he says, decisions will have to be made by the countries that want to be involved. "Let's take only two examples which are quoted in our paper," de Brower says. "First of all, which kind of legislation will be implemented in those centers? [Who] will be responsible for the management of the centers? Will it be [the UN High Commissioner for Refugees]? Will it be one member state acting on behalf of the associated member states in the center? The other example, an absolutely key issue to ensure the acceptability of the center, [is] will a sufficient level of protection be ensured for the people residing in these centers?"

De Brower concludes that "these are all hypotheses that can be tested," adding that the ball is now "in the court of the member states."

Next week, the European Commission will unveil another policy paper, this time addressing cooperation with non-EU countries to help tackle illegal immigration. Among other ideas, the paper is expected to further explore the idea presented last year of making certain financial "stimuli" available to those countries of origin or transit that are prepared to act on EU demands.