The European asylum system

Much is at stake, not only in the field of European rights and values

The free movement of people within the European Union requires an extraordinary degree of integration among its member states. For the first time within an international framework, a group of states agreed to share a substantial element of their very essence, their territory, sharing control over those who access it, with a common system of management of their external borders. In a world where people's mobility is extremely high, the Schengen Agreement represent a highly sophisticated system for the joint management of borders. It ought to offer hope in terms of the governance of global mobility. Far from defending and broadening this vision of a Europe without internal borders, where greater cooperation allows people to enjoy more freedom and more security, the EU Council of Ministers is currently engaged in a dangerous shift towards the renationalization of the control of borders, particularly in relation to the application of European and international asylum law.

The European Union has a Common European Asylum System (SECA) that is based on the principle of the territoriality of asylum law —as a general rule, asylum seekers are the responsibility of the first country in which they arrive—, with common criteria for the processing and granting of international protection, and minimum standards for reception that must be guaranteed in any EU state. However, the system is much less common than it ought to be and it has failed to respond in situations of stress, as was the case following the Balkan crisis. The Commission has tabled a proposal that seeks to force states to comply with common rules. Nevertheless, the reform proved unpopular with the EU’s Interior Ministers a few days ago. In the midst of the already long-standing debate between Member States with a tradition of asylum and a robust system, such as Germany and Sweden —which take in the highest number of refugees— and certain border states, where the first arrival figures are higher. It is an unproductive debate which is hindering both solidarity with asylum seekers and between European states. It is now up to the Heads of State and Heads of Government, who are due to meet in Brussels in a few days’ time. The tension between the need to move forward with the common system and the temptation to renationalize will once again dominate the debate —sometimes of a highly toxic nature— that may prove to have more devastating consequences for the EU than the euro crisis.

The first cooperative gesture in a long time has come from Spain’s new government, by allowing the entry of people trapped on the Aquarius, a gesture that has also given visibility to the involvement of regions and cities from all over Europe (including Italian cities, despite the government's position, which refused the ship permission to dock) in many genuine, feasible solutions to the crisis. Aside from the decision’s humanitarian impact, which is first and foremost, the gesture also has political effects. It puts the Spanish government in a strong position to influence the next European Council, since it has shown that it wants to participate in this arena and it wishes to address the Union in the first person, as all its partners ought to. Speaking of Europe in the third person when sitting in the driver’s seat is a distortion of reality. At the current time it is important to expand the group of those who wish to move away from political tightrope walkers with a short-term vision, before moving forward, which in no way will be easy. Much is at stake, though not only in the field of European rights and values. An EU which is unable to carry out reforms and to move forward in the common management of migration and asylum will be unable to sustain free internal movement or any of the other fundamental pillars of its existence. It will have less power to push towards the global governance of migrations, as called for by the sustainable development agenda adopted by the United Nations in 2015. Many elements of the Schengen system —cooperation, common control and the minimization of physical borders— could serve as a model for the global governance of a fact, the mobility of people, that will not disappear from our realities. The renationalisation of borders could leave the EU weakened internally and isolated from international debate: with extremely high humanitarian and political costs, which will appear huge when compared to the true size, rather than the imagined costs, of the problem we are currently facing.

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