The EU will have a common European asylum system by the fall of 2015! We are now putting years of hard negotiations behind us after today’s positive vote by the European Parliament on the Asylum Package – the framework legislation that will give the EU a common system for asylum.
More than 330 000 people lodged an asylum application in the EU Member States last year, but asylum is not a matter of statistics. Behind every number there is a person who has been forced to leave her home and escape to a whole different continent. The reasons why a person has to flee can vary. It can be to escape from war, persecution or torture. Whatever the reasons might be, each person has a right to have her asylum application tried in a transparent process that respects her legal rights. With a common system, we will take a joint responsibility to ensure that those who have escaped from their home countries will be treated well and have their case tried. This is a great success for the EU, and it deserves a longer blog entry.
The Qualifications Directive specifies the grounds for granting a person international protection and refugee status. The UN Refugee Convention is of course valid, but the Directive gives a common interpretation of the original definition of a refugee.
The Asylum Procedure Directive provides common rules for the EU, e.g. setting time limits on the handling of asylum applications that the Member States’ authorities must adhere to. We have set obligations for proper education for staff that handles asylum applications, and also special rules for unaccompanied minors as they have different needs than adults.
The Reception Conditions Directive sets a minimum standard on the reception of the asylum seeker, with rules on dignified material living conditions and early evaluation of the asylum seeker’s physical and mental health. The asylum seeker shall also be granted faster access to employment. This Directive is important considering the inadequate reception centres all over Europe today. I have earlier written about centres in Greece. We now have clear rules on the conditions of the reception centres, and a very limited list of exceptional cases in which an asylum seeker may be kept in detention. As a fundamental principle: refugees shall not be placed in locked detention centres, and children should never be locked up, unless in exceptional cases it is necessary for their own security.
The Dublin Regulation is already in place and contains rules that decide which Member State that should handle an asylum claim. This Regulation is now being updated, and according to the new rules, an asylum seeker may not be sent to a Member State where there is a risk of inhumane or degrading treatment. This update also creates a system to detect and address possible issues in the national asylum systems early, before these issues can develop into crises.
EURODAC is a database with fingerprints of all people above the age of 14 that have applied for asylum in one of the EU Member States. According to these new rules, law enforcement authorities will have access to this database in cases that relate to terrorism and serious crime. However, this access is guarded by very strict controls to ensure that refugees are not routinely treated as criminals.
A set of common rules is an incredibly important step to eliminate the large differences that exist between the Member States today, and to raise the standard. In addition, all 27 EU Member States, soon to be 28, have a fully functioning asylum system which will mean that more countries will be able to take responsibility for the people who come for protection in Europe. Today, ten Member States receive 90 % of all asylum seekers.
The next step is to make sure that all Member States will implement these rules. It is worth mentioning that the Commission have funding connected to this legislation package, enabling the Member States to seek funding to help them in the important task of establishing a fully functioning asylum system that respects the legal rights of asylum seekers. We will also assist with training and other support. Only when this system is implemented throughout the EU, we can truthfully say that we have a common asylum system that is characterised by dignity and legal certainty.
The Schengen cooperation is an incredibly important part of the fundamental idea behind the EU – the free movement and our economy. It gives the possibility to 420 million people within the area to move freely across the internal borders, and is one of the things that the EU citizens appreciate most in the EU. One year ago, Schengen was causing a bit of a storm in Brussels. I had put forward a proposal that aimed to improve the Schengen system, something which caused tension between the Council and the Parliament. We really had difficulties in reaching an agreement, but after the summer, the three EU institutions sat down to create a compromise that everyone are more or less satisfied with. I am sure that it is not easy to follow everything that happens in Brussels, but we have managed to find a solution. We now have tools that enable us to strengthen the Schengen cooperation.
There is already today a mechanism that makes it possible to evaluate how the Member States implement the Schengen framework. However, it has become evident that we need new methods. The EU needs a mechanism that guarantees the protection of a system without internal border controls. We need a system that is better equipped to identify deficiencies at an early stage, and that is able to propose measures to follow up on these deficiencies. The new Schengen governance will provide this, and at the same time open up the system to be more transparent.
The Commission will be given a central and coordinating role in the new system. The evaluation of the functioning of Schengen will be conducted by the Commission together with experts from the Member States. We will also be able to give recommendations of improvements if we discover areas that could be enhanced. And, although not very likely to happen, the new system also creates an emergency brake and a possibility to temporarily reinstate border controls in extraordinary circumstances. However, and this is very important, no Member State can close a border on its own, as was discussed a year ago when the tension between France and Italy was at its peak.
The Commission can also keep an eye on the internal borders of the EU, to make sure that the Member States do not carry out unjustified passport controls. We know that this occurs too often today.
The new system will also give the European Parliament increased possibilities of influencing Schengen. The European Parliament will be given all relevant information, and both the Commission and the Council have expressed their will to consult with the Parliament on the evaluation of Schengen. The Parliament will vote on the improvements of the Schengen cooperation today, and I am happy that we have succeeded in strengthening such an important part of the EU.
A large number of immigrants are facing great challenges on the labour and housing market, and in the schools of our Member States. It is partly pure discrimination, which is forbidden by law, but in the wake of the crisis, many people with different ethnic backgrounds have been hit especially hard. However, there are large differences between the countries. We can also see that immigrants from the same country of origin, and with a similar social background have succeeded better in certain countries than in others. Some welfare systems and education systems seem to protect immigrants better from poverty and exclusion in the schools.
The local and regional authorities are at the front line of the integration process. Integration takes place in the local community, and the different conditions and obstacles to integration cannot be dealt with through legislation. The Commission has therefore developed an interactive map, which shows examples of good practice by and for local and regional authorities, to further strengthen the local dimension of the integration policy framework. We launched it today at the European Integration Forum, a conference taking place twice yearly with different themes, gathering local actors working with integration all around the EU to discuss and exchange experiences. The theme of this conference is integration of migrant youth.
The EU does not (and should not) have the competence to legislate in the area of integration, but since migration and integration are closely related and as many cities in Europe are facing the same challenges, there is also a dimension of integration policy on the EU level. The EU’s policy framework on integration is about integrating third country citizens who are legal residents in the EU, and is mainly focused on assisting national, regional and local organisations and authorities in sharing good practices on successful integration strategies with each other. The EU can play an important role in creating a meeting place and in enabling the exchange of experiences.
The purpose of this map is to improve the exchange of good practices on local and regional level, and to further highlight the local dimension of integration policy by showing the work that is being done by the local and regional authorities, and all in a user-friendly way. The map is accessible online on the European Web Site on Integration. Clicking on the map will open the website of an authority that shares its experiences and good practices in the area of integration. The map has been developed in cooperation with the Committee of the Regions, which identified some of the good practices for integration.
The EU has taken another step today in the fight against trafficking. In order to support all good forces, we have launched the new “EU Civil Society Platform against Trafficking”, which gathers more than 100 European NGOs from the entire EU as well as from Croatia, as a soon-to-be Member State.
This platform will function as a forum for NGOs on a European, national, and local level. Participating organisations work within the areas of human rights, equality, rights of children, and rights of migrants. The participants will be able to exchange experiences and concrete ideas on how to best help victims, develop networks, and prevent that more people fall victims for the horrible crime that trafficking in human beings is. The civil society plays an enormously important part in the prevention of trafficking in human beings, and in helping victims. The ones who work directly with the victims can learn a lot from each other, and also help us with concrete ideas on necessary measures to take when moving forward in this fight. We provide support and effective channels to spread their knowledge and experiences all across Europe.
Today’s meeting was in the form of a seminar, serving to reflect on and discuss political priorities, exchange of experiences, and future activities, such as information campaigns and the possibility of working with organisations outside of the EU. It is inspiring and encouraging to meet all the people who dedicate themselves to the fight against trafficking. A second meeting of this platform is envisaged to take place in the autumn. The Commission is also looking into possibilities of facilitating the communication within the platform in some kind of interactive forum.
The fight against trafficking in human beings is a priority in the EU; key elements are prevention, protection of victims, and effective prosecution of the perpetrators. On EU-level, we have taken decisions on criminal sanctions, support of victims, and preventive measures. The Directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings should have been transposed into national legislation by now, but only nine Member States (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Sweden) have transposed the Directive to its full extent, and four other Member States (Belgium, Bulgaria, Slovenia and the UK) have transposed it partially. I am now contacting those Member States who have not yet implemented this legal framework and urging them to do this. It is surprising and critical that the national legislation is being delayed. While waiting for this, women, men and children are sold as goods, to be abused in prostitution and manual labour. By not implementing the legal framework that we have all agreed upon, we are once again letting these people down.
We have both stories and statistics proving that LGBT people’s fundamental rights are not respected, that discrimination and violence exist in the EU today. Actually, we have enough proof and knowledge not to wait and further investigate before measures are presented. Today, on the International Day against Homophobia and transphobia (IDAHO), the Fundamental Rights Agency, presented a report with more statistics, combined with proposals on further measures, both on European and national level. For example, 47% of the 39 000 LGBT respondents in the agency’s survey, answered that they had experienced discrimination or harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation in the year preceding the survey. Hopefully, this report will convince more people that we need the use the information we have got already.
Yesterday, ILGA Europe published the annual review and map of the human rights situation for LGBT people in Europe. It indicates some progress in Europe, but also clearly shows the huge differences between countries, also within the EU. In several countries, gays and lesbians enjoy the right to get married. Recently such a law has been adopted in France. The degree of violence and harassments varies between Member states, but exist everywhere. A lot remains to be done. None of the EU Member States are “done”, all of them can do more, including the European institutions.
It is totally unacceptable and incompatible with the fundamental values that the European Union are built upon, that citizens are subject to discrimination, violence and harassment and excluded from legislation that would protect them and their families. We do not need to get bogged down in statistics, but rather thoroughly examine what we can do to improve the situation.
I am in Greece for a couple of days, it is my fifth visit here as Commissioner. The rain is pouring down, and the situation here is still very troubling. Many Greeks are facing a difficult time, but there are also some small bright spots on the horizon. Tourism is expected to reach record levels this summer, and the Eurogroup has cautiously pointed towards signs of progress.
I am of course here to discuss the situation for refugees and migrants. There has been some progress since I was here last time. While the worst of the detention centres have now been closed, the conditions are still unacceptable for those who are kept in detention. Greece needs to do more in this area to fulfil European rules and international standards, and needs to build several open reception centres.
On a more positive note: an asylum centre will finally open in Athens, as well as on a few of the islands. Processing of asylum applications have so far been managed by the police authorities, which of course is unacceptable. This new centre has educated staff that will register applications, conduct interviews and handle appeals.
I had long discussions with Minister Nikos Dendias on the remaining issues in the Action Plan on Migration that the government has adopted. It is of course the responsibility of Greece itself to put a system in place, but the Commission, our Agencies, the Member States and a large number of NGOs are here to help. Greece is still having difficulties in fully using the funds available, and there is a need for better coordination between ministries.
I met with Prime Minister Samaras, who is deeply engaged in these migration issues. I visited the new asylum centre, met with UNHCR, and also visited the police unit that up until now has been responsible for asylum applications, which is now being phased out.
An important issue that we discussed is the racist violence which unfortunately is very much apparent in a country where a party such as Golden Dawn is on the rise, and where the financial crisis is creating a breeding ground for simplistic solutions and scape goats in politics. A proposal for a law that will criminalise agitation against ethnic groups, as well as making racist violence a serious offence, is now being prepared.
I spent Monday in Stockholm, where this week’s Europe day was celebrated with seminars and events at the House of Europe in the centre of town. For me, Europe day (9 may) is a day to reflect on our European project, and to remind ourselves and others why the EU was once founded. Especially in these times of economic and social turmoil in many EU Member States, it is important to remember that our continent would be far worse off without our European cooperation.
I participated in two seminars yesterday, one on organised crime and security issues with Swedish Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask, and the other about the future of Europe, together with Anna Stellinger, head of the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies. For those who speak Swedish, you can watch the seminars recorded by Sveriges Television at their website.
The celebrations continue on Europe day proper, on Thursday of this week, when I’m heading to Florence, Italy for the State of the Union event organised by the European University Institute. It brings together representatives from European institutions and national governments, academics and business leaders to discuss the development and the future of the EU. I will be speaking at around mid-day about Europe’s need for migration, and our attitudes towards it. Watch the event live from 9 AM CET on Thursday here.
An issue that has been in the spotlight around social media this week is the Commission’s proposed package of legislation to modernise and strengthen the food import and production chain. Along with my colleagues in the Commission, I have received several questions on this subject through Twitter and email. Many of them, however, appear to be based on misunderstandings of what the legislation is about, when it comes to the commercial use of seed. Let’s make sure this doesn’t snowball into another euro-myth right around Europe day, so here are the facts: Seed in private gardens is not covered by EU legislation. Private gardeners can continue to buy any plant material they want, and sell their seed in small quantities. The Commission foresees no registration rules at all for micro enterprises.
A longer Q&A on the subject can be found here.
After three days of pouring rain, the sun finally came out in a green and spring-like Washington where I have spent some days now this week.
We have a well-established cooperation with the US on many issues. My main cooperation partners, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, remain in the new Obama administration which creates a clear continuity.
The discussions with them here in Washington are of course characterized by the atrocious act of terror in Boston, and the following investigations. We also spoke about the work that the US is doing to prevent radicalisation and violent extremism. I shared information about our RAN network, which was established 18 months ago and which gathers local actors, researchers, volunteer organisations, police, teachers, etc. from across the EU. The purpose of the network is to exchange thoughts and experiences on radicalisation and violent extremism, exit strategies, the role of the Internet, etc.
We also spoke about cyber-crime, our common work to fight sexual abuse of children online, and the planned migration reform in the US. It is interesting to compare the debate on migration here, versus the debate in Europe. Here in the US, there is a growing political consensus on the notion that migration is necessary, and that it is mainly something positive for the US. In Europe, where we despite high levels of unemployment will need labour migration, it is instead largely seen as a problem.
Other meetings have revolved around trafficking, cooperation before the UN’s conference on migration and development in the autumn, and quite a lot on cyber-crime. An important part of the visit has also been my meetings with people outside of the administration. I had an interesting discussion with students and researchers at Georgetown University, where we discussed migration and asylum issues. At the University of Washington, I participated in a panel debate on cyber-crime where I, among other things, presented the EU Cyber Security Strategy.
Everyone here is also very positive as regards the coming negotiations on a free trade agreement between the EU and the US. It would be of great importance to reach such an agreement.
From 25 March to 17 June, you can give the commission your opinion on what you think the EU should do to reduce the harm caused by firearms in Europe. Everyone is welcome to contribute. You as an individual or organisations like local, regional and national authorities, academic institutions and intergovernmental, non-governmental or international organisations, are very much welcome to send us good ideas.
Despite repeated political declarations, at international, EU and national level, calling for ‘less guns’ and ‘more security’ over the last decade, despite the adoption of new legal frameworks and despite the hard work of law enforcement authorities, firearms continue to cause severe harm. In 2011, in the EU alone more than 5000 murders were committed with firearms. According to information from Europol, among others, there are about 4 million unregistered arms only in the Balkan countries. The global underground weapon market is estimated to have a turnover of between 170 and 320 million dollars a year. Trafficking in arms is a true cross-border activity and a considerable crime. We need a stronger EU policy in this area.
The Commission is working on a common approach and the aim of the consultation is to collect opinions about action needed at EU level to reduce the threat of firearms to people living in the EU. Responses to the questionnaire will give us valuable input for a communication which the Commission is preparing for adoption later this year, as well as possible future legislative and other initiatives. Help us identify what needs to be done!
You find the consultation here: http://j.mp/11R4LLB
Today, the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (LIBE) voted on the two outstanding pieces of the asylum package. An overwhelming majority voted for the proposals. As EU Member States have already informally approved the package in its entirety (six directives in total), we are now only awaiting the vote in the European Parliament plenary before we have a decision on a Common European Asylum System. This is a milestone for European cooperation, something that we have negotiated for many, many years. It will lead to better quality and conditions in the asylum systems of EU Member States, guaranteeing that the person who applies for asylum will have the right to things like interpretation, legal counsel, and a reply to his of her application within a certain timeframe. Additional support will be directed to the most vulnerable refugees, such as unaccompanied children, women who have been sexually violated, and victims of torture. The common asylum system raises the standard in all areas, compared to the legal framework in place today.
Reaching an agreement on this legislation has been one of the most important goals for me as Commissioner, if not the most important. The countries of the EU have been discussing this since 1999, and the difference between Member States in receiving refugees is unacceptable. A small number of countries are taking a great share of the responsibility, whilst others should be able to do a lot more.
Our European cooperation is founded on the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, and human rights. This is something that we can all agree upon. The European asylum system will strengthen the rights of those who are fleeing persecution or conflict. The EU is thereby demonstrating that all Member States are willing to help those in need, and that we will do so in a dignified manner.
However, we cannot celebrate quite yet. The agreement between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament must be formally endorsed in the plenary of the European Parliament. This will most likely happen in June of this year.
Common rules and standards for the reception of refugees are enormously important. It should not matter to which country you flee – an asylum seeker should know that his or her application will be treated correctly everywhere. If all EU Member States have a fully functioning reception system, we can also help more people in need. Through today’s decision in the LIBE committee, the standards of protection and reception will be raised, and rules will become clearer.