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Member of the European Commission responsible for Home Affairs
Establishing the Common European Asylum System by 2012 – an ambitious but feasible target
Ministerial Conference “Quality and Efficiency in the Asylum Process"
Brussels, 14 September 2010
First, let me thank warmly the Presidency for organising this conference at such a timely moment. The way the programme is constructed gives us the opportunity to share relevant information, exchange views and discuss the issue of good governance of our asylum systems, in an open-minded way. I am also very pleased that we can do so with all the stakeholders concerned by the development of the Common European Asylum System: the Member States, the European Parliament, the UN High Commissioner for refugees and representatives of civil society, including academics. We need to construct the Common Asylum System, but we can only do so if all of us play our parts and are actively involved in its construction.
The results of the workshops yesterday are stimulating and all of us will bring back useful ideas for the negotiations on the asylum package, for the first priorities of work of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and for the concrete implementation of the Stockholm Programme, including on solidarity and responsibility-sharing.
We find ourselves at a crucial moment in the establishment of the Common Asylum System. The decisions that we will take in the coming months will shape the future of the Protection Space in Europe and will have an important impact on the hundreds of thousands of persons who apply for asylum in the EU and on the many more, who already reside here as beneficiaries of international protection. These decisions will also have consequences in the way national administrations operate.
Before addressing some elements of the asylum package, I would like to raise a preliminary concern. More and more I feel uncomfortable with a raising trend of using a vocabulary which strongly impacts on approaches and decisions on asylum policy. Asylum is, again, more and more blurred with illegal immigration.
I want to be crystal clear in my vocabulary: No, asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants, even if many were forced to enter the EU territory in an irregular manner.
No, not all rejected asylum seekers should be put in the category of irregular migrants or of those who tried to "abuse" the system.
And yes, we need to ensure appropriate access to EU territory in a holistic manner. As Commissioner also in charge of the management of External Borders, I am particularly sensitive to this issue and these concerns have already been reflected in the recent amendment of the Frontex regulation and in the decision implementing the border code with regard to interception at sea. In order to promote a secure Europe, I am committed to improving our strategies in fighting irregular immigration, but this cannot be the starting point for designing our asylum agenda.
Now turning to the asylum package: the headline goal the EU gave itself must be clear to all: after the "asylum crisis" of the 90's, it became evident that we need to find common solutions and to develop common procedures and uniform status, leading to similar decisions and treatment of asylum seekers. This priority was constantly reaffirmed since Tampere in 1999, including in the Pact on Immigration and Asylum. In the Stockholm Programme the European Council has given us the mandate to finalise this Common European Asylum System by not later than 2012. We all agree that this is an ambitious goal but it is a feasible one.
In aiming to construct a balanced and efficient system, I have 5 base lines:
- No. 1: The best way to ensure efficiency and fight against so-called abuses is to invest in an asylum process which provides robust and qualitative decisions in a rapid manner. The proposals on the table are aimed at providing the means to the Member States to ensure an efficient system, indeed with frontloading of resources but also allowing Member States to deal quickly with unfounded claims. This must be accompanied by an approximation of the rights granted under both protection statuses. The proposals aim to do away with the current patchwork between Member States and within Member States which creates itself additional administrative burden and costs.
- No. 2 : The Commission is open to discuss with Member States and the European Parliament possible improvements of its proposals. No doubt there can be certain aspects in our proposals that might be amended or even avoided. The cost factor certainly needs to be looked at, especially during a time of economic crisis and austerity measures. However, I am aware that there has been progress in talks with the Council in understanding better the objectives of some provisions and on finding solutions to preliminary concerns.
Furthermore, we need to be concrete and flexible. I call on Member States to help the Presidency to draft a compromise on the basis of concrete proposals and on the European Parliament to deliver its opinion on the Asylum Procedures Directive. Based on that, the Commission is ready to take its responsibility to provide the co-legislators further impetus during the negotiations, especially on the Asylum Procedures Directive and on the Reception Conditions Directive.
- No. 3: We need to find the proper balance between what needs to be put in the legislation and what can benefit from practical cooperation. I am very hopeful the European Asylum Support Office will be up and running soon and can start its support to Member States in finding solutions and creating convergence. But let's make no mistake. Practical cooperation that will be beneficial to the Member States will always be provided within the binding legal standards that create the necessary framework for legal certainty. We should resist the temptation to shift all the solutions on certain difficult issues to practical cooperation. At the same time, the EASO will also help Member States in transposing the legal provisions in the most efficient way, to be of use to the Commission to monitor application in Member States and to create mutual trust.
- No. 4: We need to avoid the mistakes of the first phase of the development of the Common European Asylum System. To understand better some flaws of the current legislation, I draw your attention in particular to the two last evaluation reports produced by the Commission, the one dated last June on the Qualification Directive and the one just adopted by the Commission last week on the Asylum Procedures Directive. If we want to have a genuine Common European Asylum System, we should avoid a race to the bottom: we cannot have texts full of exceptions and derogations. I trust the co-decision methodology will avoid that and will help us in finding the synergies between our positions in a way that is acceptable to all.
- No. 5: We must take into account the case-law of the European Courts, both in Strasbourg and in Luxembourg and the Charter on Fundamental rights. I know that for Member States, it does sometimes represent a real challenge as practice and legislation must be modified in certain cases. But it is the choice also made by the EU, in particular with the Lisbon Treaty. It is particularly relevant for all matters related to the concepts of effective remedies, non-discrimination and protection against refoulement.
As far as solidarity and responsibility-sharing are concerned, the Commission has, since its 2008 Policy Plan, always advocated for a holistic and multifaceted approach. We must use all the different tracks: the financial, the so-called physical and the material ones. We also have to put in the picture all other dimensions linked to solidarity in border and return management as well as the large potential of the cooperation with third countries, such as the one we are experimenting through the Regional Protection Programmes or through other means. Be assured that the Commission will also promote these initiatives.
Discussions about solidarity here in this Conference will feed into our thinking for next year's Commission Communication about how to reinforce intra-EU solidarity. The support of the EASO is critical. Other important 'ingredients' will be the outcome of the relocation pilot project with Malta and the findings of the feasibility study on relocation we will publish soon. We should bear in mind that the Commission will also propose in 2011 the draft legal basis for the next generation of financial instruments in the field of migration management. Since 2000, the European Refugee Fund has been a key instrument to support Member States, the UNHCR and civil society organisations, including local authorities, in implementing EU asylum policy. I would be interested to hear some views on the best way to redesign the European Refugee Fund in the post 2013 context.
To conclude on this item, Mr President: I read with great interest the conclusion of the Rapporteur on solidarity about the need to comply with the agreed standards and mutual trust. The Commission will continue to play a key role in verifying and enforcing such compliance. In parallel, we must be able to provide specific solutions and support to the Member States facing particular pressures. Let me remind you that the Action Plan on the implementation of the Stockholm Programme foresees the establishment of a mechanism to review Member States national systems and to identify issues related to capacities which will enable Member States to support each other in building capacity. I would welcome your views also on this.
As a final remark, Mr President, may I call on you and all other stakeholders here today to show their commitment in our common and ambitious goal. Let's work closely together and construct the common system, in the interest of all stakeholders but above all for those who call on our protection.
All the elements are on the table, the Belgian Presidency has the commitment to make substantial progress before the end of its term. With a joint effort we can make it happen. Let me assure you, the European Commission will do all it can to support this process.
Thank you for your attention.