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The elliptical debate on the harmonisation of European immigration policy

by Harald Greib
26/09/2002

For some months now, the Interior Ministers of the Member States of the European Union have been discussing, at their formal or informal meetings, the measures to be taken to combat illegal immigration, immigration that abuses, in most cases, national asylum systems in order to qualify for a precarious residence permit.

This is a political awareness, not of the reality of a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers in Europe since the EU as a whole welcomed fewer asylum seekers in 2002 than Germany alone in 1993, but of the rise in the results of the far-right and even populist parties that have made immigration their electoral battle horse. Even the Heads of State and Government discussed the issue at a summit in Seville under the Spanish Presidency.

There are many proposals for possible actions. Among other things, it includes the project to create a new European agency: a European border control police force – proof of the system’s imagination and unceasing creativity to create new spheres of influence, positions and career opportunities.

It seems pointless to review the various proposals; either they will not be agreed between the Fifteen or they will be discussed (included in an action plan from which an action plan will result, the implementation of which will be presented to the Council in biennial reports) for some time the Community system and then sent to the archives of Brussels to be met there, e. g. (you can guess? indeed:) the action plan to combat illegal immigration of 1998, which has not produced results. This is confirmed by the lack of results produced by the Seville Summit. And who still remembers the long conclusions of the Tampere Summit in October 1999, which focused on the whole aspect of internal security policy.

One of these last political meetings, the meeting of Interior Ministers in Rome on 30 and 31 March, was the subject of a series of articles in Le Monde on 30 May 2002. Almost unanimously, its authors are in favour of harmonising European immigration policy. Some even believe that no national measure would produce any effect without such harmonisation. No argument is put forward to justify this observation on the need for harmonisation of immigration policy. And yet, there are some.

Harmonisation could prevent restrictive measures in one Member State from simply diverting inflows of asylum seekers to the territory of neighbouring Member States; because it is then difficult to see the benefit for Europe. Or it could avoid a negative overbid by Member States trying to become the least attractive Member State for asylum seekers, which could put these Member States in conflict with international law, in particular the Geneva Convention or the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. So, indeed, harmonisation might be desirable.

But it is not binding. The harmonisation of a European immigration policy is a political choice and not an absolute necessity. If the United Kingdom is now the first destination for immigrants, it is the result of its reception policy: legal access to the labour market after six months’ residence and the absence of an obligation to carry identity documents. It is therefore up to British politicians to draw the consequences they consider relevant from this reality and to make it the subject of a public debate during the next election campaign – as was the case in Germany in 1993 when that country amended its Constitution to stem the flow of asylum seekers.

Admittedly, Europe could adopt a common policy, a policy that would lay down common rules for granting refugee status, reception conditions (such as legal access to the labour market) and, certainly the most difficult point, the criteria for distributing asylum seekers throughout Europe. This last aspect of a possible common policy is always the subject of fierce debate. But it must be part of an integral immigration policy. Why? Why? To demonstrate a complex problem, nothing beats a concrete example. Here it is:

Chinese smugglers succeed in bringing a large number of Chinese people to Europe. The monthly figure continues to increase. The police are unable to find an effective remedy.

The immigration policy is harmonised. Throughout the Member States, asylum seekers benefit from the same refugee status granting system, access to work, social benefits, etc. Which Member State will the vast majority of Chinese arrivals go to? To France, a Member State with the largest Chinese population in Europe, with newcomers seeking the support of a network of their compatriots. The same phenomenon would occur in the case of immigration from Pakistan, with England as the destination, or from Western Turkey, with Germany as the destination.

France, in a Europe of a harmonised immigration policy, would no longer have the sovereignty to take measures to control this influx by making itself a less attractive destination for asylum seekers. Any possible action, such as lowering social benefits or blocking access to the labour market, should be taken in Brussels. Consequently, it would also be Brussels’ task to ensure that an immigration wave does not constitute an excessive burden for a Member State. Brussels would therefore be obliged to set up a system for distributing asylum seekers throughout Europe.

Whoever says “system of distribution”, says “creation of reception centres”, says “limitations of public freedoms”, says “legal and political debate”, often with xenophobic connotations, then says “complex and difficult democratic debate”. This debate must be structured somewhere, in some institutions. The EU does not have the institutions required for such a debate involving all European public opinion. Consequently, the requirement for harmonisation of immigration policy is equivalent to a requirement to remove this highly sensitive political debate from citizen participation, to increase the democratic deficit in the EU and to entrust the most sensitive competences (need I remind you of the presence of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his zero immigration programme, or even the return of immigrants, in the second round of the presidential election to make this point clear?) to a European technocracy without real political control and democratic transparency.

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