The Bratislava Declaration on migration: European irresponsibility instead of solidarity

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON OMNIA (Odysseus Network) SITE (27 Sep 2016)

By Phillippe De Bruycker (ULB/EUI) Evangelia (Lilian) Tsourdi (Max Weber Fellow, EUI)

The Bratislava Declaration refers on two occasions to “the principles of responsibility and solidarity”. The basic idea is to “broaden EU consensus” by devising a “long term migration policy” on the basis of the two principles.

At first look, this seems logical and even advisable. Since 2015, the EU has been unable to respond effectively to the ‘refugee crisis’. It is only the fragile ‘deal’ with Turkey that brought the illusion of a solution by externalising asylum provision to a third country. The EU remains profoundly divided about possible internal solutions. A European East-West divide has appeared, in addition to the well-known North-South division about the principles evoked in the Bratislava Declaration. Member States in the South have been complaining for years about the lack of solidarity measures, while many Member States in the Northwest have castigated them about their inability to implement their responsibilities. More recently, Member States in the Central/Eastern part of the EU (more precisely the Visegrad group consisting of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) are refusing, ostensibly in the name of responsibility, to engage in the type of solidarity requested by no longer only the Member States in the South, but also those in the Northwest.

The objective to heal the wounds and reunify EU Member States around the same principles of solidarity and responsibility appears reasonable and even attractive in this setting. If all Member States (including those in the South) are fully responsible, the others (in particular those in the East) will demonstrate greater solidarity, so that the problem may be solved in a balanced way. This presentation based on an opposition between responsibility and solidarity is, however, simplistic and even incorrect from a legal point of view. If there is indeed in EU law a precise legal provision that can be considered to embody responsibility, applicable in the same manner throughout EU law, the same does not hold true for solidarity (1). Moreover, effective solidarity and fair sharing are a prerequisite to responsibility in EU migration and asylum policies, rather than the other way round  (2).

1. More responsibility than solidarity in EU law in general

When searching in the EU treaties for the word “responsibility”, Article 165(1) TFEU provides an excellent example of the kind of answer that appears: following this provision, “The Union shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting theresponsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity”.Responsibility refers in this sense simply to competence.

Responsibility understood as competence can be envisaged as a power as well as a duty. It is not so surprising that this notion has been linked in the case law of the Court of Justice with the principle of loyalty, now referred to as the principle of sincere co-operation under Article 4(3) TEU. The principle embodies, respectively, a positive obligation (taking measures to ensure fulfilment of obligations), and a negative obligation (abstaining from measures that could jeopardize this fulfilment). It is this first part that is often evoked by Member State governments; with ‘responsibility’ they refer to Member States’ duty to fulfil their obligations and honour their commitments under EU law.

Loyalty has been made explicit under Article 4(3) of the TEU. The principles of loyalty and solidarity are sometimes used interchangeably in legal scholarship, with loyalty considered a facet of solidarity. Under this understanding, the responsibility of Member States to implement their obligations under EU law is a sign of solidarity to each other. This is, however, a narrow understanding of solidarity, which is a notion different from responsibility.

When searching in EU treaties for the word ‘solidarity’, one finds, in particular since the Lisbon Treaty, more results than a similar search for ‘responsibility’. In some instances, solidarity fulfils an aspirational role, providing political orientation, rather than forming the basis of legally binding duties.  For example, following article 3(5) TEU, “In its relations with the wider world, the Union shall (…) contribute to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples…”

However, in other areas solidarity forms the basis of concrete actions and legally binding duties as in article 222(1) TFEU, following which “The Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster. The Union shall mobilise all the instruments at its disposal, including the military resources made available by the Member States, to:

(a)       – prevent the terrorist threat in the territory of the Member States;

– protect democratic institutions and the civilian population from any terrorist attack;

– assist a Member State in its territory, at the request of its political authorities, in the event of a terrorist attack;

(b)       assist a Member State in its territory, at the request of its political authorities, in the event of a natural or man-made disaster”.

These latter provision shows that solidarity is not linked with the fulfilment of responsibilities but rather with providing assistance to other Member States in order to allow them to implement their obligations.

Interestingly, solidarity understood in this sense does not have the same status as responsibility understood as loyalty. There is indeed no legal provision of solidarity applicable throughout different policies that would create a general duty to support, but rather different and more or less strong expressions of solidarity. As a consequence, one has to examine each particular policy and the provisions in the EU treaties pertaining to it in order to ascertain whether there are concrete solidarity duties and what the extent of these may be. This leads us to the meaning of solidarity in policies on border checks, asylum and immigration as governed by Articles 77 to 80 TFEU.

2. More solidarity than responsibility in EU migration and asylum policies

When searching for the word ‘responsibility’ or ‘responsible’ in those provisions, there are four hits. Firstly, Article 72 states that the EU competences regarding border checks, asylum and immigration do not affect the “responsibilitiesincumbent upon Member States with regard to the maintenance of law and order and the safeguard of internal security” and, secondly, in Article 73, following which “it shall be open to Member States to organise between themselves and under their responsibility forms of cooperation and coordination as they deem appropriate between the competent departments of their administrationsresponsible for safeguarding national security”. Responsibility in those provisions refers to the notion of competence, i.e. that the Member States remain competent for the maintenance of law and order and internal security, and even exclusively competent for national security.

Another ‘hit’ is found in Article 78(2), requesting the European Union to adopt measures for a common European asylum system comprising, under point (e), “criteria and mechanisms for determining which Member State is responsible for considering an application for asylum or subsidiary protection”. This is the legal basis of the famous “Dublin System”, based on Regulation 604/2013, determining the responsible Member State for examining an application lodged in the EU. As the flaws of this system have already been analysed in numerous publications,including in this blog, it is not necessary to explain them once more.

Let us just remind ourselves that the origin of this regulation goes back to aConvention signed in Dublin on 15 June 1990 (this explains why specialists of EU asylum continue to speak about ‘Dublin’ in relation to this system). The aim of this system is to indicate which Member State is competent when an asylum application is introduced in the EU on the basis of a certain number of criteria. In practice, the responsible Member State will more often than not be the one of the legal or illegal first entry of the third-country national to the EU.

Responsibility in this regulation refers to the idea of competence regarding the examination of asylum applications, so that all Member States have to deal with the asylum applications for which they are responsible. The problem is that the Dublin system was not devised on the basis of solidarity. On the contrary, apart from exceptions based on the right to family unity, or the rights of the child, it is premised on the idea that each Member State should deal with the applications of asylum seekers whose presence is attributable to actions of that Member State. This could be either because it let them enter the EU voluntarily by issuing a visa or residence permit, or involuntarily by not controlling its external borders effectively. It is not a coincidence that the Dublin system was conceived by the North-Western Member States who drafted the Schengen Convention (France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) which is at the origin of the Dublin Convention. Solidarity was not an issue at that time in such a small and coherent space. Moreover, Dublin was devised in a purely intergovernmental framework, a decade before the beginning of the implementation of the supranational method with regard to asylum policy, as introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam, without any actor such as the European Commission looking out for the general interest rather than the national interest of each State. It is an excellent example of the kind of measure that Northern governments managed to impose on other Member States of the European Union, who can try to amend it subsequently, although only with the support of those governments, which explains why this has not been possible regarding the core of the system with the regulations Dublin II in 2003 and Dublin III in 2013.

This is crucial as this policy is, like the area of external borders, characterised by asymmetric burdens between the Member States due to the fate of geography. Following this logic, Greece should have examined all the asylum applications that could have been introduced by the hundreds of thousands of third-country nationals who entered the EU through its borders during the year 2015. It should also have intercepted the persons trying to enter the EU through the Greek borders without the requested documents (a passport with very often at least a short-term visa), as well as taken their fingerprints in order to store them inEurodac, a database helping to determine in practice the responsible Member State. In this particular case, it would mean that Greek authorities should have assumed responsibility of one million third-country nationals just because they entered the EU through the Greek territory.

Does it mean that the Southern Member States are legally wrong when they ask for solidarity from the other Member States, and that they should instead, or at least firstly, fulfil their responsibilities deriving from EU law? The answer is actually much more complicated due to Article 80 TFEU, which reads as follows:The policies of the Union set out in this Chapter and their implementation shall be governed by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, including its financial implications, between the Member States. Whenever necessary, the Union acts adopted pursuant to this Chapter shall contain appropriate measures to give effect to this principle”.

This provision is one of those detailing the idea of solidarity in the policies for border checks, asylum and immigration. A quick reading may give the impression that this provision is precisely about two principles that have to be balanced, much like in the Bratislava Declaration. Under this reading, Member States should first fulfil their responsibilities by applying the Dublin Regulation and assuming responsibility for the asylum seekers arriving on their territory before they can expect solidarity. In the event of a failure to take up their responsibilities, they should not expect solidarity, or rather they should be found ‘undeserving’ of it.

However, this provision is about one and not two principles and, more importantly, about the principle of “solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility”.It is interesting to note that the words “fair sharing of” have simply been omitted from the Bratislava Declaration, while they completely change the meaning and content of what is at stake. Instead of an opposition between responsibility and solidarity that should be balanced against each other, the idea of fair sharing of responsibility actually reinforces that of solidarity. The policies of the Union on border checks, asylum and immigration are governed by the principle of solidarity, and responsibilities between the Member States in these areas must be shared in a fair way. If one will agree that fairness leaves some margin of discretion to the European Union, this notion refers to the ideas of equity and justice and thus provides an indication about how the EU policy on borders, immigration and asylum must be conceived and implemented.

It therefore appears that the legal obligation of the EU is not to balance the two principles of solidarity and responsibility, but rather to realise solidarity through a fair sharing of responsibilities. This means also that the concerned Member States should not be expected to implement Dublin as pre-condition for solidarity, but should instead benefit from a system aiming at a fair sharing of responsibility between all EU Member States. Some will say that Dublin is as such not contrary to EU law and that the system could be accompanied by “appropriate measures to give effect to the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility”, following the wording of Article 80 TFEU. The problem is that Dublin is the source of the asymmetric burdens between Member States, so that it seems difficult to amend or revise it without reversing the basic principle on which it is based.

Conclusion: responsibility or irresponsibility?

Nothing about this constitutional requirement is mentioned in the Bratislava Declaration. On the contrary, the issue of the relocation of asylum seekers, as a concrete solidarity measure at the core of the debate since 2015, has simply disappeared from the agenda, despite the call of the first summit of the Mediterranean countries of the EU organized in Athens on 9 September. This is the case despite the fact that the relocation measures were based on mandatory EU rules, which most Member States do not apply, while some of them openly challenge them, for instance Hungary through the organisation of a referendumcalling the population to vote against them.

What remains is a kind of “flexible solidarity”, following the words of the joint statement of the Heads of Governments of the V4 Countries (the Visegrad group) defined as a concept that “should enable Member State to decide on specific forms of contribution talking into account their experience and potential”, knowing that “any distribution mechanism should be voluntary”. Some observers have already tried to imagine what this could entail. This will become clearer when the Council of Ministers takes a position on the Commission proposal reforming the Dublin system (Dublin IV), which contains a relocation mechanism that appears ambitious but that would in fact be dysfunctional, as underlined by Francesco Maiani in his report for the European Parliament. The European legislator should keep in mind that, despite the discretion left by this provision, Article 80 TFEU requires a strong solidarity mechanism aiming at “fair sharing of responsibility” between the Member States.

The retreat of the EU regarding the issue of solidarity had actually been announced by the President of the Commission himself in his State of the Union speech, where he stated that “Solidarity must be given voluntarily. It must come from the heart. It cannot be forced”. This clearly contradicts the mandatory character of the relocation decision, which was imposed on 22 September 2015 by a qualified majority in the Council against the opposition of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic.

The Bratislava Declaration announces a double evolution. First, a so-called principle of responsibility is prioritised over the principle of solidarity and fair sharing, the latter reduced to a “commitment by a number of Member States to offer immediate assistance to strengthen the protection of Bulgaria’s border with Turkey and continue support to other frontline States”. Secondly, “the objective to ensure full control of external borders” is prioritised over the asylum policy, which is not even mentioned in the text.

The so-called “responsibility to ensure full border controls” is nothing else than a rhetoric contrary to the Treaties, ignoring that the Schengen Borders Code is without prejudice to the rights of asylum seekers (see in particular Articles 3 and 4 of Regulation 2016/399 codifying the Schengen Borders Code). Trying to convince public opinion that asylum seekers can simply be rejected at the border without any further examination of their claim is not only illegal but also populistic. This has proven to be impossible, even in the case of a safe third-country, for example Turkey on the basis of the EU/Turkey agreement of 18 March 2016 (see in this blog Henri Labayle’sThe EU-Turkey Agreement on migration and asylum: False pretences or a fool’s bargain?).

The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk wrote in his letter of invitation to the Bratislava Summit that “Europeans all too often heard politically correct statements that Europe cannot become a fortress and that it must remain open”. This is indeed not the case of the Bratislava Declaration where the Heads of State and government want to improve the communication with citizens through the “use of clear and honest language (…) with strong courage to challenge simplistic solutions of extreme or populist political forces”. The problem is that they do exactly this by pretending to build a Fortress Europe, that is de jure impossible. They probably want to prove that this is possible de facto. This is nothing less than European irresponsibility instead of solidarity.

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