Today’s Court (non) decision on the (non) EU “deal”(?) with Turkey..

by Luigi LIMONE (*)

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The General Court has declared today that it lacks jurisdiction to hear and determine the actions brought by three asylum seekers against the EU-Turkey statement which was concluded to resolve the EU “migration” crisis.

On 18 March 2016, a statement setting out how the Member States of the EU and Turkey aiming primarily to address the current migration crisis and secondly to combat human trafficking between Turkey and Greece (‘the EU-Turkey statement’) was published, in the form of a press release, on the website shared by the European Council and the Council of the European Union. The main points of that statement are the following:

  1. a) all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey;
  2. b) migrants arriving in the Greek islands will be duly registered and any application for asylum will be processed individually by the Greek authorities in accordance with the Asylum Procedures Directive;
  3. c) migrants not applying for asylum or whose application for asylum has been found to be unfounded or inadmissible will be returned to Turkey;
  4. d) for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the European Union.

Several doubts have already been raised concerning the nature and the classification of the ‘EU-Turkey statement‘. In particular, the legal nature of the agreement with Turkey was debated before the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament following a presentation by the legal service of that institution. The latter has considered that the so called EU-Turkey ‘deal’ is not legally binding but it is just a political catalogue of measures adopted on their own specific legal basis.

While on its side the European Parliament decided to follow its legal service approach by considering that, no matter of what had been negotiated, it remains free to adopt or not the legislative, budgetary and operational measures which can implement the agreement, the European Council was notified on 31 May and 2 June 2016 of three similar applications for annulment lodged before the General of the EU Court of Justice under Article 263 TFEU.

The three applications were directed against the European Council and were asking the Court to annul the ‘EU-Turkey statement’ which had been issued following the meeting of 18 March 2016 of the Members of the European Council and their Turkish counterpart.

On that occasion, the applicants, two Pakistani nationals and an Afghan national, challenged the ‘EU-Turkey’ statement, considering that the statement constitutes an agreement which could produce legal effects adversely affecting the applicants’ rights and interests.

The two Pakistani nationals and an Afghan national, in fact, travelled from Turkey to Greece, where they submitted applications for asylum. In those applications, they stated that, for a variety of reasons, they would risk persecution if they were returned to their respective countries of origin. In view of the possibility, pursuant to the ‘EU-Turkey statement’, that they might be returned to Turkey if their applications for asylum were rejected, those persons decided to bring actions before the General Court of the European Union with a view to challenging the legality of the ‘EU-Turkey statement’.

According to those asylum seekers, that statement is an international agreement which the European Council, as an institution acting in the name of the EU, concluded with the Republic of Turkey. In particular, they claimed that this agreement represented an infringement of the rules of the TFUE (confirmed by the EU Charter of fundamental rights) as well as the procedure for the the conclusion of international agreements by the EU (218 TFEU).

In the orders made today, the General Court has declared that it lacks jurisdiction to hear and determine the actions pursuant to Article 263 TFEU as the EU Member States are not listed in that article . In such orders, the Court recognises , first of all, that there were inaccuracies in the press release of 18 March 2016 regarding the identification of the authors of the ‘EU-Turkey statement’. The press release indicated, firstly, that it was the EU, and not its Member States, which had agreed on the additional action points referred to in that statement and, secondly, that it was the ‘Members of the European Council’ who had met with their Turkish counterpart during the meeting of 18 March 2016 which had given rise to that press release.

Considering that neither the European Council nor any other institution of the EU has decided to conclude an agreement with the Turkish Government on the subject of the migration crisis, the Court has therefore concluded that, in the absence of any act of an institution of the EU, the legality of which it could review under Article 263 TFEU, it lacks jurisdiction to hear and determine the actions brought by the three asylum seekers.

The Court has, in fact, considered that, even supposing that an international agreement could have been informally concluded during the meeting of 18 March 2016, (something which has been denied by the European Council, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission) in the present case, that agreement would have been an agreement concluded by the Heads of State or Government of the Member States of the EU and the Turkish Prime Minister and not by the European Council itself. In an action brought under Article 263 TFEU, however, the Court does not have jurisdiction to rule on the lawfulness of an international agreement concluded by the Member States.

Even assuming that the Court has no competence to intervene in such a case, the real problem is that apparently the General Court does not object on the fact that all the members of an EU institution can adopt measures falling in the EU competence without being bound by the EU law (procedural and material). This fuzziness  on the legal nature of ‘the EU-Turkey statement’ paves the way on further questions. Do the EU Member States have the power to act in a matter which is already covered by EU measures such as the EU-Turkey readmission agreement? Does this behavior comply with the principle of sincere cooperation between the MS and the EU institutions and notably the European Parliament which will be under the moral obligation to implement measures which it has not approved?  By  following this “creative” path the EU is not trying to introduce a new approach under which readmission agreements will not be more necessary because replaced by other informal agreements, in order to bypass the rules laid down in the EU Treaties for the conclusion of international readmission agreements.

The Joint Way Forward (JWF) declaration on migration issues with Afghanistan and the EU  represents yet another attempt to conclude a readmission agreement, while bypassing the rules laid down in the EU Treaties for the conclusion of international readmission agreements.

The Joint Way Forward declaration aims to facilitate the return process of irregular Afghans and to support their sustainable reintegration in the Afghan society, while fighting the criminal network of smugglers and traffickers at the same time. More precisely, the objective, as stated in the document, is “to establish a rapid, effective and manageable process for a smooth, dignified and orderly return of Afghan nationals who do not fulfil the conditions in force for entry to, presence in, or residence on the territory of the EU, and to facilitate their reintegration in Afghanistan in a spirit of cooperation”.

The document also clarifies that “in their cooperation under this declaration, the EU and Afghanistan remain committed to all their international obligations, in particular: a) respecting the provisions of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 New York Protocol; b) upholding the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights and the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; c) respecting the safety, dignity and human rights of irregular migrants subject to a return and readmission procedure”.

Actually, the declaration was defined by Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, as ‘an informal agreement’ which is not legally binding and which, as stated in the document, simply “paves the way for a structural dialogue and cooperation on migration issues, based on a commitment to identify effective ways to address the needs of both sides”.

Once again, a readmission agreement concluded by the European Commission has been technically presented as a ‘statement’, in order to bypass the European Parliament’s democratic scrutiny and the necessary legal procedures or the conclusion of readmission agreements.

As noted by Tony Bunyan, director of Statewatch, the readmission agreement with Turkey of 18 March 2016 originated in the form of two letters and an informal declaration and the European Union has adopted the same approach with Afghanistan and it will probably do the same with the other countries which have been identified as priority targets of the new Partnership Framework on migration.

The legal basis for the conclusion of readmission agreements with third countries is Article 79(3) TFEU which states that “the Union may conclude agreements with third countries for the readmission to their countries of origin or provenance of third-country nationals who do not or who no longer fulfil the conditions for entry, presence or residence in the territory of one of the Member States”. These agreements are negotiated with the partner country on the basis of a negotiating mandate grated by the Council to the Commission and they are then concluded after the European Parliament has given its consent.

According to article 218(6) TFEU the European Parliament must, in fact, give its consent prior to the conclusion of association and similar agreements. Moreover, according to article 210(10) TFEU the European Parliament shall be immediately and fully informed at all stages of the procedure.

The result of these covert negotiations is a continuous ‘discharge of responsibilities’ which has led a non-transparent, grey zone in which the European Commission, under pressure from some Member States, and Germany in particular, appears to have possibility to do whatever it wants, without allowing any debate in the European Parliament and, most importantly, leaving possible human rights violations unchallenged by the elected representatives of the European citizens.

Like for the agreement with Turkey of March 2016, Germany has hardly fought for a rapid adoption of an agreement with Afghanistan. Faced with the rise in arrivals form Afghanistan, in October 2015 the German Ministry of Interior Thomas de Maizières had already announced that Germany wanted to return to Afghanistan all the Afghan nationals who were not eligible for asylum, including those who had lived in Iran or Pakistan and, consequently, had no link to Afghanistan itself, and that to do so he would have urged the European Union to negotiate an agreement with the government of Kabul.

However, unlike the case of the EU-Turkey statement, it is clear that the Joint Way Forward declaration is an agreement concluded between the European Union and the government of Afghanistan. As such, the agreement should be subjected to the exercise of the democratic scrutiny by the European Parliament, as provided by EU law regarding the conclusion of readmission agreements with third countries.

Such a non-transparent approach not only prevents from any form of democratic scrutiny but also ignores the concerns of the civil society about the major risks of rights violations, such as the principle of non-refoulement, exposure to inhuman and degrading treatment, protection against collective expulsions and the right to an effective remedy.

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