EU-Afghanistan “Joint Way Forward on migration issues”: another “surrealist” EU legal text ?

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by Luigi LIMONE (*)

It may be a coincidence but this year we are not only celebrating the 50th anniversary of Rene’ MAGRITTE painter’s death but also witnessing his surrealist approach spreading also in the EU Institutions and Member States legal practice.

We already know already that the core of 90% of legislative interinstitutional negotiations takes place in a confidential “informal” framework (the so called “trilogues” procedure) which run against the Treaties grounded obligation of legislative debates to be held in public.

Thanks to the Court of Justice (Cases T-192/16, T-193/16 and T-257/16) we have also recently discovered that the EU-Turkey “deal” on migration which was trumpeted as an EU achievement by the European Council President was not in fact an EU agreement because “neither the European Council nor any other institution of the EU decided to conclude an agreement with the Turkish Government on the subject of the migration crisis.”  According to the CJEU press release “In the absence of any act of an institution of the EU, the legality of which it could review under Article 263 TFEU, the Court has declared that it lacked jurisdiction to hear and determine the actions brought by the three asylum seekers. For the sake of completeness, with regard to the reference in the ‘EU-Turkey statement’ to the fact that ‘the EU and [the Republic of] Turkey agreed on … additional action points’, the Court has 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  cases, 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. 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.”

 

Now a third example of legal surrealist approach is offered to us by the Joint Way Forward (JWF) declaration on migration issues with Afghanistan and the EU. It was signed during the Afghanistan donor conference which took place in Brussels on 4 and 5 October 2016 and brought together representatives from 75 countries and 26 international organizations, with the ultimate aim of finding new funding solutions to end violence and introduce a political process towards lasting peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.

Unlike for the EU-Turkey “deal” this time the EU Institutions recognize to be responsible of this text.  Intervening before the European Parliament competent committee (LIBE)  Simon Mordue, Deputy Director-General for Migration, DG Migration and Asylum (DG HOME), this 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. 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 fulfill 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”.

The little detail is that even if the wording of the text looks like an international agreement  the Commission has clearly stated also before the EP plenary that the text is not.. binding even if, its wording, objective and content, is the same of a formal readmission agreement like the ones that the European Union has so far concluded with 17 non-EU countries an which have approved by the European Parliament following art. 79 par 3 of the TFEU. (SEE NOTE BELOW)

According to the Commission the Joint Way Forward  should instead be considered a simple “joint statement”,  not legally enforceable wich 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”.  However, as noted by Tony Bunyan, director of Statewatch, also the readmission agreement with Turkey of 18 March 2016 originated in the form of two letters and of an informal declaration and the European Union. Now the EU has adopted the same approach with Afghanistan.

Is the joint declaration with Afghanistan, in fact, representing  another attempt to conclude a readmission agreement, while bypassing the rules (art.79 p 3 and 218 of the TFEU)   laid down in the EU Treaties for the conclusion of international readmission agreements and notably the approbation by the the European Parliament?

 

The Joint Way Forward (JWF) declaration is in line with the recent political shift in EU foreign policy, which now primarily focuses on curbing migration and making deterrence and expulsion the main objectives of its relationships with third countries. The shift towards the externalization of migration management and control is exemplified by the new Partnership Framework, which was proposed by the European Commission in June 2016 under the European Agenda on Migration. The ultimate aim of the Partnership Framework is “a coherent and tailored engagement where the Union and its Member States act in a coordinated manner putting together instruments, tools and leverage to reach comprehensive partnerships (“compacts”) with third countries to better manage migration in full respect of our humanitarian and human rights obligations”.

In practice, the Partnership Framework has introduced an alternative approach with regards to readmission agreements, which are now concluded in the form of informal agreements by means of “informal” swift procedures.

This is done  , under pressure from some Member States, in particular Germany. It was already the case for the “non-EU” agreement with Turkey on March 2016, and also now Germany has hardly fought for a rapid adoption of an “informal” 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.  By invoking the need urgently facing the migration crisis, the political priorities of the Member States are now “deterrence” and “expulsion” and this has also gained the support of  EU Commission which is increasingly moving towards packaging these priorities in a format which  bypass the European Parliament and the lengthy formal procedures with a high risk of  human rights violations.  In fact, this new fast-track approach not only prevents any form of democratic scrutiny but also ignores the concerns of the civil society about the situation in Afghanistan and 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 asylum.

Afghans constitute the second-largest group of asylum seekers in Europe, with 196,170 applying in 2015. The country is experiencing ongoing and escalated conflict, despite the efforts of the EU to present it as a country that is safe for returnees and able to reintegrate them successfully. The conflict has left more than 1.2 million people without permanent homes and has resulted in three million refugees fleeing to Pakistan and Iran. Since January 2015, around 242,000 Afghans have fled to the EU. Furthermore, the country is already facing a large number of returnees from the region. In 2015, more than 190,000 Afghan documented refugees have returned from neighbouring countries. People are exposed to a deeply deteriorating security situation, as provinces such as Helmand and Kunduz fall in to the hands of armed groups yet again.

Despite this situation, the Joint Way Forward declaration gives clear signals that the European Union will once again engage in a conduct that puts into question its obligation to protect those fleeing conflicts or persecution and to safeguard the human rights of all persons as required by the EU Charter. The declaration provides for measures to facilitate the return and readmission of Afghan nationals, such as the use of non-scheduled flights to Kabul, joint flights from several EU Member States organized and coordinated by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), including the possibility to build a dedicated terminal for return in Kabul airport. The Joint Way Forward declaration also opens up the return of women and unaccompanied children and no mention is made to the best interest of the child. The document, in fact, states that “special measures will ensure that such vulnerable groups receive adequate protection, assistance and care throughout the whole process”.

It has to be acknowledged that some Members of the European Parliament have already raised several concerns on the legitimacy of the Joint Way Forward declaration as well as on its content. They have criticized the approach of the European Commission with regard to the adoption of informal readmission agreements as well as the conditionality imposed to third countries. In fact, the format introduced by the Partnership Framework implies a kind of connection between development aid and the third country’s willingness to cooperate for the management of migration flows. It is clear that countries like Afghanistan which are strongly dependent on foreign aid for their revenues might have no other choice but to forcibly accept to cooperate in order to receive development and financial support in exchange.

The European Union must comply with the provisions of the Treaties as well as with its democratic principles and protection of human rights, in order to avoid the replication of the EU-Turkey “statement” and the EU-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward “declaration” with other third countries, in primis Libya and Sudan which have already been identified as “interesting partners” by Italy.

 

ANNEX EU-Legal Framework on readmission agreements

EU Readmission Agreements (EURAs) are based on reciprocal obligations and are concluded between the European Union and non-EU countries to facilitate the return of people residing irregularly in a country to their country of origin or to a country of transit. The EU has stated that readmission agreements with third countries of both origin and transit constitute a cornerstone for effective migration management and for the efficient return of third country nationals irregularly present in the EU. The objective of these agreements for the EU Member States is to facilitate the expulsion of third country nationals either to their country of origin or to a country through which they transited on route to the EU. As such, they are crucial to the EU return policy, as defined in the Return Directive (Directive 2008/115/EC).

Readmission agreements are negotiated in a broader context where partner countries are usually granted visa facilitation, which means simpler procedures for their nationals to obtain shorter stay visas to come to EU Member States, and other incentives such as financial support for implementing the agreement or special trade conditions in exchange for readmitting people residing irregularly in the EU.

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.

 

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