Legislative Tracker : the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS)

by Beatrice FRAGASSO (Free-Group Trainee)

The European Commission, on 16 November 2016, has put forward a proposal (COM(2016) 731, 16.11.2016, 2016/0357(COD)) establishing a European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) and amending Regulation (EU) (EU) 2016/399 (the ‘Schengen Borders Code’), (EU) 2016/794 and (EU) 2016/1624.

This proposal is being negotiated as part of the Smart Border Package and aims to ensure a high level of internal security and free movement of persons in the Schengen area. The Commission didn’t conduct an impact assessment but published a feasibility study on ETIAS, conducted between June and October 2016.

The system designed by the proposal would require also visa-exempt travellers to undergo a risk assessment with respect to security, irregular migration and public health risks prior to their arrival at the Schengen borders. This assessment would be carried out by means of cross- checking applicant’s data submitted through ETIAS system against other EU information systems, a dedicated ETIAS watch list and screening rules. This process will result in granting or denying an automated authorization for entering the EU.

Further information from the European Parliament Research Service are available HERE

The current situation
Currently, both visa-obliged and visa-exempt travelers are subject to border controls when entering the Schengen area. According to Regulation (EU) 2016/399, both categories of travelers need to comply with the conditions for short-term stay, which include not being a threat to public order and security, holding valid travel documents, justifying the purpose and conditions of the intended stay, not being the subject of any alert in the SIS for the purpose of refusing entry, and having sufficient means of subsistence.

For visa holders the compliance with this conditions is assessed at the time on the request for a visa  and relevant data are stored in visa information system (VIS) which can be consulted by law enforcement authorities for the purposes of combatting serious crime and terrorism.

However, no such advance information can be currently obtained for visa-exempt nationals arriving at the Schengen external borders. This means that border guards need to decide on allowing or refusing access to the Schengen area without prior knowledge regarding any security, migration or public-health risks associated with visa exempt travelers.

This is particularly true for visa-exempt travelers arriving by land, as the only source of information about them is their travel document presented at the time of crossing the EU external border.

The situation is different for passengers arriving by air as Council Directive 2004/82/EC obliges carriers to communicate all passenger data, known as ‘advance passenger information’ (API), including name, date of birth, passport number and nationality at the time of the check-in for inbound flights to the EU. Another Directive (EU) 2016/681 on the use of passenger name record data (the ‘PNR Directive’) collect 19 types of personal data already at the time of the flight reservation and obliges airlines to hand over to EU MS authorities their passengers’ data linked with the travel reservation (which includes travel dates, travel itinerary, ticket information, frequent flyer data,  contact details, baggage information, credit card and general remarks stored in the Airline files).

For visa-exempt passengers arriving on foot or by car, bus or train, no such comparable advance information is available prior to their arrival.

The changes the proposal would bring

Schengen Border Checks
Prior to arriving in the Schengen area, all carriers will verify if visa-exempt third-country nationals have a valid ETIAS travel authorization, without which boarding will not be authorized. A valid ETIAS travel authorization, should be obtained in advance of arrival at a Schengen border crossing point, and this will be a precondition for entering the Schengen area. However, border guards at the external Schengen borders will still take the final decision to grant or refuse entry according to the Schengen Borders Code.

Online application
As it is currently the case for visa-exempt travelers to Canada “ETA”,  USA “ESTA”  and Australia “ETA” who have to ask for a travel authorization also travelers wanting enter the Schengen area will have to fill in an online application by providing their biographical and passport data, contact details, information on intended travel, and answers to background questions relating to public health risks, criminal records, presence in war zones and previous refusals of entry or an order to leave the territory of a Member State.

At the same time, an application fee of €5, which will go to the EU budget, will be mandatory for all applicants above the age of 18 before their application can be processed.

Processing of applications
The automated processing will be carried out by the central system, which will be in charge of checking data provided by applicants against security databases, such as the VIS, Europol data, the SIS, Eurodac, the  Interpol SLTD database , the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS) and the planned future EU “Entry-Exit” system (currently negotiated between the EP and the Council). Personal Data will also be screened against a ETIAS “watch list” (where people suspected to have committed, or be likely to commit a criminal offence will be listed by the EU MS) and against specific risk indicators (irregular migration, security or public- health risks) which will be defined in consultation with an ETIAS screening board.

In the case of a positive hit after the automatic processing, that personal application will be further assessed manually by operators in the ETIAS central unit and in the national units.
In case no risks has been detected a positive response, in a form of a travel authorisation valid for five years (or until the expiry of the passport) will be delivered. In the case of a refusal, a justification will be given and applicants will have the right to appeal.

Authorisation will be revoked or annulled when the conditions for its issuance are no longer met, particularly when it is believed that it was fraudulently obtained or when a new alert for refusal of entry is created in the SIS.

Etias structure
ETIAS will consist of an information system, a central unit and national units.

The information system will be designed for processing applications and will be interoperable with other security databases that ETIAS will be connected. The new system will be managed by the European Agency for the operational management of large-scale information systems in the area of freedom, security and justice (eu-LISA).

The central unit will be part of Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) and will ensure that the data stored in the application files and the data recorded in ETIAS are correct and up to date. Where necessary, it will also verify travel authorisation applications whenever there are doubts regarding the identity of an applicant in cases where the latter’s data produced a match (a ‘hit’) against the stored data during automated processing.
The national units will be responsible for making the risk assessment and deciding on travel authorisation for applications rejected by the automated application process. They will also issue opinions when consulted by other national units, and act as a national access point for requests for access to the ETIAS data for law enforcement purposes related to terrorist and other serious criminal offences.

The role of Europol
Europol will be involved in ETIAS in several ways.
Firstly, Europol’s data related to criminal offences, convictions or potential threats will be compared to those provided by applicants for an ETIAS authorization.
Secondly, Europol will help define ETIAS screening rules by participating in the ETIAS screening board and managing the ETIAS watch list.
Thirdly, Europol will be consulted by the ETIAS national units in case of a match with Europol data during the ETIAS automated processing.
And finally, Europol will be able to consult personal data in the ETIAS central system for the prevention, detection or investigation of terrorist offences or other serious criminal offences (as provided by its mandate).

The Council’s position
In a  document om March 17, 2017 authored  by the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the EU and covering also the other legislative pending measures connected to ETIAS, a number of compromises are suggested: The Presidency identified other key issues that needed to be clarified and decided upon before revised text proposals could be submitted to delegations. The Presidency therefore prepared a discussion paper on which delegations were invited to comment. The issues outlined by the Presidency related to the division of competences between Frontex and the Member States, the definition of ‘responsible Member State’ as regards the decision to grant a travel authorisation, and the duration of a travel authorization […] With respect to the definition of the ‘responsible Member State’, delegations were divided into two groups, one in favour of the Member State of first entry, as proposed by the Commission, while the other stressed the key role played by the Member State at the origin of an alert triggering a “hit”. The following issues are the “object of extensive debates”:

“– the scope of the regulation;
– the ETIAS watchlist and the screening rules;
– the access to the ETIAS data;
– the interoperability of ETIAS with other systems and databases.”

More recently the Council Presidency has also submitted some possible compromise proposals to the other delegations (docs 8579/17 and 8584/17) and it is more than likely that the EP will be under pressure to launch the negotiations for a first reading agreement on this subject.

The European Parliament position (Libe Committee Debate)
On the EP side works are still at an initial phase (SEE OEIL DOSSIER HERE). The LIBE Committee has been informed for the first time by a Commission representative (Belinda Pyke) on 22 March 2017. It has been stressed that the purpose of the proposal is to improve internal security and border management and that policy visa liberalization is essential in the system. This proposal will contribute to the security of the Schengen area because as any risks will be identified prior to departure. Due to the political pressure of the European Council and the  very tight deadlines the Commission did not have the time to conduct an impact assessment although it would have been desirable; however, the Commission published a detailed study on the subject. The Commission representative made reference to the comparable systems in  Australia, Canada and USA and declared that the ETIAS system will take stock of the experience of these countries by overcoming their weaknesses and mirroring the strengths of these systems.
Firstly, request authorization will be easy and cheap. Applicants will receive rapidly (within 12 hours) a positive feedback and those without authorization will save travel costs. The ETIAS system provides an automatic control: such control will allow to verify that the criminal record is clean. These checks will take place on the basis of SIS, Interpol, ECRIS, Eurodac.
The ETIAS central unit will compare the data in the database and the identity of the applicant and the rest of the operations will be managed by the national units.
The decision of the unit will be delivered within 72 hours, unless it will be necessary to gather special information (in this case it will be possible an extension to a two-week maximum).
ETIAS will be financially self-sustaining, thanks to the tax that will be paid by applicants. It is estimated that the costs for developing it will amount to €212.1 million, while the average annual operations costs, to be covered by the revenue from fees, will be €85 million.
The data will be protected from abuse and the information may be given to law enforcement only in the case of very serious crimes (this possibility also exist for Eurodac).

The EP rapporteur Kinga Gal (PPE – Hungary) was not present at the debate, but a colleague read her statement. The rapporteur argues that the text is of great importance and it will cover three categories of passengers
1) European Citizens or persons enjoying the right of free movement under Union law
2) Third-country nationals under visa obligation
3) Third-country nationals without visa obligation
From now until 2020 the countries without visa obligation will increase. For third-country nationals without visa obligation it’s difficult to gather information; it’s therefore necessary to create an information system well established in legal terms, so as not to put excessive burdens for Member States.

The debate that followed, however, showed controversial elements in the proposal, criticized by MEPs.
Firstly, almost all the MEPs who spoke remarked the necessity of an impact assessment, finding it unacceptable yet another lack of it. An issue of such importance can not be studied without taking into account an impact assessment: the urgency can not justify such a lack.

Birgit Sippel (S&D – Germany), for instance, affirmed that she’s tired to listen to the Commission affirming that it’s necessary to adopt better legislation and that impact assessments are not conducted anymore because of urgency. EU needs to regulate well, not in a hurry: this rush to legislate, then, does not make sense if the execution by the Member States is so slow. She also remarked that one of the problems in this proposal is that the form requires a bit of everything and there is the risk that if an applicant forgets a small offense did at 15 years old he cannot enter.

The shadow rapporteur Gérard Deprez (ALDE – Belgium) wondered what professional criteria will be provided for ETIAS units and how it will be possible to apply Article 7 of the Schengen Code, because compulsory systematic checks for everybody (as provided in that Article) would have a significant impact on traffic at the border. Deprez considered that the term of 72 hours is reasonable whereas he considers excessive the term of validity of five years, because in the course of five years many things can change in a person’s life. Also foreign experiences in fact suggest different solutions: in US visa is valid for one year and in Australia for two years. Also with regard to rates, Deprez is at odds with the proposal: 5 euro is a low price if compared to the prices of US (14 euro) and Australia (20 euro). According to Deprez, then, in the request the applicant should indicate the member state where he would like to go. The proposal, in addiction, should define a better balancing of criminal convictions. For example, prison sentences of less than one year should not be an obstacle to the granting of authorization.

It may also emerge a serious problem for air traffic. It is estimated that for a plane carrying 300 people controls may last from four hours and a half to seven hours and a half. The controls are certainly a necessary corollary for visa liberalization, but the parliament should find more efficient solutions.

On behalf of DG HOME of the European Commission Mrs Belinda Pike replied that the validity of five years would be reasonable. Of course it is noted that in the case in which the person commits an offense such information is immediately acquired in the system. Contrary to what Deprez stated, then, the cost is not too low, but it’s instead sufficient to ensure the smart management of borders. It is a fee that will cover the costs and ensures a small gain. In the US half of the fee (therefore, 7 euros) is invested in the tourism sector. Do not pay anything on the other hand would be a huge burden on the EU budget.

Belinda Pike finally stressed that the screening does not immediately lead to the rejection of the request, but simply involves manual handling of the request.

Marie – Christine Vergiat (GUE/NGL – France) and Bodil Valero (Greens/EFA – Sweden) highlighted that visas are returned, albeit with a different name (authorization). According to Marie – Christine Vergiat, then, this proposal does not promote cooperation between member states, it is repressive and attacks the fundamental rights, like others in this area of “smart” borders. Security and immigration are matters to be addressed in different texts, because adhere to different problems. The fact that some people should be identified through a profiling system also raises an ethical problem.

Bodil Valero remarked the privacy-issue. People will also provide information on education and health and Greens/Efa group would like to receive explanations about what is the reason for these provisions: perhaps the Commission’s intention is to gather information that cannot be collected in other ways. Furthermore, the 5-year period envisaged for data stocking is too long. She underlined that also the EDPS (European Data Protection Supervisor) has taken a fairly critical position on some of the elements of the proposal.
In his opinion, in fact, the EDPS states, among other things, that the establishment of ETIAS would have a significant impact on the right to the protection of personal data, since various kinds of data, collected initially for very different purposes, will become accessible to a broader range of public authorities (i.e. immigration authorities, border guards, law enforcement authorities, etc). For this reason, the EDPS considers that there is a need for conducting an assessment of the impact that the Proposal will entail on the right to privacy and the right to data protection enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which will take stock of all existing EU-level measures for migration and security objectives.

Last but not least, during a TRAN (transport and tourism) committee on Wednesday 22 March, different speakers representing the tourist sector expressed concerns about the costs generated by the ETIAS in the tourism sector. However, the TRAN Committee decided not to give an opinion to LIBE.

NEXT STEPS

As soon as the two co-legislators will have defined their position a trilogue  could be launched which can bring to an agreement on first reading. As things currently stay an agreement will probably go hand in hand with the other “ENTRY/EXIT” legislative proposal.

 

Humanitarian Visas: CJEU CASE C-638/16 PPU, X AND X – DASHED HOPES FOR A LEGAL PATHWAY TO EUROPE

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON EUROPEAN LAW BLOG  ON MARCH 10, 2017

(NB: emphasis are added)

By Margarite Zoeteweij-Turhan and Sarah Progin-Theuerkauf 

On 7 March 2017, the CJEU announced its judgement in case C-638/16 PPU (X and X / Belgium) and dashed all hopes for an extensive interpretation of the EU Visa Code in the light of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

To summarize the facts of the case, X and X and their three small children are an Orthodox Christian family living in rebel-held Aleppo. In October 2016 X leaves Aleppo to apply for a visa with limited territorial validity ex Article 25(1) of the EU Visa Code at the Belgian embassy in Beirut (Lebanon). The application states that the aim of entry into Belgium is to apply for asylum. X returns to his family in Aleppo immediately after lodging the application. Less than a week later, they are served with a negative decision from the Belgian authorities, against which they appeal. The court of appeal refers the case to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling on the interpretation of Article 25 of the Visa Code. In its rather short judgment the CJEU determines, contrary to what AG Mengozzi (see detailed analyses of this Opinion here and also here) argued with regard to this case, that the applications of X and X fall outside the scope of the EU Visa Code, even if they were formally submitted on its basis.

The Court first reiterates that Regulation 810/2009 establishing a Community Code on Visas (Visa Code) was adopted on the basis of Art. 62 EC Treaty, pursuant to which the Council had the competence to adopt measures on visas for intended stays of no more than three months. The visa applications in question, however, were for visas with limited territorial validity with a view to a future application for asylum in Belgium. Hence, the applicants’ intended stay was not limited to 90 days – and their visa-application should not be considered under the Visa Code, but under national law. As the application thus falls outside the scope of EU law, according to the Court, the Charter of Fundamental Rights is not applicable either.

In the last sentences of its judgment, the Court also adds that allowing third country nationals to lodge applications for visas in order to apply for international protection in the Member State of their choice would undermine the Dublin system. With this remark, inserted as if it were an afterthought, the Court seems to reveal the true motivation behind the ruling in X and X: to save an already failing system…

Humanitarian visa vis-a-vis Dublin system

The CJEU’s judgement in X and X was awaited with impatience by many active in the field of refugee protection. Heartened by AG Mengozzi’s Opinion, some saw this as an opportunity for the Court to confirm the EU’s dedication to the promotion and protection of human rights within the EU and beyond, and to decide that the Charter of Fundamental Rights is applicable to visa applications made by potential applicants for international protection. Member States and the Commission had vehemently argued on the other hand that such a ruling would endanger the operation of the painstakingly constructed (though clearly malfunctioning) Dublin system, and that it would open the floodgates to thousands of applicants for international protection, that would otherwise not have reached the EU. 

The Dublin system, based on Regulation 604/2003, provides the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for the assessment of an asylum application made by a third-country national or a stateless person in one of the Member States of the EU. These criteria do not take the wish of the applicant into account, but are instead based on events like through which Member State the applicant entered the EU, or in which Member State of the EU the applicant was previous to the application a legal resident.

The Dublin system, branded as the ‘cornerstone of the Common European Asylum System’, is put in place to prevent asylum seekers to engage in ‘asylum shopping’ by applying for international protection in the country that is most attractive to them for various reasons – which can be the level of reception conditions and/or the spectrum and content of the rights pertaining to an international protection status – or to apply for asylum in multiple Member States. However, even data published by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) show that the costly system does not quite lead to the desired results, and that numerous asylum seekers prefer to abscond and disappear into illegality, rather than to be transferred to a Member State in which they do not want to live. Nevertheless, the Member States are not really open to discuss an alternative system, and their efforts are directed at saving the system – apparently at all costs. The Court chose to indulge these concerns and take the politically easy way out by ruling that EU law (including the Charter) is not applicable to visa applications that would lead to a stay of more than 90 days – instead of ruling for the application of the Visa Code and thus also the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as it would then have been confronted with the impossible task of having to interpret the Charter in a way that would not have a negative effect on the functioning of the Dublin system.

This restrictive interpretation of the scope of the Charter is a disappointing decision of the CJEU for those active in the field of human rights and refugee protection. It is difficult to understand why the Court shies away from ruling for the applicability of the Charter, for extending the protection of the Charter to those so obviously in need of protection, especially in a time that the EU’s asylum policy and actions have raised so many doubts about the EU’s self-professed dedication to human rights. But next to being disappointing, the judgment also fails to convince on a number of instances.  These will be discussed below, in the order followed in the judgment.

Competence of the court

When considering the Court’s deliberations in its decision on jurisdiction, the ruling on the substance of the case becomes even more puzzling.  The defending Belgian government asserted at the hearing that the CJEU would not have jurisdiction to answer the question referred to it, as in its view the applicant’s visa application should be considered as an application for a visa sanctioning a stay of more than 90 days, so that the application does not have any connection with EU law. The Commission did not contest the jurisdiction of the Court, but subscribed to the defendant’s main idea.

The Court disagreed with the defendant and, invoking its earlier rulings in cases like Wojciechowski and the case-law cited therein, decided that it indeed has jurisdiction to answer the referring court’s request. In the invoked cases, the Court has previously decided to decline jurisdiction where it was obvious from the circumstances of the case that EU law was not applicable. The Court continues its decision in X and X by ruling that, since the visa-application in question was submitted on the basis of humanitarian grounds as per Article 25 of the Visa Code, the Wojciechowski case law does not apply and the Court indeed has jurisdiction.

In other words, the Court does not agree with the Belgian government, which argues that it is obvious that visa-applications submitted under the Visa Code should not be dealt with under EU law if the applicants’ aim is to prolong their legal stay beyond 90 days on arrival in the Member State they applied to through an application for international protection.

Applicability of the Visa Code

The Court then turns to the substantive questions referred to it, and answers these questions in merely 14 paragraphs – or even fewer, once the introductory paragraphs are deducted. Considering the implications of the judgment, and the polemic surrounding this specific case and the EU asylum system as a whole, it would have been beneficial to have a deeper insight in the arguments and reasoning of the Court.

The Court’s decision starts with a reference to Article 62 (2)(a) and (b)(ii) of the EC Treaty on which the Visa Code was based, which (unlike Article 79 (2) (a) TFEU) limits the competence of the Council to adopting measures regarding the issuance of visas for intended stays of no more than three months. This is followed by a reference to Article 1 of the Visa Code, which states that the objective of the Code is to establish the procedures and conditions for issuing visas for intended stays on the territory of the Member States not exceeding 90 days in any 180 day period, and to Article 2(2)(a) and (b) of the Visa Code defining the concept of ‘visa’ as ‘an authorization issued by a Member State’ with a view to ‘stay on the territory of the Member States for a duration of no more than 90 days in any 180‑day period’.

The Court concludes that, since the objective of the applicants in the main proceedings is to apply for international protection upon arrival in that Member State with the visa they applied for and therefore ultimately to stay in Belgium for more than 90 days, their visa application falls outside the scope of the Visa Code described above.

The Court thus did not consider the fact that, although in principle the scope of the Visa Code is limited to the establishment of the procedure and the conditions for issuing visas for intended stays on the territory of the Member States not exceeding 90 days in any 180 day period, the Visa Code also allows for exceptions to this principle in Article 25 (1)(b). With regard to visas with limited territorial validity, this Article provides that in exceptional circumstances (‘for reasons deemed justified by the consulate’) a Member State’s authorities may allow applicants that have already stayed within the territory of that Member State for three months in a given period of six months to stay on the territory of that Member States for another three months. Thus, Article 25 (1)(b) stretches the scope of ‘visa’ under the Visa Code as defined in the Code’s Article 2 (2)(a) beyond the ‘authorization for an intended stay of a duration of no more than three months in any six-month period’. This is exactly the definition on which the Court relies when it concludes that the answer to the question of the applicability of the Visa Code to the visa application of X and X should be negative (see the last sentence of paragraph 51 of the judgment). The Court could, based on the Visa Code, just as well have decided that, in exceptional circumstances, the Code foresees the issuance of visas that will allow the applicant to stay for more than 90 days in any six-month period and that, therefore, the definition of ‘visa’ should – especially under Article 25 of the Visa Code – not be interpreted restrictively. To be clear: This would not automatically lead to X and X, and applicants in like circumstances, being granted a visa, it would merely ensure that their application would be decided according to the provisions of the Visa Code. This in turn would guarantee the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights according to standing case law of the Court in cases like Fransson.

That the Court is keen to avoid such a conclusion is clear from the argument brought forth in the statement of the Court in paragraphs 46 and 47 of the judgment, where the Court finds that its decision to rule for the non-applicability of the Visa Code does not run contrary to the distinct requirement of the Visa Code to refuse a visa in case there are doubts with regard to the applicant’s intention to leave the territory of the Member State after the expiry of the visa – a refusal that would be taken as a result of the application of the Visa Code, not as a result of its non-applicability.

However, the Court’s ruling boils down to exactly that; just imagine for a moment that the applicants did not state their motive in applying for a short stay visa to be to apply for international protection on arrival in Belgium; they could claim they would only be visiting Belgium’s beautiful sights, as any potential tourist would also do. Under these circumstances, the competent Belgian authorities would have been certainly justified to doubt the applicants’ intention to leave Belgium and go back to Aleppo after having seen the sights (and who could even expect them to do so?). In such a scenario, the authorities would only be able to refuse the visa-application under Article 32 of the Visa Code – thus forcing them to take into account Article 25 of the Visa Code as well as the whole of the Charter, including its Articles 4 and 18.

The European Agenda on Migration: no time for human rights…

Unfortunately, since the Court decided against the applicability of the Visa Code in the case of X and X, it was not required to look further into the question of whether Member States’ authorities should assess applications made under Article 25 of the Visa Code in the light of Articles 4 and/or 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights or any other international obligation by which they are bound. The important question of the extent to which Articles 4 and 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights could impose a positive obligation on Member States’ authorities to issue humanitarian visas to persons still present in their own country, an issue which is given a prominent place in AG Mengozzi’s Opinion, is therefore left untouched by the Court.

Unfortunately, again, it seems that similar decisions are taken by the Court on a regular basis these days.

On 28 February 2017, the Court decided in an equally controversial and important case that it had no competence to look into the question of the legality of what has become known as the EU-Turkey deal under Article 263 TFEU. Apparently, the text of the invitations with which the European Council’s administration invited the Members of the European Council to working lunches and working sessions –in their function as Members of the European Council or as Heads of State and Government of the Member States depending on the setting, but never as both at the same time – was reason to make the Court decide that the European Council was not the author of the EU-Turkey statement, notwithstanding the many references in the statement itself to actions the EU would undertake in return for Turkey’s role as gatekeeper for Europe. Even the fact that the EU institutions feel bound by the promises made by the Heads of State and Government of the Member States (not acting together as institution of the EU, according to the Court) does not seem to matter to the Court. With this –procedural- move, the Court has again discharged itself of its task of reviewing in depth the legality of the acts of the EU’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies intended to produce legal effect vis-à-vis third parties. For a more detailed discussion in German of this decision of the Court, see here.

It seems that the Court agrees with some other institutions of the EU that times of crisis require robust measures – and that at such times the EU’s commitment to human rights can be put on hold. This notion is fortified by the remarks made by the Court, seemingly as an afterthought, in paragraphs 48 and 49 of the judgment in the case of X and X, where the Court notes that a decision to allow third-country nationals to lodging applications for visas on the basis of the Visa Code in order to apply for international protection in the Member State to which they will travel would undermine the general structure of the Dublin system. However, even from data regularly published on the site of the EASO it is quite clear that the Dublin system fails, and that it definitively is not able to guarantee effective access to an assessment of applicants’ protection needs. The Court thus choses to bypass the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU in order to save an already failed system – but one that Member States are unwilling to change.

The future of humanitarian visas after X and X

According to a recent research by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, currently 16 EU Member States either have or have had some form of scheme governing humanitarian visas. Astonishingly, however, the same study shows that in times of crisis the number of visas with limited territorial validity issued for humanitarian reasons decreases dramatically. The plea of X and X and others that are in a similar situation should animate the Commission to come up with a viable proposal for EU legislation governing the issuance by Member States of long-term visas and residence permits to third-country nationals on humanitarian grounds, which the EU is competent to adopt according to Article 79 (2) of the TFEU.

The fate of X and X and other prospective applicants for international protection

The Court’s ruling that visa-applications of prospective applicants for international protection should be dealt with under national law has the – above discussed – effect that the Charter of Fundamental Rights does not apply to such applications nor the procedure with which they are assessed. However, though national authorities and courts of all Member States of the EU are still bound by the ECHR and other relevant international law when applying national immigration and asylum law, their scope of application may not reach as far as the Charter would have reached, and at present is regarded as applicable to potential applicants for international protection that have not yet entered the territories of the states bound by them.

For the applicants in this concrete case, X and X and their three children, the decision of the Court means more concretely that their visa-application will presently be dealt with under Belgian law. This also means that, even though their application does not come within the ambit of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU according to the CJEU’s ruling in their case, Belgium is still bound by the ECHR in the application of its national laws. However, considering the recent developments in Belgian asylum policy and the country’s record with regard to the assessment of asylum applications, it is doubtful whether this should be considered as a reason to hope for a decision that would allow X and X to enter Belgium. Thus, the Court’s ruling has the disappointing consequence that X and X will most probably remain in Aleppo, facing inhuman treatment and forcing them to consider other, perhaps less legal, pathways into Europe for the sake of their future and that of their children.

Parliamentary Tracker: European and national parliaments debates on the (third) Reform of the Common European Asylum System (28-02-17)

3rdReformAsylum280217

NOTA BENE : THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL RECORDING  See the LIBE official page (with background documents – webstreaming) here                   

by Luigi LIMONE (FREE Group trainee)                                                                                                                                                                        

UP TO THE CHALLENGE

Opening remarks by Claude Moraes, Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament :  According to Claude Moraes this meeting was taking place at very crucial moment of the reform which will  be needed to overcome the crisis which erupted at the EU external borders  in 2015 under the mass influx of migrants coming notably from the war zones in Syria and Iraq. Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty it should be now a common parliamentary endeavor to succeed in reforming these sensitive policies.

FIRST SESSION: Challenges related to the Common European Asylum System – Chaired by Claude Moraes, LIBE Committee Chair

a) Intervention of Hon. Carmelo Abela, Minister for Home Affairs and National Security, Maltese Presidency Council.  According to Hon. Carmelo Abela, when it comes to asylum, the EU is facing significant challenges like the urgent need to define future approaches for the solution of the migration crisis. The current EU legislative framework does not address the problem as it should do. Several amendments have been proposed by the Commission in order to reform the package on asylum legislation. The December 2016 Council conclusions on solidarity within the Dublin system provided that the EU should create a system built on solidarity, equal responsibility and based on political legitimacy. Discussions on the proposals already started and the Maltese presidency has already done some important efforts, but the road is still long.  The Minister confirmed that the reform was a priority for the Maltese Presidency. For him, the EU and the Maltese Presidency itself are facing significant challenges which should be addressed decisively and conclusively. He stated that the Maltese presidency would make every effort to achieve its objectives. However, it is worth noting that the presidency cannot succeed alone, it needs the help of the national Parliaments in order to create a durable and successful system of asylum.

b) Intervention by Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship. Avramopoulos said that the reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) remained a key priority of the EU. For this reform to be successful the EU needs to build a constructive dialogue between the Union and the representatives of the national Parliaments. According to him, purely national measures do not bring positive results, since nationalist approaches simply undermine the common strategy the EU wishes to adopt. A true spirit of solidarity and shared responsibility is required in order to: define a functioning system for asylum seekers; protect the EU external borders; dismantle the trafficking system; regulate irregular migration; manage return and readmission; accelerate the relocation process. The EU should face the challenge of the large amount of unaccompanied minors as well, together with the fight against secondary movement and asylum shopping. The renovated CEAS would help strengthen mutual trust among Member States, which is necessary not only for the efficiency of the system but also to provide asylum applicants with dignified treatment. The reform is therefore necessary to obtain a higher degree of harmonisation and greater convergence of measures, as well as an equal repartition of responsibilities among Member States.  The success of this reform depends on the implementation of solidarity mechanisms. A clear, predictable and efficient Dublin system is fundamental for the realization of a Union without internal borders. In this respect, sanctions for non-compliance with the rules are necessary, especially to fight secondary movement. Furthermore, resettlement and relocation should become compulsory for all Member States, especially with regard to unaccompanied minors. Ultimately, Avramopoulos proposed to have a Union resettlement framework for persons in need of international protection, which would enable to eliminate differences among national practices. Member States have to show their political willingness to work together and the EU needs to achieve a common understanding on how the future CEAS should function. This should happen through the support of the Maltese Presidency. It is the time to move on with this proposal and look at the migration phenomenon in a more strategic, comprehensive and positive manner. The sooner migrants and refugees are integrated in the host societies and in the labor markets, the more the Union can take advantage of their inclusion. In order to accomplish these goals, the EU needs the involvement of all stakeholders and EU citizens.

c) Interventions of National Parliaments representatives and of MEPs. Continue reading

Parliamentary Tracker : a new episode of the EU-US visa waiver saga…

by Emilio De Capitani

Yesterday March 2nd the European Parliament has adopted a resolution (see below ) by which it has set a deadline to the Commission to adopt a delegated act which will trigger the reciprocity mechanism with the US because it still  does not grant a visa waiver to all the EU citizens. The latest Plenary debate on this subject took place following an oral question on December 14, 2016 (see here  and below the intervention of the LIBE Chairman and of the Commissioner Avramopoulos)

It is worth recalling that Reciprocity  is a basic principle framing the relations between States in the international arena and that in the visa policy domain the EU Member States may no more trigger alone this mechanism since the transfer of visa policies to the  EU 25 years ago with the Treaty of Maastricht.

The main EU legislative text dealing with reciprocity in visa domain is the Council Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 of 15 March 2001  which has been amended dozen times also in codecision  since the entry into force of the Amsterdam treaty (1999) and the gradual transfer of these policies under the “ordinary” regime.  The problem is that this transfer of competence from the MS to the EU has been recognized by almost all the third States except Canada, and ..the US. However, as far as Canada is concerned Prime Minister Trudeau has just confirmed that  the visa requirement will be lifted for all EU citizens  in December this year.

As far as the US are concerned  the European Commission was notified on April 2014, that  the EU citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania still cannot enter US territory without a visa, while US citizens can travel to all EU countries visa-free.

On the US side the visa issue has still to be settled bilaterally with each EU member state concerned (see the US legal framework here) and to obtain the US visa waiver the Country concerned should give access to a vast amount of confidential information and respect some strict thresholds connected to the return of its nationals. The point is that if the same standards were applied to the EU as a whole the visa waiver would be granted to everyone but for the US the EU is still not yet a valid counterpart because national  passport remain …national (?!). Needless to say this situation make furious the EU member states whose citizens are not granted the visa waiver (see the Polish position here) because they are no more competent in this domain. Their only possibility is to notify the situation to the Commission (as they did on 12 April 2014) so that the Commission can do its best to find in a two years time a positive solution with the third State concerned. According to the EU regulation into force if the situation is not settled the Commission should adopt a delegated act ( to which both Parliament and the Council may object following art 290 of TFEU) suspending the visa waiver for the third Country national for 12 months.

By so doing not only the EU will preserve the equality between its member states (who can no more protect themselves) but will ensure that all the EU citizens enjoy the same protection. The point is that  the Commission should have acted before 12 April 2016 as far as the US and Canada were concerned but almost one year later it has yet to take any legal measure  (see the latest Commission communication here )

Will the Commission obtain from the Trump administration what has been unable to obtain from the previous Bush and Obama administration ? We may have some doubts but the road ahead looks rather bumpy ..

——————————–

European Parliament resolution of 2 March 2017 on obligations of the Commission in the field of visa reciprocity in accordance with Article 1(4) of Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 (2016/2986(RSP))

The European Parliament,

–      having regard to Council Regulation (EC) No 539/20011, in particular Article 1(4)

thereof (‘the reciprocity mechanism’),

–      having regard to the Commission communication of 12 April 2016 entitled ‘State of play and the possible ways forward as regards the situation of non-reciprocity with certain third countries in the area of visa policy’ (COM(2016)0221),

–      having regard to the Commission communication of 13 July 2016 entitled ‘State of play and the possible ways forward as regards the situation of non-reciprocity with certain third countries in the area of visa policy (Follow-up of the Communication of 12 April)’ (COM(2016)0481),

–      having regard to the Commission communication of 21 December 2016 entitled ‘State of play and the possible ways forward as regards the situation of non-reciprocity with certain third countries in the area of visa policy (Follow-up to the Communication of 12 April)’ (COM(2016)0816),

–      having regard to Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and Articles 80, 265 and 290 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU),

–      having regard to its debate on ‘Obligations in the field of visa reciprocity’ held on 14 December 2016 in Strasbourg,

–      having regard to the question to the Commission on obligations of the Commission in the field of visa reciprocity in accordance with Article 1(4) of Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 (O-000142/2016 – B8-1820/2016),

–      having regard to the motion for a resolution of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs,

–      having regard to Rules 128(5) and 123(2) of its Rules of Procedure,

A. whereas the criterion of visa reciprocity as one of the criteria guiding the EU’s visa
policy is generally understood to imply that EU citizens should be subject to the same
conditions when travelling to a third country as the nationals of that third country are when travelling to the EU;

B. whereas the purpose of the visa reciprocity mechanism is to achieve such visa
reciprocity; whereas the EU’s visa policy prohibits individual Member States from
introducing a visa requirement for nationals of a third country if this country is listed in Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 (countries whose nationals are exempt from the visa requirement for short stays);

C. whereas the reciprocity mechanism was revised in 2013, with Parliament acting as co-legislator, as it needed to be adapted in the light of the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon and of the case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union on secondary legal bases and ‘to provide for a Union response as an act of solidarity, if a third country listed in Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 applies a visa requirement for nationals of at least one Member State’ (Recital 1 of Regulation (EU) No 1289/2013);

D. whereas the reciprocity mechanism sets out a procedure starting with a situation of non-reciprocity with precise timeframes and actions to be taken with a view to ending a situation of non-reciprocity; whereas its inherent logic entails measures of increasing severity vis-à-vis the third country concerned, including ultimately the suspension of the exemption from the visa requirement for all nationals of the third country concerned (‘second phase of application of the reciprocity mechanism’);

E. whereas ‘in order to ensure the adequate involvement of the European Parliament and of the Council in the second phase of application of the reciprocity mechanism, given the particularly sensitive political nature of the suspension of the exemption from the visa requirement for all the nationals of a third country listed in Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 and its horizontal implications for the Member States, the Schengen associated countries and the Union itself, in particular for their external relations and for the overall functioning of the Schengen area, the power to adopt acts in accordance with Article 290 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union [was] delegated to the Commission in respect of certain elements of the reciprocity mechanism’ including the suspension of the exemption from the visa requirement for all nationals of the third country concerned;

F. whereas ‘the European Parliament or the Council may decide to revoke the delegation’ (Article 290(2)(a) TFEU);

G. whereas a delegated act ‘may enter into force only if no objection has been expressed by the European Parliament or the Council within a period set by the legislative act’
(Article 290(2)(b) TFEU);

H. whereas the Commission contested the choice of delegated acts in the second phase of application of the reciprocity mechanism before the Court of Justice of the European Union, and whereas the Court considered however the choice of the legislator to be correct (Case C-88/14);

I. whereas the mechanism thereby clearly assigns obligations and responsibilities to Parliament and the Council and to the Commission in the different phases of the reciprocity mechanism;

  1. Considers the Commission to be legally obliged to adopt a delegated act – temporarily suspending the exemption from the visa requirement for nationals of third countries which have not lifted the visa requirement for citizens of certain Member States – within a period of 24 months from the date of publication of the notifications in this regard, which ended on 12 April 2016;
  2. Calls on the Commission, on the basis of Article 265 TFEU, to adopt the required delegated act within two months from the date of adoption of this resolution at the latest;
  3. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Commission, the European Council, the Council and the national parliaments.

(1) 1 OJ L 81, 21.3.2001, p. 1.

EXCERPT EP DEBATE (December 14) VISA RECIPROCITY

Claude MORAES (author of the Oral Question). – Mr President, (…) We now come to the important oral question, which many colleagues have been waiting for, on the very important, compelling and urgent issue of visa reciprocity. As colleagues will know, this is an ongoing issue of urgency, not just for those five countries and the citizens of those five countries – Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus – but indeed a matter of principle for the whole House on questions of symmetry and equality in our relationship with the United States.

In 2013, Parliament and the Council adopted a regulation modifying, amongst other elements, the so-called reciprocity mechanism. It entered into force in January 2014. Under EU law and according to this mechanism, if a third country does not lift visa requirements 24 months after notification of a situation of non—reciprocity, the Commission is obliged to suspend the visa waiver for citizens of that country for 12 months, via a delegated act to which Parliament and the Council could object.

Notifications of five Member States – and I have named them – were published by the Commission on 12 April 2014. There were at times cases of non—reciprocity also affecting Australia, Japan and Brunei and all of them have now been solved. After 24 months had elapsed, on 12 April 2016, the Commission, instead of presenting the delegated act as we required, decided to publish a communication asking the Council and Parliament for their views. This communication was followed by another communication on 13 July updating the situation and again failing to fulfil the Commission’s obligations.

As Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, it is my view that the reciprocity mechanism sets out a procedure with precise time frames and actions not subject to discretionality by the Commission. Therefore, the Commission is under an obligation to adopt a delegated act pursuant to Article 1(4)(f) of Regulation 539/2001.

As the Commissioner knows, on 7 June 2016, I sent a letter reminding you, Commissioner, of the legal obligations of the Commission here. On 12 October, during the exchange we had with you in the Civil Liberties Committee, the Commission was again urged to act and all the Members who took the floor made it clear that the Commission does have some more room for manoeuvre. This was our view.

In this context, and with an overwhelming majority, we have in the Civil Liberties Committee adopted the following oral question for answer today: do you share the legal assessment according to which the Commission is obliged to adopt a delegated act – temporarily suspending the exemption from the visa requirement for nationals of third countries which have not lifted the visa requirement for citizens of certain EU Member States – within a period of 24 months from the date of publication of the notifications in this regard, which ended on 12 April 2016? In the event that the Commission agrees with the assessment that it is obliged to adopt a delegated act, by when will the Commission present this delegated act? And finally, if the Commission does not agree, what are the reasons for not agreeing with that assessment?

This issue, as I said at the beginning of my presentation of this oral question, is not just about the deep and very understandable concerns of our colleagues from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus; it is about the idea that we in the EU have the right to expect symmetry and equality with the United States in our relationship. We are right to expect fairness. The right to expect fairness is something that we have transmitted directly to our United States partners and to the State Department in Washington, and we did so respectfully and forcefully

(…)

Commissioner AVRAMOPOULOS : Mr President, honourable Members of the Parliament, let me start by telling you that I welcome the opportunity to discuss this very important matter, being already fully aware of your expectations. In October I discussed this with the members of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). You will remember that, Mr Moraes. It should be clear that we all share the same objective. Full visa reciprocity is the central principle of our visa policy framework. With the United States and Canada it is a challenging and sensitive issue, and we all hope for tangible progress.

Before responding to the questions, let me start with the good news concerning Canada. As I told you in the past, I used the window of opportunity offered to us, the EU-Canada summit. A series of meetings and discussions were held ahead in order to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. I took the plane myself to meet in person the Canadian Immigration Minister John McCallum, in order to address the real situation at political and not at technocratic level. We had a very constructive discussion with the minister and we agreed to engage in a political process to address each other’s concerns and make the lifting of visa obligations for Romania and Bulgaria possible. Indeed, and as I had hinted in my meeting with LIBE, Canada took a positive decision in line with the commitment of McCallum in July. At the summit Canada announced its decision to lift in late 2017 the visa requirements for all Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. Moreover, certain categories of Bulgarian and Romanian travellers who visited Canada in the past 10 years, or who currently possess a valid visa issued by the United States, will already become visa-free from 1 May 2017.

We all welcome very much this outcome. It is a strong indication that diplomatic channels and engagement can achieve positive results. On this point, I would like to thank Members of Parliament for their constructive contribution too. We worked in close coordination with Bulgaria and Romania and they played a central role in addressing Canadian concerns. We have to continue this path to ensure that full visa waiver is achieved. The Commission will continue to do its part, in full cooperation with both Member States.

Now the situation with the United States is different. While I continue discussions with our US partners, most recently at the EU-US JHA Ministerial Meeting on 5 December in Washington, there is no progress to report. But I want to assure you that I will keep this issue high on the agenda with the new administration and Congress. I will personally immediately engage in conference with my new counterparts. I call on all of you to give a chance for the political discussion to take place and to explain the mutual obligations, reservations, goals and work to find a solution.

It is very important to understand that the role of Congress is crucial. The visa waiver programme cannot be expanded without Congress, particularly if Member States do not meet the thresholds of US legislation. It seems certain that temporarily suspending the visa waiver for US citizens would immediately lead to a visa requirement imposed on all EU citizens. We are aiming for the opposite, not a reciprocal visa requirement but a reciprocal visa waiver. Let me be very clear. The Commission would not hesitate to adopt the respective acts if that would improve the situation of EU citizens, and lead to the visa waiver for all. At the same time, the Commission has a responsibility to inform you, the co-legislators, about negative consequences on the EU and its citizens from the implementation of our rules.

And this leads me to your questions. There is a regulation that says ‘the Commission shall adopt a delegated act’. But there are also other requirements and obligations to be followed which are difficult to reconcile with this obligation, and which are equally important. The same regulation says that: ‘the Commission shall take into account the consequences of the suspension of the exemption from the visa requirements for the external relations of the Union and its Member States with the third country in question’.

The approach we put forward back in April outlined these adverse consequences. We still consider that the negative impacts we identified, which were not questioned by other institutions and stakeholders, should be taken fully into account. If a visa requirement is reintroduced, it will be difficult to explain to millions of EU citizens travelling to the United States every year that the EU serves their interests and that the EU action was appropriate in this case. Would legal arguments be convincing for thousands of EU citizens that would likely lose their jobs due to the expected decrease of US visitors? I very much doubt it.

A recent study for the World Travel and Tourism Council suggests that suspending the visa waiver would annually lead to a 22% drop in visitors to the European Union, or 5.5 million fewer visitors from the United States and Canada. This will be equal to a loss of EUR 6.8 billion annually, risking the loss of 140 000 jobs in the tourism industry. The most affected Member States will be Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. I am asking the question: can we really afford that loss?

Dear Members of Parliament, we are in a very unpleasant situation, but determined to work to achieve visa-free travel for all EU citizens to the United States, as we managed to do with Canada. Let us work together in this effort

 

 

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

by Luigi LIMONE (*)

eu-turkeystatement-junckertuskturkey-180316

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.

magrittepipe

(*) FREE Group trainee

Establishing the European Border and Coast Guard: all-new or Frontex reloaded?

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON EU LAW ANALYSIS (NB emphasis are added)

by Herbert Rosenfeldt, (Research Assistant and PhD candidate, University of Passau)

Introduction

Attending a birthday party at a remote checkpoint at the Bulgarian external border with Turkey does not sound like fun. Unless you are the adventurous type, you would probably hesitate to join in if it was not for someone special. Indeed, last Thursday high ranking EU and Member States’ officials visited Bulgaria’s Kapitan Andreevo Border Checkpoint to inaugurate the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency a.k.a. Frontex.

This is so far the most visible sign of the coming into force of the European Border and Coast Guard Regulation on the same day. Not lacking pathos or high expectations (Donald Tusk: “To save Schengen, we must regain control of our external borders. A new European Border and Coast Guard Agency is being created”), the new EBCG seeks to reinforce external border control against the background of last year’s migratory pressure put on the southern and south-eastern EU Member States with external Schengen borders. According to EU officials’ analyses, national border guards had been unable or unwilling to “protect” the Schengen area effectively by stopping the influx of irregular migrants. Frontex, on the other hand, was held to have been too ill-equipped in terms of powers, personnel and equipment to render sufficient support or remedy the situation. There is a simple, perhaps simplistic, rationale behind the new EBCG – one that gathered broad consensus among Member States and EU institutions resulting in a fast track legislative procedure of less than a year. The stronger EU external border control, the less permeable borders are for migrants; the smaller the number of migrants arriving, the smaller the problems within the Schengen area. Those problems comprise allocating asylum seekers and processing their claims, providing food and shelter, or safeguarding internal security and freedom of movement. The focus on external borders has been accurately criticised, inter alia, here and here.

Is the new EBCG truly a “milestone in the history of European border management”, as suggested by birthday guests but contested by others? Is the new agency something special at all? Hence is it worth joining the congratulants (if belatedly)? What birthday wishes should be made? Surely only time and further in-depth analysis can tell. Steve’s earlier post here gave the broader picture of last year’s legislative proposals on border control and migration. For now, and after two preliminary thoughts, I would like firstly to make some observations on the changing concept of EU external border management. Secondly, I highlight some institutional changes. Thirdly and fourthly, I will focus on two much debated novelties in external border control: emergency interventions and the complaints mechanism in the context of Fundamental Rights accountability.

Towards Securitisation

The drafters of the new regulation were discernibly concerned by the loss of control at Europe’s southern and south-eastern borders. Adapting to the ongoing political discourse, the wording of the Regulation (Article 1, see also Articles 4 and 15) gives top priority to regaining and keeping control of the migration situation and to efficient border management. Migration challenges and potential future threats are mentioned in succession, followed by serious cross-border crimes. The aim to be achieved is a high level of internal security within the Union while safeguarding the free movement of persons within it. In a subtle way, this almost equates migratory pressure through irregular migration with potential threats to internal security and cross-border crime. In further construing Article 1 of the Regulation, it appears that affording international protection and protecting human rights are clearly no objectives of European border management. Rather, they are perceived as restrictions to securing EU borders.

Another feature of this security-orientated approach is new migration management support teams to be deployed in hotspot areas (Article 18). Support in processing asylum claims and returning third country nationals does not help to protect the Schengen area from migrants at first sight. However, if it is done rapidly in hotspot areas, migrants are effectively not entering the Schengen area, hence apparently more security. Along the same line of reasoning, increased capacities to support return operations (Article 18, 28 et seq.) reflect political demand for enforcing third country nationals’ returns.

Legal instruments rearranged

The law of EU external border control is no role model for legal clarity and certainty. Legal acts such as the Frontex Regulation have frequently been amended, and they are intertwined with various other EU legal acts. The new Regulation at least partly smoothes this scattered landscape by merging the Frontex Regulation and the Regulation on Rapid Border Intervention Teams into one. Furthermore, the Schengen Borders Code has been amended (see below). Although based on the same EU competence (Article 77 (2) (d) TFEU), applied at the external Schengen borders and closely related to the work of Frontex and the national external border guards, Regulations on EUROSUR and surveillance of the external sea borders remained untouched. Hence the legislator missed the opportunity to create a single comprehensible piece of legislation apart from the SBC, the latter covering other subject matters such as entry conditions of third country nationals and internal border controls anyway.

New concept of external border controls

Before, States with external Schengen borders were exclusively tasked with policing those borders. Under the Frontex Regulation, border control fell into the sole competence of the Member States. Frontex’s main task then was to render border control more effective by coordinating Member States’ joint activities and providing surveillance data, technical support and expertise. The common conceptual framework informing border controls, called “integrated management system for external borders” (now Article 77 (1) (c) TFEU), only featured in strategy papers and policy recommendations of the Commission and the Council such as the non-binding Updated Schengen Catalogue 2009.

The new EBCG consists of the EBCG Agency and the national border and coast guards. Although Member States retain primary responsibility for border management, there is a clear shift towards responsibility shared with the Agency (Article 5 of the Regulation). On scrutiny, the new system arranges the Agency and the Member States in a hierarchical order. It is the Agency’s task to establish a technical and operational strategy for integrated border management. All national strategies will have to comply with it. Although co-operation outside the Agency’s remit remains possible, this is limited to action compatible with the Agency’s activities. Therefore, there is not just well-known supremacy of EU law at work in this area of shared competences, but supremacy of the Agency’s strategies, broadly phrased tasks and objectives. On paper (see the eighth and eleventh recitals), the political development of integrated border management is left to the EU organs, whereas technical and operational aspects will be clarified by the Agency. The dividing line is of course far from clear. As a result, the Agency will almost inevitably assume a more proactive role.

In my view, shared responsibility serves as a chiffre to justify taking away Member States’ discretionary powers in border control. In practice, the Agency gains greater impact and tools of supervision and coercion, as will be seen below. Still, the new Regulation has to be given credit for legally defining components of European integrated border management for the first time ever.

Institutional changes

In short, Frontex becomes … erm … Frontex! Despite last week’s “all-new” rhetoric, little will change in the constitutional setting of the Agency. As a decentralised (i.e. regulatory) agency it remains an independent EU body with legal personality. Its headquarters will remain in Warsaw. The Agency’s official name, which nobody used before, changes to a shorter name, which probably nobody will use going forwards – and that is alright because it reflects that the Agency is not founded anew but continues all its activities, albeit with expanded tasks and more resources.

To this end, the Agency’s staff grows from 309 in 2015 to 1,000 in 2020. The number of Member States’ border guards deployed in EBCG teams remain subject to annual bilateral negotiations. At the same time, a rapid reaction pool of 1,500 European border guards as a standing corps operational within 5 days has been inscribed in the Regulation. The Agency continues to maintain a technical equipment pool composed of equipment owned by either the Agency itself or by the Member States. With an increase in budget to more than twice the amount of 2015 (€143.3 to €322 million in 2020), the Agency might actually start acquiring equipment on its own in the future.

Of the Agency’s tasks (see the long list in Article 8 (1) of the Regulation), most have been assigned to Frontex before. Characteristic of the new supervisory role are vulnerability assessments carried out by the Agency to evaluate the capability and readiness of Member States’ border guard to act in emergencies. The assessment might lead to binding recommendations by the Executive Director. To disregard them can eventually result in a situation requiring urgent action as described further below. Moreover, Frontex shall deploy liaison officers in the Member States monitoring and reporting on national external border management. It is true that command and control in EBCG operations remains with the host Member State. However, from now on, the host Member State has not only to consider the Frontex coordinating officer’s views, but also to follow them as far as possible.

Another noteworthy development concerns the Agency’s support rendered to Member States coping with migratory pressure at so-called hotspots. The existing provisions on hotspots in EU Decisions on relocation of asylum-seekers have been codified in Article 18 of the Regulation, which now assigns a supportive role to Frontex in migration management. This includes screening, registering and providing information to third country nationals on their right to apply for international protection. It further includes facilitating their return right from the hotspot area.

One might argue that the European Asylum Support Office is better placed to do all that. However, in my opinion the crucial question is to what extent any EU agency involved influences or determines the Member States’ decisions on entry, to afford international protection or to return migrants. Such executive powers have not been granted to EU institutions and therefore – at least by law – they remain firmly within the Member States’ jurisdiction. The provisions provide for tailor-made support teams coordinated by all relevant Union agencies under the auspices of the Commission. Thus, the new Regulation acknowledges the role of agencies and the significance of hotspots without clarifying much. It remains to be seen how the agencies will delineate their respective contributions. If you have always been looking for a legal definition of hotspot area, at least you will find one in the new Regulation (Article 2 (10)).

Situations requiring urgent action – right to intervene?

How to deal with emergency situations at the external borders of Member States unwilling to act – that was the only matter of serious contention during the legislative process. In normal operation and as before, a Member State at first formally requests the Agency’s support and the launch of EBCG operations (Articles 14 (1), 15 (1) and (2), 18 (1) et al). At the second stage, the Member State and the Executive Director agree on the operational plan (Article 16 (2)). Lastly, the host Member State itself retains command for the whole operation (Article 21 (1)). The Commission proposal for the Regulation challenged those safeguards for the Member States’ sovereign right to border protection. The Commission envisaged itself initiating emergency interventions conducted by the Agency and supported by the Member State concerned. Boldly, this was labelled the Agency’s “right to intervene”. Understandably, it stirred criticism among Member States.

The subsequent trilogue put things in order again: Now it is an implementing act of the Council (proposed by the Commission) which substitutes the Member State’s request at the first stage if (a) the State did not follow the recommendations resulting from vulnerability assessments or (b) it faces specific and disproportionate challenges at his external borders without requesting or supporting joint EBCG operations (Article 19 (1)). The implementing act of the Council authorises the Agency to take various measures. It is binding upon the Member State. In turn, it becomes evident that the Member State’s formal request in accordance with the normal procedure might no longer be as voluntary as the wording suggests. Because if joint European action is deemed necessary, there is always the possibility that an emergency intervention will eventually be initiated.

Yet, at the second stage, the Member State still has to agree on the operational plan submitted by the Agency (Article 19 (5)). This might be interpreted as linking emergency interventions to the Member State’s consent after all. However, in the light of the purpose of emergency interventions, I submit that the duty to fully comply with the Council decision and to this end cooperate with the Agency entails the duty to consent to the operational plan. Otherwise, it would always be possible for reluctant Member States to impede the whole procedure depriving it of much of its force.

For the implementation of the measures prescribed by the Council, the Member State concerned still acts as host state. As a consequence, that State retains command and control of the operations and can be held liable as in normal operations. It can be questioned whether an unwilling State should be forced to lead a joint operation in times of emergency. At the same time, however, it is most likely that different entities will be engaged in the process. The decision not to conduct operations or to request assistance is often taken at a high political level, whereas operational command is exercised within the national border guard authorities.

Lastly, Article 19 (10) most remarkably links the Member State’s non-compliance with the Council decision and failure to cooperate with the Agency to prospective national measures taken within the Schengen area. According to newly amended Article 29 of the Schengen Borders Code, the Council upon proposal by the Commission may recommend to Member States the reintroduction of controls at their internal borders if the Member State’s behaviour (a) puts the functioning of the area without internal borders at risk, and (b) leads to a serious threat to public policy or internal security. This mechanism can be triggered only 30 days after the Council takes its (urgent?!) decision. As a result, Member States that do not – for whatever reason – cooperate at their external borders in emergencies can de facto be temporarily excluded from the area of free movement. The much-stressed concept of solidarity (Article 80 TFEU) hence turns into its evil twin: showing solidarity means complying with the EBCG activities à la EU. It becomes the prerogative of the EU institutions to determine who is in solidarity, and the lack thereof entails serious consequences.

In sum, the new Regulation establishes a legal obligation to cooperate in situations requiring urgent action of the Member State concerned. If the State does not comply, there is no way to enforce this duty or to deploy EBCG teams on his territory against his will. The only sanction seems to urge other Member States to close their internal borders instead.

Human Rights complaints mechanism and accountability

When Frontex was established in 2004, the Fundamental Rights (FR) implications of its work had been completely overlooked. The founding Regulation did not contain any specific references to FR. Over the following years through a piecemeal approach, largely affirmative and declaratory FR obligations found their way into the Regulation. More importantly, Frontex drew up an FR strategy (followed by an action plan) in 2011. At the same time, a consultative forum and an FR officer were established to give advice on FR matters and strengthen FR compliance. With the new Regulation, there are minor improvements on the human rights record. Article 1 now mentions FR, they form part of compulsory reporting and evaluation schemes as set out in the operational plan, and there is a single comprehensive provision spelling out FR obligations (Article 34).

The Regulation finally introduces a FR complaints mechanism (Article 72, discussed here) as demanded by European Parliament, EU Ombudsman and Council of Europe since 2013. Any person directly affected by actions of staff during EBCG operations can file a complaint about FR violations with the FR officer. The FR officer is responsible for setting up the complaints mechanism, administering complaints and deciding on their admissibility. He or she then directs them to either the Executive Director or the competent national authority for them to decide on the merits and an appropriate follow-up. The FR officer then again monitors this decision as well as the follow-up.

In my view, the effectiveness of the mechanism depends on two preconditions. Firstly, the FR officer’s resources should increase significantly to stem the Herculean tasks ahead of him. Secondly, his institutional independency within the Agency has to be reinforced, bearing in mind that he is a member of staff and dependent on good working relationships with other members of staff. Several open questions remain. For example, the provision leaves open how the FR officer will enforce the appropriate follow-up by the Agency or the Member States. It does not make clear that the complaints mechanism does not affect other remedies, nor does it foresee an appeals procedure with an independent body. The FR officer and ultimately the Executive Director or the Member States authorities will have to answer difficult legal questions on who is “directly affected” by an action and who is responsible for it (see below). For the development of the law, it would have been better if a court or tribunal had had subsequent jurisdiction. So far, actions for annulment or damages (Articles 263, 268 TFEU) have not generated any EU case law regarding Frontex, and except for its judgment in Hirsi Jamaa, the ECtHR was not able to fill the gap neither.

“The extended tasks and competence of the Agency”, the 14th recital of the Regulation reads, “should be balanced with strengthened fundamental rights safeguards and increased accountability”. But does the new Agency live up to the claim? Apart from the complaints mechanism, the FR framework largely stays the same, and so does the general liability framework: The home Member State takes disciplinary action whereas the domestic laws of the host Member State determine criminal liability. It is also the host Member State incurring civil liability for the EBCG teams. The Agency itself incurs non-contractual liability according to the general principles of EU law (Article 340 (2) TFEU). There are no provisions determining which acts or effects of external border control are attributed to the Agency or to the Member States involved (a problem of multi-actor scenarios, where the 2011 ILC Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations might be of help). Following recent revelations on the frequent use of firearms in joint operations, MEPs wrote to Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri asking for more information and general guidance on responsibilities in certain operational scenarios. The ignorance displayed by Frontex’s designated watchdogs (see Article 7 of the Regulation) is further evidence for the need of more transparency and legal clarity in this regard.

Outlook

On the 6th of October 2016 the landscape of EU external border control did not change dramatically, but it did change. To repeat: No new agency has been founded, no EBCG under EU command and control was established, no right to intervene at Member States’ external borders against their will has been introduced. In fact and most notably, the Member States’ external border guard is placed under increased scrutiny of the EBCG Agency. Failure to comply with integrated border management standards could eventually lead to reintroducing internal border controls to the detriment of the disobedient Member State. At the same time, the Agency’s enhanced tasks and powers will go hand in hand with more responsibility and accountability, but the latter has yet to be improved. Although the complaints mechanism is a step in the right direction, its design could have been more effective. This holds true especially for the follow-up mechanism. In practice, much will depend on the Fundamental Rights officer’s assertiveness on the one hand, and the Executive Director’s responsiveness on the other hand.

After all, the distinguished guests to the celebrations at Kapitan Andreevo Border Checkpoint last week did not witness birth or rebirth, but rather Frontex’s coming of age both in terms of leverage and responsibilities. Frontex, I wish you well indeed.

Dublin ‘reloaded’ or time for ambitious pragmatism?

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON OMNIA WEBSITE (12/10/16)

(Click here  to hear Francesco Maiani’s (Swiss Member of the Odysseus Network) intervention at the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament on this issue – 4:10 – 22:20)

While the largely failed relocation scheme of 2015 is still in force, the European Commission has put forward a proposal for revising the Dublin III Regulation. Since comments have already been made in the blogosphere (see Hruschka on this blog and Gauci) and a comprehensive study on the need to reform the system has been recently released by a member of the Odysseus Network and presented to the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament (see Maiani), this entry will not provide a general description of the proposal and focus instead on some selected aspects by putting forward some proposals to make the Dublin system less dysfunctional.

A plea against taboos and ‘conservative’ options

Many EU documents repeatedly underline that the Dublin system is a “cornerstone” of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Indeed, taking into consideration Article 78(2) TFEU, there is a need to organise the distribution of responsibilities  since the competence for assessing claims and the  provision of protection lie with Member States.  Despite this, we should not let Dublin become a taboo, impermeable to discussions on its past and current contents. If the so-called ‘cornerstone’ is ill-conceived, the overall structure of the CEAS becomes unstable, unfair and ineffective.

Drawing from private international law terminology, we can say that the main objective of Dublin is to prevent positive and (most commonly) negative conflicts of jurisdiction, by rapidly determining a single responsible Member State (MS). Decades of legal thinking and state practice show that any set of rules (both domestic or international) allocating jurisdiction should be based on rational criteria and on a reasonable degree of connection (i.e. genuine link) between the competent State and the situation at stake. Although due consideration must be given to the fact that “asylum jurisdiction” is a peculiar field of law and that the interests at stake are specific to this area, decision makers must take into account the principles of rationality, fairness and compliance.

More than twenty years of implementation of the Dublin system (see Guild and othersHruschka and Maiani) showed that, as currently framed, Dublin simply does not work, both in normal periods and in times of crisis. Among other things, the fact that no reasonable room is given to consider asylum seekers’ preferences or their prospects for integration creates an evident trend against spontaneous compliance and towards secondary movements.

The deficient system generates high costs of different natures, such as:

(a) waste of public money in repressive actions and in administrative as well as judicial procedures not producing durable results;

(b) diplomatic tensions between Member States;

(c) profit-making for criminal networks providing smuggling services;

(d) social exclusion and frustration for asylum-seekers (potentially leading to human rights violations or various forms of criminality);

(e) lack of integration, with increased costs for social services and public expenditure.

Against this background, a fresh and innovative approach was expected when the EU institutions finally recognised in 2015 the need for a general overhaul of the Dublin III Regulation. However, the proposal that is now on the table does not envisage an overall reframing of the system, but a rather modest introduction of several corrections (some more significant than others) to a bad architecture that is not fundamentally questioned.

The criterion of the “Country of first entry” or “the irrational rationale

The first point of the proposal deserving severe critique regards the way in which the Commission treats the allocation criteria and, in particular, the insistence on the questionable criterion of the country of first entry. The explanatory memorandum of the proposal underlines that, according to some MS, the criterion of first entry must be preserved and that alternative connecting factors (such as personal preferences) would add confusion and give the wrong signal that asylum seekers can choose their country of final destination. In the meantime, it is acknowledged that other MSs and relevant stakeholders (for instance UNHCR, para. 6, at 7;  specialised NGOs such as ECRE and others) called for a different vision, focusing on the preferences or characteristics of asylum seekers (in  view of their speedy and satisfactory integration).

Yet, the explanatory memorandum merges the personal preferences and the characteristics of asylum seekers in the same concept, and uses the same rationale to discard both the ‘free choice’ approach and the ‘personal characteristics’ approach. To make my point clear, merely subjective preferences are different than objective personal characteristics (liable to increase prospects of integration in the host MS): while the ‘free choice’ approach may be swiftly questioned as a solution for allocating people (although it should not be summarily discarded, as recently advocated by Maiani, at 46-48), the verification of a reasonable connection with a country is a totally different issue. Even more surprisingly, the Commission seems to ignore the indications from other parts of EU secondary law. For instance, Recital No. 34 of Decision No. 2015/1601 (establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece) clearly states that:

“The integration of applicants in clear need of international protection into the host society is the cornerstone [sic] of a properly functioning CEAS”.

Following the same logic, the provision on the safe third country concept (defined in the Asylum Procedures Directive) underlines that the latter may be applied only if due regard is given to the existence of “a connection between the applicant and the third country concerned on the basis of which it would be reasonable for that person to go to that country” [Article 38(2)(a)].

This being said, let us try to follow the reasoning of the Commission. What is the rationale behind the first country of entry criterion? Commentators agree on the fact that the drafters of the Dublin Convention and of the subsequent Dublin II and III Regulations intended to establish a linkage between the allocation of responsibility in the field of asylum and the respect of MS obligations in the protection of the EU external borders (as confirmed by the same communicationof April 2016, at 7). Put in another way, if a MS  lets an asylum seeker enter its territory, then it would be logical (sic!) to establish responsibility for assessing the asylum claim and, if the outcome is positive, to define that MS as the new place of residence for the beneficiary of international protection.

However, it is well known that the principle of non-refoulement is applicable on entry regardless of the efficiency of checks at the external borders. Likewise, the combined effect of current EU visa policy, EU carrier sanctions regimes and the nature of flows to Europe unavoidably overburdens frontline States (the number and identity of which may change in time). Thus, we can question whether the above mentioned rationale is…. rational! Or whether it is in line with the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility recognised in Article 80 TFEU. Would it perhaps sound malicious to advance the idea that this criterion and especially its continued maintenance are simply the result of the (undeclared) will of some MS to put the responsibility and the related burden of international protection on other MS?

A “genuine link” approach: not a panacea, but surely deserving of further enquiry

With the aim to be constructive, this article puts forward another approach for giving more weight to objective links between an asylum seeker and a given MS, which would favour his or her speedy and efficient integration. A series of objectively verifiable elements connecting an applicant with a certain MS can be proposed in order to establish the relevant jurisdiction, according to a ‘genuine link’ approach (see also here for further elaboration on this methodological proposal and on its potential benefits both for MSs and asylum seekers):

  • Wider family links: The Commission proposes to broaden the scope of ‘family members’ so as to include siblings, which is a positive step. In additional to that, taking into account the presence of relatives in a MS deserves a more careful consideration. In many countries of origin, relatives are as important in family life as core family members, due to the cultural concept of family and related moral obligations of mutual assistance and care. Besides, in occasions where the original nuclear family may be dispersed or deceased, the only form of family life available to the asylum seeker may be represented by a cousin, an aunt, a nephew or a grandparent. It is clear that this widened concept of family might be seen as “too generous” by MS, but considering wider family links for Dublin purposes should be at least further discussed. Some categories of relatives could also be included in the alternative criteria of verified sponsors (see below);
  • Language skills: Some States whose official language is widely spoken outside of Europe (for instance, English or French) might fear to be penalised by this criterion. Nevertheless, it could pragmatically work even for indicating a MS where the population in general and civil servants in particular are usually fluent with a second language (for instance, English in some northern European countries). In any case, a saving clause would apply in case of numbers exceeding a reasonable quota (see below);
  • Previous study or work experience in a given MS, or other forms of regular stay: If compared with the lack of any relevant “contact” with a national community, a previous regular residence is usually able to create a potential for integration (unless it is ascertained that during that stay anti-social behaviour occurred);
  • Verified private sponsorship: Apart from relatives, private individuals – be they EU nationals or third country nationals (TCN) regularly residing in the EU – may have a strong and verifiable personal link to an asylum seeker. In a globalised world, with plenty of transnational activities and personal mobility, a person may act as a sponsor for a TCN, for instance due to previous professional or personal exchange developed during a stay in Europe or in third countries. A similar reasoning might apply to non-profit organisations or firms, subject to some eligibility criteria. In the different setting of legal avenues to reach the EU, the Fundamental Rights Agency recently argued that private sponsorship is one of the most promising and under-exploited means (see here, at 6). Similarly, the Commission showed an interesting openness towards such an option (see theCommunication of April 2016, at 15-16). This possibility may cause some concern about possible risk of abuse, false declarations or coverage of illicit smuggling networks, but it should at least be the object of a serious and open minded discussion.
  • Existing legal tools facilitating the recognition of professional qualifications: The network of bilateral treaties already in force between MS and third countries of origin requires proper evaluation, because this could offer pragmatic solutions where the then protected person could easily play the role of an economic actor, instead of depending on social assistance.

One may question which of these factors is more suitable and which pre-requisites should be established to put them in place, but new paradigms need to be seriously explored in order to alter the current overall unsatisfactory performance of Dublin.

In the same vein, the quantitative impact of the proposed approach might be doubted. It must be acknowledged that no precise data are available and that no serious estimate may be done as to the impact of this proposal. Nevertheless, it is very likely that a large number of secondary movements is motivated by the intention to reach a country where some connections exist, so there is an evident normative need to set this empirical phenomena into a more credible legislative framework. The alternatives are to turn a blind eye (with no solution to the current problems to be expected) or to increase the sanctions regime for asylum seekers not complying with the current rules (a scenario that is even more debatable and problematic in the perspective of fundamental rights of asylum seekers: see  the post of Hruschka and the in-depth study of Maiani). By applying this new approach, some MS that are already under strain might become the responsible MS. To avoid undesired side effects, a saving clause might be connected to the overall system (see below).

Filters and corrections: the strange idea of treating persons as objects

As mentioned, the proposal does not change the main criteria for asserting jurisdiction, but it does introduce some novelties. Two of them seem particularly relevant here: the process at the early stages of the procedure (a kind of “pre-Dublin stage”) and the corrective mechanism, conceived as an evolution of the idea of a permanent scheme of relocation in times of emergency.

This pre-Dublin stage consists of a systematic assessment of the admissibility of the asylum claim, having regard to various deflective concepts (such a safe country of origin, first country of asylum, safe or ‘super safe’ third country, and a security screening of the applicant). These enquiries must be conducted by the first country of entry: only if the claim stands admissible, the enquiry into the Dublin criteria is carried out.

It must be observed that the two main actors (the asylum seeker and the national authorities) in this procedure are placed in a relationship of conflict: little chance seems to be left to the asylum seeker to actively participate in the procedure, and public officers are unavoidably perceived as hostile by him/her. This ‘applicant-unfriendly’ environment will not stimulate spontaneous compliance and full account of personal stories, thus generating systemic deficiencies.

The corrective mechanism is interesting, although in the current formulation is rather puzzling. A centralised system of registration of asylum claims will be put in place. Additionally, a reference key (composed of each MS’ GDP and population, each given 50% weighting) will determine which share of claims are assigned to each MS. The system will monitor in real time during the year the correspondence between the total number of asylum claims lodged in the EU and the division of them among the various MS. If a certain MS (MS#1) receives more than 150% of its assigned quota, then the corrective mechanism is automatically triggered. Additional asylum seekers will then be automatically assigned to other MS which are below their capacity (MS#2). If MS#2 refuses to take charge of an asylum seeker, a high amount has to be paid (€250,000 per person). The idea to impose a sanction (although the proposal uses a different vocabulary) on non-collaborative MS is not bad in principle, but it may be doubted that such an amount is proportionate.

Apart from that, what is really questionable is that the asylum seeker plays no role in this corrective procedure, and that the proposal does not indicate a method to identify MS#2. Maybe it is the MS which in that moment has the lowest performance of its assigned share? Or another MS? And in the latter case, will this be decided by a computer applying a casuistic algorithm? The proposal is incredibly ambiguous on this crucial point, and this “blind lottery approach” must be severely criticised. Again, people are treated as the object of procedures impinging on their lives: is all this human, rational and fair?

Finally, it must be taken into account that – even under the corrective mechanism – the overburdened State (MS#1) is, in any event, obliged to process the pre-Dublin stage and to conduct a dialogue with the assigned State regarding public security issues. To put it differently, there is no immediate relief for the overburdened State. Only after the person is moved to the automatically assigned MS#2, will this country verify the applicability of the Dublin criteria and then proceed with the subsequent steps (assessment of the claim or Dublin transfer to a MS#3). Thus, there is the possibility of a second mandatory movement: once again, is this rational? And cost-effective? And humane?

Time for ambitious pragmatism: Some ideas for EU policymakers

Drawing on the Commission proposal, it seems possible to improve some elements and reframe others. The purpose of the following suggestions is to reconcile the Dublin system with the authentic cornerstones of the CEAS (seeArticle 78(1) and also Article 80 of the TFEU) and with basic principles of rationality and fairness, both for MSs and applicants. To put it clearly, the proposal of the Commission is not all bad but it needs a robust correction.

Firstly, a permanent assessment of reception capacities (to be conducted through a reference key) and a centralised collection of all asylum claims (to be conducted as soon as possible) are highly needed. This idea of the proposal is good and should help to reduce instrumental and sterile political discussions. It is simply untenable that some MS must undergo a relevant pressure as frontline countries or as second-line favorite places of secondary movements while others give scarcely relevant support, or no support at all. It may be questioned which criteria should integrate the key and with which weight, but the overall idea is defensible.

Secondly, it is untenable to include a correction to an inherently bad system: the main standard criteria must be changed (in a similar vein, see Gauci). A primary role must be given to objectively verifiable preferences: after verification of admissibility of the claim (with full guarantees for the concerned applicant), an asylum seeker should be allocated to a given MS according to (wider) family links and other genuine links (see above). There would not be a simple or unqualified free choice of the applicant (as advocated by some NGOs): the applicant would be obliged to specify why a certain country is preferred and verification would be conducted by the interested MS.

It may be questioned if this solution would produce lengthy procedures or an excessive administrative burden on the first MS of entry. Well, this country is already obliged to conduct significant administrative activity under the pre-Dublin phase: a file is created, human resources are employed, time is spent on this activity and an interview is conducted. Is it so absurd to insert at such an early stage an ‘extra’ procedure aimed at showing a friendly face to the asylum seeker? One should also take into account that this extra procedure would be greatly facilitated by the asylum seeker’s cooperation, and that a different scenario would probably lead to a form of legal challenge by the asylum seeker, or his/her absconding. Would this be cost effective and desirable from a systematic point of view?

In this scenario, the asylum seeker would be asked to actively participate and to give clear indications regarding the presence of family members and of other connecting factors. In the case of several connected MSs (a circumstance which is not so probable), the choice could be left to the applicant.

In order to reassure MS whose asylum systems have undergone or are facing severe pressure (e.g. Germany or Sweden), if the competent State is already over its quota, the asylum seeker would be assigned to another (less) connected country, or only as extrema ratio to the State with the lowest performance rate of its share. In case of refusal of this MS to receive the concerned person, a proportionate financial disincentive should be established.

With the aim to reduce possible tensions coming from asylum seekers or from MS, a certain degree of freedom of movement of the beneficiary of protection should be accepted. If after recognition of refugee status or subsidiary protection by the designated MS, the person receives an effective job offer in another MS and security checks are fulfilled, the holder of international protection should have the possibility to accept this job offer, thus leading to a better allocation of the workforce. In this case, the issue should be raised as to whether, after voluntary establishment in another MS, protection duties should continue to bind the original MS or should be transferred to the second one, or whether such duties should simply cease.

Finally, a corrective emergency-mechanism should be conceived only for sudden and massive inflows and for supporting extremely precarious national asylum systems.

Do all these proposals look too innovative and unconventional? We all know perfectly what will happen if the Dublin system as it stands is maintained, or if only the limited ‘corrections’ set out in the Commission proposal are introduced. Should we wait for the next political crisis of the EU? Why not try to think of pragmatic and innovative way which could avoid tensions between MS, limit profits for smugglers as well as space for human rights abuses, avoid unnecessary sufferance, save public money and use human resources in a better way?

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