By NIKOLAJ NIELSEN
The European Commission unveiled its long-awaited migration and asylum pact on Wednesday (23 September).
Following months of delays, it is one of president Ursula von der Leyen’s core proposals and comes with promises not to repeat past failures, which turned EU states against one another.
“The old system to deal with it in Europe no longer works. The commission’s package on migration and asylum, which we present today, offers a fresh start,” she announced.
The existing system saw Greece and Italy largely abandoned to deal with tens of thousands of arrivals on their own, while over a million settled in Germany.
The new one includes ideas that are likely to appeal to the more anti-immigrant doctrines of countries such as Hungary or Poland.
It includes placing extra emphasis on returns, making sure countries outside Europe accept back their nationals, while at the same time speeding up asylum procedures.
The whole comes amid a backdrop of recent fires that destroyed an open-air prison for refugees and migrants in Moria, an EU hotspot on the Greek island of Lesbos.
It also comes after Greece suspended asylum claims for a month earlier this year, as thousands of people were pushed backed into Turkey.
The commission’s latest efforts to overhaul the rules is designed to act as a deterrence for anyone not obviously entitled to international protection.
In practice, it means everyone arriving at an EU external border will have to go through security, health, and identity checks within five days.
They will not be able to immediately contest those findings, which will ultimately determine their fates.
The idea is to deny asylum to most people, especially anyone coming from a country where the recognition rates for international protection drops below 20 percent.
“It has to be done very quickly and I think that many of those will have a negative decision,” EU commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson told reporters on Wednesday.
People are then to be shuffled into a 12-week asylum border procedure, which does include appeals.
Here, they will be granted access to a normal asylum process later on or returned with the help of a beefed up Frontex, the EU border and coast guard agency.
Anyone alone and under the age of 18 will not have to go through the asylum border procedure, nor will families with children under the age of 12.
The commission is also demanding member states create an independent monitoring system to make sure rights are not violated throughout the process.
Part of that proposal includes turning the Malta-based European Asylum and Support Office (Easo) into a European asylum agency to make sure capitals are doing their jobs correctly.
But years of neglect and suffering in the EU hotspots in Greece, combined with the commission’s refusal to launch infringements against Athens for violating EU laws, is likely to cast a shadow over any such monitoring system.
On Wednesday, EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas described those Greek closures as a model for migration management.
“As we proved in Evros at the beginning of March, Europe can now effectively ensure border management,” he said.
The statement carried with it an insight into the commission’s thinking on how to juggle the competing interests of EU member states when it comes to migration.
Schinas had previously described it as a mix between solidarity and responsibility.
The term he coined on Wednesday was “permanent effective constant solidarity”, a phrase that was meant to appeal to everyone whether in Athens, Budapest, or Berlin.
“We have looked for a solution between the red lines,” said Schinas.
“And we have done so by introducing a new concept which we call ‘returns sponsorships’ that allow to do something that is new,” he added.
The idea is a departure from the previous commission, which had demanded a mandatory system of quotas that required each EU state to take in people arriving on Italian and Greek shores.
EU states will now be given the option to return people instead, in a bid to help remove the pressure on the member state put under pressure by arrivals.
Those that choose to return someone from the member state under stress will have eight months to do it or will be required to take in that person to finalise the return from their own territory.
The member state sponsoring the returns, will be able to select the nationalities of the asylum claimants they handle.
The commission describes the sponsorship as a viable alternative to relocation, the practice of accepting migrant arrivals already on European territory.
In reality, the proposal is a numbers game based on a distribution key that can be triggered by the commission on its own or by request from a member state under arrival pressure.
The key is based on population size and GDP of the member state and aims to calculate its share of aid to another in need.
It is not straightforward.
For instance, Greece wants 100 people relocated from its territory.
The distribution key is applied and determines two other EU states must take in 50 percent each, meaning they each have 50 people to relocate or return.
But one of the member states refuses to help, resulting in a contribution shortfall.
The commission will then demand everyone to revise their contributions in a so-called “solidarity forum”.
If there is a still a shortfall capped at more than 30 percent, then it can apply a “critical mass correction mechanism”.
The mechanism gives the commission the power to demand the member state with the shortfall to increase its contribution by 50 percent.
In this case, it would mean they would need to relocate or return 25 people.
“What that means is that we have corrected to ensure ‘critical mass’, ” said a commission official, noting the country under pressure will always get at least 70 percent of what was demanded.
Rights groups like Amnesty International and Oxfam International were unimpressed, however, with both describing the proposals as one that shores up walls and defences against asylum seekers and refugees.
“The commission has bowed to pressure from EU governments whose only objective is to decrease the number of people granted protection in Europe,”said Marissa Ryan, head of Oxfam’s EU office.
Similar comments were given by Amnesty, who said the EU scheme will do little to help those most in need.