Desperately seeking European solidarity | Ylva Johansson

European Commissioner for Home Affairs YLVA JOHANSSON is confident that the New Pact on Migration and Asylum - which proposes, among other things, a ‘mandatory solidarity mechanism’ for the relocation of asylum-seekers – will succeed where past EU efforts have so far failed

Ylva Johansson
Ylva Johansson

Malta’s problem with immigration has always been linked to the near-impossibility of returning failed asylum seekers. How does the new migration pact propose to address this; and can we expect any substantial changes in the immediate future?

We have very much focused on returns in this pact, because this is an area where we are not performing well enough in the European Union. There is a lot of room for improvement. So we focused on how member states can beef up their internal procedures, specifically when it comes to the issue of returns. That is why we are going to appoint a special Returns Coordinator, with the assistance of experts from all member states, to help member states become more effective in their internal return procedures.

The other aspect is, of course, the external side. This is why I will be travelling to the important partner countries to discuss ways in which to make their own readmission agreements more effective. We need to use all the tools that we have at our disposal as the European Commission – such as international aid; trade; Visas; the Erasmus programme; and legal pathways – to find agreements that would be beneficial for both partner countries, and also the European Union. And we are ready to do that.

On the subject of legal pathways: human rights NGOs have been campaigning for the creation of hotspots in third countries and in countries of origin, so that asylum seekers can apply for asylum without having to cross the Mediterranean in the first place. This suggestion was not taken up by the European Commission. Can you tell us why?

The main reason is that seeking asylum on European soil is a human right that the EU does not wish to violate.

Even on a pragmatic level, however, I think it’s an unrealistic proposal. Of course, if member states would like to use their own embassies to process asylum applications, they can do so. But on a European level, it’s not realistic to envisage that kind of hotspots in third countries. That would lead to a lot of problems in those countries, because I can’t see how any of them would be willing to host such centres. And of course, it would also lead to an enormous number of asylum seekers who will have to be relocated among European member states. I can’t really see that happening, either.

But the problems you describe already exist in EU border states such as Malta, Italy and Greece. Does the new pact imply that these countries will become the ‘hotspots’ for asylum application within the EU?

No. The whole aim of this proposal is to reduce the irregular arrivals, and to open up legal pathways: both for refugees, as well as for migrants who come to contribute to our economy.

But the most important thing is to counter human smuggling; and also to address the root causes of migration. Hence the importance of a partnership to fight human smugglers together with, for example, North African countries. We’ve already had a conference to this effect in July; and now we are building on these partnerships…

This is not the first time the European Commission has committed itself to fighting the human smuggling trade, however; in 2015, for instance, it launched an ‘Action Plan Against Migrant Smuggling’. How is your new proposal any different from all the Commission’s past efforts in this direction?

The main difference is that we are now building up partnerships with third countries. You could say, of course, that: well, we have already reduced smuggling through the central Mediterranean route – this has already happened – but we need to do much more on this. That is why we are building these partnerships to fight human smuggling; and I am doing this, of course, together with the Commissioner for neighbouring countries (including North Africa).

Apart from partnership countries, the success of this Pact also depends on co-operation from other EU member states. In the past, this has not been forthcoming. How do you propose to get the V4 member states to budge on relocation of migrants and asylum seekers from countries like Malta and Italy?

I think the proposal I have presented is a balanced proposal. It’s a compromise; and so far, I think there has been quite a constructive approach by all member states. They are ready to sit down and work on this; but of course there are going to be negotiations, in the Council as well as in the [European] Parliament.

I don’t think they will say ‘Hooray!’ to everything; there will naturally be disagreements on certain issues. But I do very much believe that we will have a constructive discussion on this… and I haven’t seen the proposal being rejected by anybody yet.

The withdrawal of the problematic Dublin regulation is an important step for a frontline country like Malta: but in the absence of a binding relocation agreement, how will the EC ensure that the major contention of Dublin II – i.e., that the application process has to take place in the country that first received the asylum seekers – is addressed?

Of course, all member states have to deal with asylum seekers coming into their country; but there is a new mechanism in my proposal on how to distribute the applications. If an asylum seeker has connections to another member state, then it should be that member state which should deal with the application from the outset.

But I think the most important part of my proposal is the new mandatory solidarity mechanism. In the case of a country like Malta, that is under pressure from the arrival of too many migrants for such a small country to handle, this mandatory solidarity mechanism can help both with relocation, and to facilitate returns. All members states will have to help countries under pressure, like Malta: according to their size, and their economic strength,

Stronger, larger countries have to contribute more than smaller countries; and they will have to contribute by participating in the relocation of applicants that are genuinely in need of international protection; or by returning those who have a negative asylum decision.

Earlier, you mentioned ‘migrants who come to contribute to [the European] economy’. How does the EC intend to provide a pathway for migrant workers who have no legal avenues into Europe – or any right to international protection - but are bundled into mixed flows of human trafficking and illegal routes?

There is already the Blue Card Directive [a work permit allowing highly skilled non-EU citizens to work and live in 25 of the 27 countries within the European Union], which has been on the table for many years now. I hope it can be concluded and adopted by the co-legislation before the end of the year. That would be an important step.

But it is not enough. We also need low- and medium skill workers; and this is why we are also working on an action plan to create more legal pathways into the European Union, that can be tailor-made to meet the needs of specific countries. I am also proposing a ‘Talent and Skills Package’, by the beginning of next year, for this kind of legal pathway.

Another thing we also need are legal pathways for refugees who already have a good resettlement programme; and I hope that the legislation for that will be adopted by the co-legislator.

But on top of that, I am also proposing a new community-sponsored resettlement programme, that could make it possible for regional authorities who would like to welcome refugees directly from a refugee camp in a third country.

Lastly, the Pact also focuses on the often-excessive duration of the asylum application process itself. This is an issue that has particularly affected Malta, where the process has been known to take years. How can Brussels improve the asylum determination system? Will the new Pact make it mandatory for member states to deliver faster, fair decisions on asylum?

The proposed Qualification Regulation will ensure greater convergence of recognition rates across the EU, guarantee the rights of recognised refugees and discourage unauthorised movements within the Union.

The reinforced Asylum Agency will be able to provide a rapid and full service to Member States in normal times as well as in times of challenges, including by carrying out the entire administrative stage of the asylum procedure if requested, as a concrete form of European solidarity.

This comes in addition to the changes proposed in 2016 which are under negotiations in the European Parliament and the Council. These changes aim to streamline the asylum procedure and make it more efficient, allowing for swifter procedures to identify those in need of protection and those who are not, and ensure common guarantees for asylum seekers – together with stricter rules to prevent abuse.