Twenty years after the Tampere European Council of 1999, where political guidelines on the cooperation between the fields of immigration, police and justice were discussed and set, 30 civil societies and municipalities from Germany, France, Poland, Italy and other EU member states are calling for a new start in European asylum and migration policy.
A new European Parliament has been elected, and the new Commission and Council will commence in the autumn. Although the number of people arriving to seek protection in Europe is falling, the weeks-long wandering of aid ships carrying refugees rescued in the Mediterranean which are then denied entry into European ports is irreconcilable with the human rights principles of the EU. This demonstrates the urgent need for common ownership of European asylum and migration policies. An agreement on an emergency mechanism has thus far not been achieved with the states that wish to proceed. The reform proposals for the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) submitted by the Commission in 2016 are also failing to progress.
It will now be up to the newly elected and formed European institutions to remedy this standstill. But does it really require comprehensive legal reform? Many of the existing European regulations are either unheeded or deliberately disregarded. Is it not necessary to renew the commitment to the protection of refugees and to an unconditional respect for human rights, as formulated by the European Council in Tampere, Finland, 20 years ago? How do we overcome the current gridlock?
While there is no progress at the European and multilateral levels, people have become active in their communities in taking on the responsible and sustainable reception of refugees. Through concrete measures on the ground, they are showing that they want to take responsibility for some of the global challenges. They are signaling openness instead of isolation. They are forming coalitions such as Pier, Solidarity Cities, or the Union of Safe Harbors in Germany to create space for people in need of international protection or a decent perspective - and in doing so they are actively influencing European and global politics.
After a successful colloquium in March 2019 in Paris and the publication of the "Paris Declaration", Diakonie Deutschland, France Terre d'Asile and the Heinrich Böll Foundation organized another meeting in Berlin on 25 and 26 November entitled “For a new start in European asylum and migration policy”.
This time it also included a considerable delegation of experts and activists from Poland, from organizations such as the Helsinki Foundation, Foundation Ocalenie, the Polish Migration Forum, Migrant Info Point, the Institute of Public Affairs, Foundation Nasz Wybór, the Wroclaw Center for Social Development and Islamistablog. These organizations helped to enrich the debate, underline positive Polish examples in the European discourse on asylum and migration and provide opportunities for intensive networking.
The conference started out with a short assessment of the non-binding Valetta declaration, recently signed by Germany, France, Italy and Malta, as an attempt to return to a “pre-Salvini”-Situation: the former Italian minister of the interior and head of the right-wing Lega party had closed Italian harbours to ships rescuing refugees and tried to falsely blame human rights defenders for global migration movements. While NGO activists were strongly arguing for a future European corps that would help fulfill the binding obligations of sea rescues so far only based on international law, representatives of German and French governments present during the debates focused instead on the question of reforming or formulating alternatives to the current Dublin-System, which is widely seen as dysfunctional, inefficient and conflict-ridden.
Special attention was drawn to unclear legal questions around the attempts to further externalize the asylum verification process (e.g. binding legal protection in hotspots) and the precarious living conditions of asylum seekers. In Germany, for example, there have been political attempts to oblige them to stay in large communal accommodations (with restricted access) which are prone to generate individual stress and social conflicts, while in France they are faced with homelessness. The critical discourse on the current state and endangered prospects of the Schengen area exemplifies a general challenge: how, in a situation where there are significant and growing asymmetries between member states, can we ensure the future of EU integration and keep its borders open and in accordance with fundamental values and human rights?
Should freedom of settlement automatically be granted to accepted asylum seekers, or should they be obliged to stay for a longer time in the member state where they received asylum? Could individuals be distributed with the help of binding central algorithms or the assistance of apps that aim to match refugees and municipalities on the basis of individual criteria (such kinds of solutions are currently being discussed among German officials and migration experts)? Would potential quotas for regulated legal migration into the EU resolve the perceived contradiction between the priorities of deterrence and integration? Or is a two-year investment in the cultural, social and economic integration of a person that might ultimately have to leave not to bring about larger future benefits anyway? How to better include the voices and interests of refugees in the discourse in order to ensure both the dignified treatment of individuals, and the maximum benefits for the host societies.
Last but not least, there are also a lot of positive stories to tell. Civil society activists engaged in rescues at sea stood their ground and successfully faced threatening (and partially illegal) government action – and were supported by courts all over the European Union. As the example of Italy shows, so-called humanitarian corridors in the framework of resettlement programmes, set up by private initiatives and across political camps and religious beliefs, have not only saved lives, but have also helped to positively influence a public discourse shaped by fear and containment. It should also be noted that we are currently witnessing the emergence of a new self-confidence of bigger municipalities who, no matter what the political affiliations of their leadership, often very successfully master the management crisis situation brought about by the year-long inactivity of many EU member states’ national governments before 2015. Now they stridently demand a much stronger involvement of local governments – by subsidiary delegation of tasks and funds from central levels – in the integration process of refugees and migrants.
As a result, a 5-point action plan was drafted and submitted to the Commission (download the “Berlin Declaration” here). Together with other ideas and goals formulated during the meeting, the paper shall inform the agenda of the German Presidency of the European Council in 2020.