EU Home Affairs ministers met in Brussels on 4 December 2015 for the third part of the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council, mainly dedicated to the EU migration and refugee crisis.
During this part of the Council meeting chaired by Jean Asselborn, Minister for Immigration and Asylum, the participants were informed of the situation on the ground as well as the progress being made on the implementation of the latest measures taken by the EU. They also debated the action required to strengthen the Schengen area with the temporary reintroduction of internal border controls by a number of Member States.
Difficulties remain over the implementation of certain measures
At the press conference held after the meeting, Jean Asselborn noted the many efforts made by the Council since the beginning of the Luxembourg Presidency in taking measures to improve the management of the migration crisis. "We have worked on the relocation, return, readmission of migrants, and the management of the external borders" he noted, without shying away from the fact that "difficulties remain in implementing these measures".
"For this reason, the Presidency activated the crisis management mechanism in its most advanced form", called the Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) during the JHA meeting of 9 November 2015, the Minister continued, noting that this mechanism "offers resources to monitor crisis situations, identify solutions and monitor their implementation.
Jean Asselborn welcomed the substantial efforts made by Greece to set up hotspots
As regards the situation in Greece, where Jean Asselborn visited on 30 November, the Minister welcomed the "substantial efforts" of the authorities regarding continuing mass migration in terms of putting in place accommodation and reception points known as 'hotspots' on the Greek islands, as well as recent decisions taken by the Greek government. In particular, the Minister:
- requested the deployment of Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABITs) on the Greek islands;
- signed an operational plan for the deployment of Frontex on the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM);
- requested activation of the European civil protection mechanism;
- and took the necessary measures to appoint 5 coordinators responsible for the 'hotspots'.
The Minister noted that winter is sure to bring "a short respite" to the Italian and Greek authorities to give them time to consolidate their efforts and continue to work actively on getting the all 'hotspots' "fully" up and running. "Creating sufficient reception facilities on the continent is crucial, in Italy and Greece as well as all the way along the Western Balkans route. This message was clearly repeated today by the Council," Jean Asselborn indicated.
The integrity of the Schengen area and the reintroduction of border controls
Another important point on the agenda was the integrity of the Schengen area in the context of the temporary reintroduction of internal border controls by certain Member States in recent months due to mass migration into the EU. Jean Asselborn stressed that all the Member States have "expressed their commitment to the common space" during the meeting, but stressed that "Schengen will not work if the rules are not respected". In this context, the Council agreed on a number of points, he continued.
First, the Ministers agreed on the need to step up coordination in advance of the adoption of national decisions, as such decisions "have a direct impact on neighbouring Member States". Second, deficiencies in the control of external borders must be remedied, the Minister stressed that the deployment of RABITs in Greece is an "appropriate" response. Finally, the Ministers noted the time limits for the reintroduction of internal border controls on the basis of national decisions.
As Jean Asselborn noted, this period is limited to 6 months, and will come to an end for the first Member States (Germany and Austria) in March 2016. "The Ministers agree that if serious deficiencies are found, jeopardising the overall functioning of the Schengen space, on the basis of objective facts discovered during evaluations, a common European framework will be needed to extend the application of border controls in certain areas beyond the 6 month period", the Minister continued, noting that a recommendation by the Commission will be required.
The Minister also wished to "respond to some information circulating in the media", i.e. that Greece had been threatened with exclusion from the Schengen space. He clarified that such an exclusion is "legally impossible"; the rules provide for the implementation of gradual measures to remedy deficiencies, which may lead to the reintroduction of internal border controls on certain border sections.
The European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, noted that despite current difficulties, Schengen is not the problem, but the tools established by Schengen may be used as part of the solution. "This will only be possible through the proper implementation of rules and strengthening external borders" he noted, adding that Schengen should be strengthened, not weakened.
"It is high time get the relocation mechanism off the ground!"
For Jean Asselborn, the crucial challenge involves not just Greece and Italy, but all the Member States, and "it is high time to get the relocation mechanism off the ground!" While it is not surprising that in the context of a very new initiative, the process was a bit slow to begin with, "we must take action now and relocate people faster", the Minister argued, adding that"all the Member States must participate without delay" as "European solidarity is at stake".
The Minister expressed hope that solidarity would come in a political, rather than a legal form. In response to a question from a journalist on the appeals introduced by certain Member States against the emergency relocation mechanism, he made it clear that all Member States must play their part, at the risk of one day, finding themselves without the help they need.
In concrete terms, Member States must communicate their willingness to relocate refugees from Italy or Greece, the Minister stated, adding that the Member States had renewed their commitments in this regard. On the ground, communication must be "much clearer, more direct and based on trust", "it is a question of explaining the relocation mechanism and their interest in taking part", Jean Asselborn continued. At the same time, just "letting everyone through" is not the right policy in terms of taking control of the situation, he added.
The Minister further stressed the need to focus efforts on the implementation of relocation efforts and not to "get bogged down" in a debate about distributing several hundred thousand migrants on the basis of voluntary relocation. "It is too late for that, and I am in a good position to know that hoping to achieve this would be completely unrealistic", he noted.
Dimitris Avramopoulos also took the view that real progress had been made in this context, but that more needs to be done. In his view, the response will only be effective if all parties live up to their commitments and responsibilities, calling for "all Ministers to accelerate the relocation process", and to allocate the resources to get the 'hotspots' up and running. "It is only by putting in place all the elements of the mechanism that the system will work for all", he said.
The ministers also noted the Commission's proposal for a permanent crisis relocation mechanism. "We need a stable mechanism to assist us in determining a fairer distribution of the burden between the various Member States", Jean Asselborn stated, noting that he was aware of the urgency of this issue for certain delegations. Such a mechanism must also be coherent with any reform to the Dublin system, he added.
The work on a European list of countries of safe origin has not yet been finalised, the Minister remarked, noting unresolved issues regarding the compatibility of the proposal with fundamental rights, the coordination between national and European lists and implementing measures.
Agreement confirmed on the Researchers and Students Directive
Finally, Jean Asselborn welcomed the significant progress made by the Council, which adopted conclusions on statelessness, a subject on which the Presidency had initiated discussions. The conclusions invite the Commission to set up a platform for the exchange of best practices and information between Member States in order to contribute to eradicating statelessness.
The Minister welcomed the fact that the Council has endorsed the agreement with the European Parliament on a proposal for a Directive on the conditions for the entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purposes of research, study, pupil exchange, remunerated and unremunerated training, voluntary service and au pairing (Students and Researchers Directive). For Jean Asselborn, this Directive will make the EU more accessible and attract more young talent - over a quarter of a million will benefit - to Europe, "enabling us to invest in the future".