The Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs of the Member States of the European Union (EU) and of Western Balkan countries met in Sarajevo on 7 and 8 December 2015 to participate in the annual EU - Western Balkan Ministerial Forum on 'Justice and Home Affairs' (JHA), which this year was dedicated to issues of migration, asylum, security, the fight against terrorism and judicial cooperation.
However, the meeting was disrupted because of the weather, with several ministers who were expected to attend being prevented from landing in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Minister for Internal Security, Etienne Schneider, and the Minister for Justice, Félix Braz, as well as a number of other representatives from the EU and the region had to cancel their participation. As a result, the Minster for Foreign and European Affairs and Minister for Immigration and Asylum, Jean Asselborn, who was able to attend, presided over the part dedicated to security and to migration.
Cooperation is good but there is still room for improvement
During a press conference following the meeting on 7 December, Jean Asselborn explained that the objective of the meeting was to discuss the common challenge faced by the two groups of states regarding the current high migratory pressure, with 'thousands of migrants crossing through Western Balkan countries in order to reach their destination'.
In this context, Jean Asselborn repeated that cooperation in the face of such a crisis was 'of the highest importance', because no one can solve it on their own and 'the burden must be shared'. The Minister recalled that during the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the EU, Member States had agreed on the need to give 'more support' to Western Balkan countries. According to the Minister, the high-level conference on the 'Eastern Mediterranean - Western Balkans Route' in Luxembourg on 8 October 2015, which 'brought together all of the parties concerned' and made it possible to strengthen the development of capacities in the Western Balkan countries is an example of this.
In the context of the migration crisis, Jean Asselborn stressed that cooperation with the Western Balkan countries was 'good', particularly in terms of exchanging information with regard to the situation on the ground, but that there was 'still room for improvement'. In particular, the Minister for Immigration stressed the need to avoid unilateral decisions that 'trigger chain reactions in neighbouring countries'.
Even if there is good cooperation, there is still the issue of the high number of asylum requests in the EU from people coming from the Western Balkans. On this issue, Jean Asselborn recalled that the group of Western Balkan countries that benefit from visa-free regimes is in fourth place in terms of requests, after Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. 'The liberalisation of the visa regime is a key achievement for the Western Balkan countries and together we must do everything we can to avoid the suspension mechanism (for this regime) being triggered', Jean Asselborn said.
In this regard, the Minister highlighted that these countries were intensifying their efforts to limit the number of their citizens who were asking for asylum in the EU, particularly through information campaigns, stepping up controls and improving cooperation on returns and readmissions. 'Despite everything, extra efforts are needed', Jean Asselborn continued. He felt that if international protection and assistance is to be granted to all those who have the right to it, while fully respecting the principle of non-refoulement, there must be rapid progress to reduce the number of unfounded asylum requests from these countries. 'Those who do not need international protection must be sent back while fully respecting human dignity', he concluded.
The EU and the Balkans share a common responsibility towards refugees and their own citizens
The European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, joked about the severe weather that he and Minister Asselborn had had to confront to arrive in Sarajevo and, on a more serious note, mentioned the other dangers threatening a Europe which he believes is 'at a crossroads' with the refugee crisis, migratory flows and terrorism. These threats, and the nationalist, xenophobic and populist reactions that they provoke, are testing the European dream of an inclusive and united Europe. The Commissioner felt that they should be taken on as challenges and 'serve as a catalyst to strengthen relations between EU countries and bring the Balkans closer to the Union'.
The Commissioner believes that the EU and the Western Balkans share a common responsibility to those who are asking for their international protection as well as their own citizens who should be protected against the criminals who threaten their lives and democratic values. 'It is therefore time to act on both security and migration issues. But to do this, the countries of the European continent should deepen their cooperation, because they all need each other'.
There was agreement in Sarajevo on the need to reduce migration flows along the Balkans route, he said, as well as on offering shelter to refugees because of the deteriorating weather conditions. The next step is to keep each other informed on the latest developments.
At the same time, he had to remind the Western Balkan countries that it is not permitted to refuse entry on grounds of nationality to those coming to request international protection. He also informed them that no EU Member States had asked for the suspension clause to be activated with regard to the agreement on liberalising the visa policy for them. However, he felt that the number of asylum seekers coming from their own countries was too high. He asked them to reduce it so that the visa-free access to the EU continues to be guaranteed for their citizens, and so that their states can continue to move closer to the EU.
Finally, the Commissioner announced that the EU-Western Balkans counter-terrorism initiative had been adopted. 'We all have citizens who have joined Daesh. We must therefore take action together', he stressed. He recalled that the EU and south-east European Countries have a common action plan for 2014–2019 on the illegal trafficking of firearms and that the JHA Council of 20 November 2015 had called on the Commission to present an action plan to combat the illegal trafficking of weapons and explosives inside and outside the EU.