European Union closer to common policy on migration, border control

LUXEMBOURG – The shock of far-right election gains may have jolted the European Union into swifter action against illegal migration after years of hollow pledges, but the drive must still overcome stubborn resistance. EU interior ministers on Thursday backed an action plan to improve border management, combat illegal immigration and pressure third countries to help fight human trafficking and take back rejected migrants. British Home Secretary David Blunkett, leading the drive for a crackdown along with current EU president Spain, said that three years after the EU first promised to adopt a common immigration and asylum policy, «we’ve got a real chance of getting action.» France’s new interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, attending his first EU session in the job, hailed a great leap forward. «A European immigration policy, a European security policy and a European policy of protecting borders is being born before our very eyes… Things are moving forward quite spectacularly,» he declared. The rise of a new generation of center-right governments in many EU states may have added to the political momentum. But experienced EU hands, while acknowledging a new tone of determination, remain skeptical about the pace of progress. Spanish Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy implausibly denied that any election result was driving the EU’s bid to get tough on illegal immigration and abuse of the political asylum system. But other EU officials said the stunning election results of French extreme-right crusader Jean-Marie Le Pen and murdered Dutch anti-immigration campaigner Pim Fortuyn had had the same galvanizing effect on EU migration policy as the September 11 attacks on the United States had on counter-terrorism efforts. The 15-nation bloc reacted to the suicide airliner attacks on New York and Washington by adopting, within three months, a common arrest warrant and measures to improve police cooperation and crack down on money laundering. EU leaders meeting in Seville next week seem set to take the same approach on immigration, fixing a deadline – probably mid-December – for enacting new border control measures and adopting proposals regarding asylum and migration that are already on the table. However, concerns about national sovereignty, civil rights, foreign relations and the financial capacity to stop or absorb migrants that have delayed progress have not gone away. The EU requires unanimity among member states on the issue, with little scope for the executive European Commission to break deadlocks. Germany is still blocking a burden-sharing accord on asylum seekers because it wants EU partners to take more of its overload but is reluctant to pay. The German elections have also hindered progress toward common asylum procedures. And Greece, Italy and Spain want more financial help with patrolling external borders and assurances that they will not be forced to take in all the refugees that cross their borders seeking asylum in wealthy northern Europe. Britain and France have yet to find a solution to a refugee camp at the French end of the Channel Tunnel, from which asylum seekers try nightly to sneak through the tunnel across to England, drawn by a flourishing shadow economy, welfare benefits and the prospect of melting anonymously into a country without identity cards. The ministers brandished the threat of unspecified measures against third countries that do not cooperate with the EU crackdown, but there was no consensus on British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s call to condition European aid on compliance. France and some smaller EU states argued such a move would be self-defeating. Diplomats also doubted the EU would agree to sanction allies of the West such as Turkey, Bosnia or Morocco, all major sources of illegal migration. Most member states would like EU financial incentives for developing countries to take back migrants and improve their own border controls. Blunkett too seemed to tone down Blair’s rhetoric by stressing the notion of «positive conditionality.» The debate will likely continue at next week’s Seville EU summit.