German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has unveiled a new plan to reform the European asylum system. A draft of the proposal leaked to the media shows that all member states of the European Union would be required to take in illegal migrants.
Countries in Central and Eastern Europe are opposed to mandatory relocations on the basis that decisions about the granting of residence permits should be kept at the national level. They have noted that by unilaterally imposing migrant quotas on EU member states, unelected bureaucrats in Brussels are seeking to force the democratically elected leaders of Europe to submit to their diktat.
Indeed, the continuing debate over migration is, at its core, about European federalism and the degree to which the European Union will be allowed to usurp decision-making powers from its 28 member states.
Seehofer presented his four-page plan to reform the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) to the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in Brussels on December 2. She is expected to unveil her migration proposals in February 2020, ahead of Germany's six-month presidency of the European Council which begins in July 2020.
The new plan is aimed at replacing the European Union's Dublin Regulation, a law that requires people seeking asylum in the EU to do so in the first European country they reach.
Southern European countries — especially Greece and Italy — have complained that, in the context of mass migration from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the current system places an unfair and disproportionate burden on them. They say that all EU member states should take equal responsibility for migrants reaching European shores.
At the height of Europe's migration crisis in September 2015, some EU member states voted to relocate 120,000 migrants from Italy and Greece to other parts of the bloc. This number was in addition to a July 2015 plan to redistribute 40,000 migrants from Italy and Greece.
Of the 160,000 migrants to be "shared," nine countries in Central and Eastern Europe were ordered to take in around 15,000 migrants. Although the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia voted against the agreement, they were still required to comply.
In September 2017, the European Union's highest court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), ruled that the European Commission, the powerful executive arm of the European Union, has the legal right to order EU member states to take in so-called asylum seekers. It also ruled that EU member states have no legal right to resist those orders.
Hungary and Slovakia, backed by Poland, argued that the European Union broke its own rules and exceeded its powers when it approved the quota system with a "qualified majority" — around two thirds of the bloc's members. They also argued that the relocation scheme is a direct violation of the Dublin Regulation.
The European Court of Justice ruled that a qualified majority vote was sufficient because the EU "was not required to act unanimously when it adopted the contested decision." The ruling, which did not mention the Dublin Regulation, concluded: "The mechanism actually contributes to enabling Greece and Italy to deal with the impact of the 2015 migration crisis and is proportionate."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called the court ruling "outrageous and irresponsible" and "contrary to the interests of the European nations, including Hungary." He added: "The decision puts at risk the security of all of Europe and the future of all of Europe as well."
In November 2019, the European Court of Auditors reported that of the 160,000 migrants intended to be shared by EU member states, ultimately only 34,705 people (21,999 from Greece and 12,706 from Italy) were relocated.
The leaders of France and Italy, during a recent bilateral meeting in Rome, called on the European Union to introduce a new, automatic system of taking in migrants. French President Emmanuel Macron said that he was "convinced that an automatic European mechanism is needed for the reception of immigrants," and that EU countries that refused to take part in the scheme should be "seriously penalized."
The leaked draft of Seehofer's proposal states that the Dublin Regulation creates "clear imbalances" as "in 2018, 75 percent of all applications for international protection were lodged in only five member states."
The document argues that the Dublin Regulation is "inefficient" because "in the entire EU, applicants are transferred to the member state (originally) responsible in only 3 percent of cases," which means that in practice asylum seekers are not sent back to the country of first arrival.
The key part of the document calls for asylum applications to be assessed immediately upon arrival at the EU's external border. From there, a newly created European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) would "determine" which member state is responsible for taking in the applicant and processing his or her application.
Seehofer's plan is intended to be permanent and not limited to crisis situations. Notably, the plan does not address the issue of returning illegal migrants back to their countries of origin.
The plan studiously avoids using the politically explosive term "quota" and replaces it with "fair share" (gerechter Anteil). The document also omits the term "mandatory," although it is assumed throughout that the migrant relocation scheme will be compulsory for all EU member states.
If everything goes according to plan, the draft legislation would be adopted by the European Parliament in the second half of 2020 when Germany holds the presidency of the EU. It would then be ratified by the European Council, made up of the leaders of the EU member states.
The new European Commissioner for the Promotion of the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, expressed support for the scheme:
"Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson and I met Horst Seehofer. We completely agree with Germany. We need this consensus from all Member States, and we are working hard to achieve it."
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, however, voiced his opposition to the German plan. In an interview with the Czech news agency ČTK, he said that he saw through Seehofer's semantics:
"We fundamentally reject illegal migration. We also reject allowing smuggling gangs to decide who will live in Europe. We reject quotas and I am surprised that this issue has once again returned to the negotiating table. I hope that the new European Commission will put a stop to this."
Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamáček said that the Czech Republic would "coordinate our position" with the other members of the Visegrád Four (V4), a cultural and political alliance of four Central European states — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said that the V4 would not bow to EU pressure to accept migrants:
"The V4's position is clear. We are not willing to admit any illegal migrants into central Europe. The success and security of central Europe is thanks to our pursuit of a firm anti-migration policy, and this will endure.
"This is why central Europe is one of the most successful regions of the European Union today, and its engine of growth. We do not tolerate any kind of pressure and we Hungarians insist on our right to decide whom to allow into our country and with whom we wish to live."