The European Pact on Immigration and Asylum should have been the highlight of the European Union's summit in Brussels. Nicolas Sarkozy made immigration the theme of his term as holder of the rotating EU presidency. But the finance crisis turned what should have been his trump card into just another businesslike point on the day's agenda. The new policy on legal and illegal immigration was rubber-stamped by the EU's 27 heads of state on Thursday without ceremony or fanfare.
But the pact is important, not least for the EU's self-image. For decades, leaders in Brussels as well as in the EU member states have argued over whether questions on immigrants and refugees belonged in national parliaments or the halls of the European Union. Now the heads of the 27 member states have agreed on the basic principles of an asylum and immigration policy in Europe.
The 15-page paper is ambitious: It shows a willingness to regulate illegal as well as legal immigration, border control, the acceptance of political refugees and procedures for working with emigrant and transit states.
The pact is controversial because it stirs up emotional themes. In practice it will regulate treatment of immigrants throughout the EU -- a theme that divides conservatives from liberals at hundreds of thousands of bars and breakfast tables in Europe. And it now answers delicate questions of whether and how immigrants should be sent home, even after risking their lives on long journeys.
The agreement is in any case overdue. National regulation of immigration has international consequences. Once an immigrant -- legal or illegal -- arrives on EU soil, he or she can travel to other member countries thanks to the Shengen Agreement, the border-free travel agreement first signed in 1985 and since enlarged.
In any case, Sarkozy's plan has very little new content. The EU has long had a collective visa policy, overarching guidelines for asylum and a way of securing the bloc's outer borders through international cooperation. But the agreement does have symbolic value. For the first time a single ruling addresses all the goals and troublesome aspects of Europe's posture toward immigrants.
The paper deals concretely with five areas:
A large portion of qualified working immigrants now move to countries like the United States, Canada or Australia. Only 5 percent of educated workers move to Europe. Yet Europe needs immigrants, if only to keep its pension schemes from collapsing in a time of shrinking birth rates. The agreement wants member states to develop immigration policies in harmony with their economic needs -- the so-called Blue Card initiative -- to attract more immigrants with needed skills.
Immigrants, in any case, should be integrated into their new countries "in a spirit of solidarity," meaning: The number of immigrants a nation can absorb should also be considered. Priority will be given to immigrants with clear time restrictions -- qualified guest workers. But such policies tend to scare away more highly qualified workers than they attract.
This section of the treaty seeks to ensure that illegal immigrants are returned to their country of origin or transit country. The guideline, called the Returns Directive, is a controversial one. It calls for member nations to make a stark decision -- either give illegal immigrants who wind up in Europe a temporary visa, or send them home.
Member states will also be asked to increase overall cooperation in sending unwanted immigrants home -- for example with better-organized deportation flights and biometric identification. Treaties with the immigrants' homelands on "reabsorption" of illegals will also be called for.
Every year half a million people find their way illegally to Europe through weak points in EU borders. Hundreds drown on their way across the ocean, or die of thirst marching through the desert before even getting to the African coast. Brussels ideally wants to prevent both illegal arrivals as well as the tragic deaths.
The nations in the Mediterranean and in western Europe are responsible for securing the southern borders. Frontex, an EU agency charged with facilitating cooperation among member-states along Europe's borders, is a major player in this area. It will be given more latitude. In the long term there may also be a European border police force. In any case a biometric EU visa is planned for 2012 at the latest.
An immigrant seeking asylum in the EU can have wholly different experiences from one nation to the other. There considerable differences among all the member states in policies for asylum.
The EU therefore wants to develop some minimum standards. The new agreement envisions a network of support agencies for asylum questions by 2009, and a unified policy by 2012.
And for the first time, the EU has officially recommended spreading asylum seekers more evenly among various member states. Immigrants who deserve asylum, according to the plan, should be shifted from one state to another as agreed by the member states.
The new plan also calls for treaties with nations outside the EU to establish guidelines for temporary immigrants -- essentially guest workers. Seasonal farmworkers can be brought to Europe under these treaties, and their return home can be regulated. These third-party nations can also profit from the skills learned by their workers in Europe, according to the EU paper.
'A Plan for Even More Deportation and Segregation'
Many critics are unhappy with the restrictive content of the agreement: Refugee organizations claim its main focus is on security questions, and argue that such an approach has so far failed to solve immigration problems in Europe.
Important guidelines to defend human rights were missing, said Bjarte Vandvik, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. He said it wasn't at all clear how asylum seekers could even reach the EU under the new, stronger border security proposals.
A German EU parliamentarian, Angelika Beer from the Green Party, condemned the new document. "This immigration pact from Sarkozy and company is a plan for even more deportation and segregation in the EU," she said. Europe's border-protection agency, Frontex, will have more influence, punishments against immigrants will be sharpened and the power of parliaments in the member states to oversee immigration remains unclear, she argued.
With material from dpa