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Towards a European Approach to Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Labour Migrants

With the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, migration and asylum were formally defined as a common policy concern. As noted earlier, at the time, asylum migration stood high on the political agenda of the EU's North-Western member states. A first step towards a common approach was to limit eligibility for protection to the first safe country the asylum seeker set foot in. This principle became codified in the Dublin Convention (and was later incorporated into the EU Treaty). In effect, this put the obligation to receive asylum seekers on the member states at the EU's periphery. Alternative mechanisms by which to achieve more even burden-sharing have yet to be developed. Presently, some member states are unable (notably Greece) or unwilling (notably Italy) to abide by the agreements based on “Dublin”. At the same time, member states farther north consider the existing arrangements as satisfactory. Political solidarity between member states is thus not easily achieved. Instead modest compensatory measures have been introduced to reward states for their efforts in accommodating refugees; the European Refugee Fund offers subsidies for their integration.

By 1997 political ambitions had progressed towards truly common policies in the field of refugee protection, asylum, and migration. The Amsterdam Treaty concluded that year (and coming into force in 1999) turned these issues into communitarian ones, and the Commission was asked to propose a comprehensive approach. By 2004 this had led in the field of asylum to directives on minimum norms regarding asylum-seeker reception and asylum procedures and on common definitions of who qualified as a refugee (which were recast in 2011). In many instances this simply permitted member states to continue existing practices. The Common European Asylum System (CEAS), as it is commonly referred to, gained new momentum from the publication in 2008 of the European Commission's Policy Plan on Asylum. This sought to build on the European political consensus regarding the need for more practical collaboration, further harmonization, and increased solidarity among member states. Yet, collaboration has since become most visible in increased border controls, the deployment of Frontex, and in 2011 the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office in Malta. Prospects for a truly joint asylum system (i.e., having joint processing facilities and redistributive measures) remain beyond the present horizon (Thielemann and Armstrong 2012).

Arguably, a common European asylum system would be born out of managerial and political necessity. However, as already noted, when the Amsterdam Treaty was drafted, the political ambition was to go much farther and devise a comprehensive European migration regime. To this end, the European Commission produced an ambitious proposal in 2001 (COMM 757/2001) going in the direction of managed and forward-looking labour immigration schemes to fulfil current and future demand and to curb irregular migration, human smuggling, and trafficking. It found support in Southern Europe but much less up north. Indeed, in subsequent steps, the willingness among member states to surrender their sovereignty in the admission of foreign workers evaporated (if it ever had truly existed).

Nevertheless, some consequential directives are now part of EU law. A 2003 directive grants long-term residents the same freedom of movement as is enjoyed by EU nationals (after five years of legal residence in one member state) (Council Directive 2003/109/EC). Also concluded in 2003 is a directive on family reunification (Council Directive 2003/86/EC) which determines the conditions under which third-country nationals can bring in their family members. In the subsequent years, this led to practices that were more liberal than some of the member states had intended. Coming into force more recently was the Blue Card Directive (Council Directive 2009/50/ EC), detailing common rules for the admission of highly skilled workers. It aims to simplify and standardize admission requirements for skilled workers from outside the EU and to ease their mobility between member states. The idea here is to increase the EU's competitive edge in the global competition for “brains”. Hence, it hardly challenges member states' sovereignty (Doomernik et al. 2009).

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