Taking Stock of the French Council Presidency in Migration Policy

Jeanette Süß in an interview with Dr Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, Member of German Bundestag (FDP)
Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch Frankreich Flagge
© Canva/Deutscher Bundestag

The French Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first half of 2022 has come to an end. FNF Europe sheds light on different aspects of the Presidency with interviews, podcasts and events. One of the core objectives of the French Presidency was to make headway on the European migration policy. However, although a myriad of proposals exist, not much has actually happened in European migration policy over the last years apart from the adoption of the reform of the EU Blue Card in 2021 and the entry into force of the European Asylum Agency EUAA replacing the EASO support. Efforts since 2015 have been constantly thwarted by the reluctant attitude of Hungary and Poland. France seems to have succeeded on at least some dossiers in the Council of the EU. European Affairs Manager Jeanette Süß talks to Dr Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, Member of the Bundestag and its EU Affairs Committee and rapporteur for the FDP on migration and asylum.

In contrast to the Commission's proposal for the Pact on Migration and Asylum dating back to September 2020, which foresaw a mandatory solidarity and return partnerships, the Justice and Home Affairs Council which took place on June 9-10 agreed on a "voluntary solidarity mechanism". It is intended to support Mediterranean countries in dealing with asylum seekers. According to the agreement of June 22, not all member states (18 out of 27 plus 3 associated states) are participating. Is this finally the way out of after years of reform deadlock?

I see the very quick activation of the so-called EU mass influx directive after Russia's attack on Ukraine as a success that underpins the EU's crisis resilience. But this should not make us overlook the fact that the second part of the directive - the solidarity mechanism, i.e. the fair distribution of refugees between member states - has not been activated.

So the decision on the voluntary solidarity mechanism is not the way out of the reform deadlock, but it is a first step in the implementation of the new European migration and asylum package. At the beginning of June, Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser still assumed that only 12 to 13 countries would participate in the mechanism - the fact that 18 Member States are on board now is already a small success, even if it would of course be better if all Member States acted together. It is really a pity that some member states only provide financial means instead of relocating refugees. Nevertheless, some progress has now been made on this issue and this sends a signal to the Mediterranean countries that are not left alone with this burden. However, we still have a long way to go and are far from a real common European migration and immigration policy. I don't think the Council's informal rule of only taking such decisions unanimously makes sense. Majority decisions are possible by the treaties and we should discuss this possibility more intensively.

The agreement in the Council is the cornerstone for the start of negotiations with the European Parliament and the Commission. The Czech Republic will have to push the negotiations further in the Council, being the only Visegrád country that committed itself to the voluntary distribution mechanism. How willing do you think the country is to reform?

Certainly, we and the Czech Republic are often far apart in migration policy. But I think that the Czech approval of the voluntary distribution mechanism has shown that there is a will to reform. Of course, the terrible situation in Ukraine partly motivates this willingness. I am convinced that the Czech Republic, as part of the trio presidency with France and Sweden, will stick to the goals set. One of the goals of this trio is to strengthen the Common Asylum and Migration Policy. France advanced the dossier considerably and the Czech Republic will certainly continue to do so - although not necessarily with the same drive.

Another announcement by Emmanuel Macron in December 2021 at the presentation of the French priorities of the Council Presidency in the Elysée Palace, concerns the political control of the Schengen area with a Schengen Council. How can the Schengen Border Code be made more crisis-proof?

The Schengen Council proposed by the French Council Presidency is to serve as a central political body for the exchange on current reforms within the Schengen area and the strategic operational needs of this space of freedom, security and justice. The first meeting of the Schengen Council already took place, at which the barometer proposed by the EU Commission was discussed. This will serve the Schengen Council as a basis for evaluating current and strategic challenges of the Schengen area. Challenges include police and judicial cooperation as well as the external and internal protection of the Schengen area, which came under massive attack during the Corona pandemic.

In addition to the voluntary solidarity mechanism, the Council also agreed on two legislative projects for the protection of Europe's external borders. First, a new procedure at the EU's external borders for identifying persons seeking protection ("screening") and second, the reform of the Eurodac database for taking fingerprints. How do you assess these new reform steps?

One of the major achievements of European integration is the creation of an extensive European area of freedom, security and justice which in particular enables the mobility of people within this area. As a liberal, it is clear to me here that freedom and security must go hand in hand. This means that we certainly have an interest in knowing as quickly as possible who is at our European external borders and who wants to enter the EU via our various entry points. In addition to a quick identification, it is indispensable that the right and timely procedures are initiated for migrants and refugees as quickly as possible or that medical treatments are made available without delay people seeking entry.

It is indisputable - and this is very important to me personally - that the protection of human rights of those seeking protection and residence within Europe is guaranteed at all times. Officials must be well trained and sensitive about these aspects. At the same time, the screening regulation itself must be verified to ensure that it systematically guarantees the protection of human rights. Under no circumstances may illegal push-backs occur and the establishment of precarious or even camp-like conditions at the external borders or the transit zones must be prevented at all costs.

In this sense, I consider the reform of the Eurodac Regulation, which not only allows migrants' fingerprints to be stored centrally and thus made available to the security authorities, but in particular also allows the movement of people to be traced. The Liberals have agreed with their coalition partners in the coalition agreement that the goal must be to reduce secondary migration on the territory of the EU. To this end, the inclusion of biometric fingerprints can help to the extent that abuse of the freedom of movement within the EU can be detected and prevented.

Moments of crisis are often seen as an opportunity to make further progress in EU integration. With the war in Ukraine, the EU adopted the so-called mass influx directive for the first time and very quickly after the Russian attack on 24 February. Intended as temporary protection, it is an emergency mechanism that can be applied in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons to provide immediate and collective protection to those people who cannot return to their country of origin. Why was the directive not already applied in the 2015 crisis situation? What happens to the Ukrainians who have fled after the expiry of the 3-year period, should the war continue?

The EU interior ministers did the right thing in view of the thousands of refugees from Ukraine, ensured fast procedures and rapid arrival in the European host countries. The mass influx directive dates back to 2001 and was drafted in response to the war in Yugoslavia. There are many reasons why this directive was not used since then. One reason is certainly the reluctance of some member states, especially Poland and Hungary, to integrate refugees who arrived in Europe earlier - here the heads of state and government simply could not (and did not want to) agree on offering quick and simple procedures. Not applying the directive beforehand now leads to the unfortunate situation to treat persons who arrive on the European territory differently, even if it is only a question of the speed and simplicity of the procedure as there is no difference here legally speaking.

The resistance by some member states concerning the integration of refugees from certain cultural background is unfortunately the linchpin of why we are not making any progress in European migration and refugee policy. It should also be pointed out that, according to the EU treaties, we have no obligation to vote unanimously on immigration policy - the only custom here is unanimity in the Council. This is the blockade in which we are stuck.

Nevertheless, it should not be underestimated that we are dealing with a completely new dimension of influx of people. In Poland alone, there are currently almost four million Ukrainians who have fled. These numbers are an immense challenge for every administration and every asylum system, and they can only be mastered if regulations are simplified and procedures are shortened across the board.

If the war in Ukraine continues after the three-year deadline - which we can hardly imagine - we will have to see how to deal with it. At the EU level, an extension of the regulation would have to be decided in the same procedure as in March 2022. For the Ukrainians who now live in our country, an easy and smooth access to the German labour market will be decisive after three years and the possibility to stay there, where they feel at home and integrated. This is another reason why we must now speed up the so called ‘points system’ in our immigration law.

Despite the current migration management questions, the EU must also meet an increasing demand for labour force. Do you see a danger that immigration policy and the promotion of legal migration channels is being swept under the carpet? For instance, in 2020, the EU Commission's  proposal still included the idea of an EU-wide talent pool, what is the current state of the art of the initiative?

According to its own plans, the EU Commission wants to make a proposal for the introduction of a talent pool by mid-2023. FDP welcomes this very much as we are urgently calling for the introduction of such a talent pool at the European level. This is an important tool for promoting the attractiveness of the European Union and Germany as a host country for foreign workforce. A talent pool offers a simplification of contact and connection building between employer and employee. Both sides can meet quickly, the potential of third-country nationals for the German and European labour market becomes visible and, at the same time, the third-country national can also perceive the attractiveness and diversity of offers and employers in the German economy.

The implementation of these plans will take time due to the protracted reform of the Common Asylum and Migration Policy, which is why the parliamentary group of the Free Democrats in the Bundestag, wants to move forward on the issue and establish a points system to facilitate the entry of workers. This must be designed in a way that it can be integrated into the talent pool that will then be created at EU level.

At the same time, the EU has announced that it will launch a talent pool pilot project, which is intended to create prospects for people who have fled from Ukraine within a much shorter time horizon and to bring people into appropriate employment here, also as a measure of integration and as a sign of a European welcome culture, in order to give them the possibility of a self-determined and adequate life in Europe. We will also be watching this project very closely. Personally, I am pleased that an attempt is being made here to open up prospects as quickly and comprehensively as possible for Ukrainians affected by the war.

Dr Jurisch, thank you very much for the interview!