The European: Minister Asselborn, you are Luxembourg’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and Minister for Immigration and Asylum. You are largely known in Europe as the personality embodying the voice of solidarity and humanity.
The pictures of the situation in refugee camps and especially the fire in Lesbos’ camp Moria, where nearly ten thousand people – some infected with Covid-19 – vegetated and then lost their modest shelter, has shocked European societies, but evidently this didn’t matter to some Eastern Member States’ governments refusing even to invite refugees to join their respective countries.
Will the new Asylum and Migration Pact, launched by the President of the European Commission on 23th September, be able to bridge the deep existing gorge on solidarity between willing and unwilling Member States? Minister, what is your first impression of this new pact?
Jean Asselborn: The point of departure is a very difficult one. In 2015, almost all EU Member States agreed on a mandatory relocation mechanism. However, some individual Member States immediately announced that they would refuse to implement this scheme. Nowadays, only a handful continue to voluntarily relocate refugees. The mere concept of European solidarity when it comes to migration management is clearly broken.
While I continue to believe that we should all commit to helping the front-line countries and implement a mandatory mechanism, I also believe that the new pact could be a basis to initiate discussions between Member States and to work towards building renewed trust among us. European inaction produced Moria and we should do everything we can to avoid a repetition of this. It is our European responsibility.
The European: I am wondering if the pact will bring about real change, thinking of the obstinacy of the Visegrád Group Member States’ leaders…
Jean Asselborn: The pact is designed in a way that all parties will find elements they like and others they do not. The European Commission put forward a new balance between solidarity and responsibility. A common space requires common solutions. The pact promotes stricter responsibility rules for the south. In return, Member States from the south can count on the solidarity of other regions. Personally, I think the balance is not there yet. The border procedures risk institutionalising a new generation of mass camps at our borders. If we want to avoid putting too much pressure on the borders, then we need stronger guarantees on solidarity and in particular through compulsory relocation. Real solidarity consists in helping to provide international protection on a fair basis between all Member States.
The European: The coming months will be about squaring the circle.
Jean Asselborn: In that sense, the pact as it was presented by the Commission is only the starting point. It will now be up to the Council and the European Parliament to carve out the details and agree on an approach that would indeed bring real change. For that to happen, we need genuine constructive effort from all actors involved.
If some Member States reject the Commission’s proposals, then those States opt for merely national solutions. What they oppose is simply a common European migration policy. The question is then if we can continue with the Schengen space and European financing as it stands now.
The European: The incommodious question of the Dublin regulations requiring the country of first entry to handle asylum claims was maintained in the new pact. I think the Union is conscious that the burden on these countries is too high.
Will the Union support those countries to be efficient by, for example, EU-owned and operated means, and do you see any chance of a consensus for a new asylum and migration management regulation replacing the Dublin regulations as the Commission is proposing?
Jean Asselborn: Reducing the burden, in particular on Southern European countries, is a responsibility that we as a Union should focus on. The idea of returning those that have no proven right to stay is only one side of the coin. In 2019, one third of all asylum applications in the EU+ area had a positive outcome. At the same time, many people who were given such a positive decision have been waiting to be relocated for months and years. This needs to be addressed urgently. EU-funded or managed facilities on our external borders will be instrumental to ensuring humane conditions and efficient procedures, but they cannot be an end in themselves.
Some Member States have been quick to draw their red lines since the day the Commission came forward with its proposals. This considerably reduces the space for a jointly agreed way forward. The challenge we are facing is huge and by looking back at the past years – and in particular the failure to reach unanimity among the 28 at the European Council in 2018 notably due to Austria – one might be tempted to draw the conclusion that there is no common ground. However, we should not end up in history books as those who gave up before even trying.
The European: The new pact avoids compulsory relocation quotas, the cause of continuous umbrage and a real stumbling block, stopping all progress in the refugees’ distribution in Member States. Might the new flexibility lead to situations where countries choose to sponsor returns of irregular migrants (‘sponsor return’) instead of taking in (relocate) asylum applicants?
Jean Asselborn: Let me be clear: we need an effective and large-scale relocation mechanism with the participation of all Member States. As all want to benefit from Schengen and free movement, I claim that all should participate. You cannot choose the advantages and refuse the burden. It seems clear to me that a situation where only three quarters of Member States pledge return sponsorships or in-kind-support is unacceptable and we need safeguards that this cannot happen. It is difficult for me to empathise with the fact that even on a matter like the relocation of unaccompanied minors that is uncontroversial for me, most Member States look away as if they do not care. In the face of the tragedy in the Moria camp, some of us took our responsibility and relocated all the unaccompanied minors from Lesbos. Whether European solidarity can be flexible is up for discussion, but it cannot be partial and voluntary.
The European: Thank you, Minister, for this interview.
The interview was led by Hartmut Bühl.