EU countries have agreed on crucial reforms of the bloc’s asylum and migration system that after seven years of gridlocked talks would allow certain applications to be processed more quickly in border facilities.
At a meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday, home affairs ministers worked out technical details that could potentially have implications for the rights of people seeking asylum, with Italy and Germany playing pivotal roles in the final hours.
Ministers finally agreed to make it possible to send to third countries deemed safe those people whose asylum applications had been declined. Germany had pushed for safeguards to prevent them being sent to places with which they had no connection, while Rome argued for looser criteria to make deportations easier.
The final compromise cites human rights safeguards, but gives individual member states more leeway in deciding whether a third country qualifies as safe.
Negotiations to reform the EU’s asylum and migration rules had been stuck since the European Commission first proposed an overhaul in 2016, with rising migration numbers increasing the pressure for a deal.
The main faultlines ran between southern countries such as Italy and Greece, which under the current rules are in charge of registering many of those arriving seeking asylum, and northern countries as in Germany or the Netherlands, to which many of them travel on.
“Today, a lot of migrants enter the European territory without any control and they travel from one state to another,” Nicole De Moor, Belgium’s state secretary for migration, told the Financial Times. “And this makes our system very difficult to handle. We need more solidarity among European member states and we need a system that is better controlled.”
The compromise now foresees procedures lasting up to six months at border facilities for people whose asylum claims are seen as having a lower chance of being approved.
Unaccompanied minors would be exempt from this process, but families with children could be dealt with at the bloc’s external border and held in facilities there.
About 30,000 mandatory spaces are intended for this across the EU filled on a rolling basis. Southern states, including Italy, pushed through a yearly cap on how many “border procedures” they would have to carry out.
The ministers also backed a solidarity mechanism to share the burden between countries. Nations can choose either to take in people in need of protection who are relocated, or pay money into a common fund. A minimum of 30,000 people, or €600mn, should be distributed per year.
The relationship with Tunisia, from where departures to Europe have risen in recent months, was also discussed. A package of financial assistance for that country is under discussion as well as a potential agreement with Tunis to limit numbers, said people familiar with the talks.
EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni and Mark Rutte, leader of the Netherlands, will travel to Tunisia on Sunday.
Human rights organisations fear the reforms could lead to increased detentions at the borders and curtail access to asylum and human rights.
Imogen Sudbery of the International Rescue Committee told the Financial Times: “Nobody should be returned to a potentially unsafe country until they’ve had a very full and thorough examination of their claim and given full appeal rights, which is [an] area that could potentially be hollowed out by border procedures.”
The EU has funded reception centres on the Greek islands, where the border procedure is already being implemented. The European ombudsman last year launched an investigation into the centres because of suspected abuses of fundamental rights.
Sudbery said a blanket application of the expedited procedure, especially in the cases of children, could “reduce and kind of hollow out the rights to which they are entitled”.
The deal clinched by the member states still needs to be negotiated with the European parliament over the next months, meaning many of the provisions worked out by the ministers might be reopened.
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