EU leaders take refuge in compromise

21 Oct 99
Last weekend, the European Union made its first attempt to develop 'an area of freedom, security and justice'. EU leaders gathered at a special summit in Tampere, Finland, to commit to a common approach on immigration, asylum-seekers and judicial policy..

22 October 1999

Their draft conclusions promised a great deal. A leaked version talked of harmonised conditions of reception for asylum-seekers, uniform asylum status across Europe and the establishment of a e250m (£163m) fund to help EU states facing a major influx of refugees.

EU leaders also proposed abolishing lengthy extradition proceedings, greater co-operation to capture the 'Mr Bigs' of international crime and establishing a EU-wide body, Eurojust, to fight organised crime.

By Saturday afternoon, however, it was clear that disagreement was delaying publication of the final conclusions. The British delegation, involving Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Home Secretary Jack Straw, was not keen on the word 'harmonisation' in the clause on asylum-seeking. It also did not favour the 'burden-sharing' implications of the designated fund.

So the final, watered-down agreement called instead for 'common minimum conditions of reception' and 'common asylum procedure'. The idea of a fund was reduced to a promise that 'consideration should be given to making some form of financial reserve'.

How much this changed the practical application of the agreement is debatable. But it allowed Blair's delegation to counter Tory party criticisms that it was bowing to federalism. Cook even boasted at a press conference that the word 'harmonisation' did not appear in the final text.

Straw emphasised that 'minimum standards' was the term used in the Amsterdam Treaty, which first proposed creating the area of freedom, security and justice. He said: 'Harmonisation tends to be used in its English context as “uniformity of standards” – so there would be a single text that would have to be applied in each member state. But common standards take account of national differences.'

The agreement aims to tackle the growing number of asylum-seekers across Europe. In 1998, there were 300,000 applications in EU member states, a 20% increase on the previous year. In the UK, from June to August 1999, the average number of applications received was 6,565 a month, 61% up on the equivalent figure in 1998.

Straw said the changes planned at Tampere should lead to fewer unfounded asylum applications, but he admitted that the outcome depended on the level of disruption in countries outside the EU.

He welcomed the endorsement of the principle of 'mutual recognition' whereby court decisions in one member state are recognised throughout the EU. But he denied that the final wording – calling for 'better compatibility and more convergence between the legal systems of member states' – would lead to a single European legal system.

Paavo Lipponen, Finnish prime minister and chair of the meeting, managed to disguise any disappointment at the final outcome. The dour politician did slip once, however, when asked during the final press conference if he was hot. 'I should be boiling,' he said. 'I should have blown my top because they [the talks] were going on so long.'

The Tampere summit was seen in Finland as one of the highlights of the country's current EU presidency. However, it was somewhat overshadowed by the spat between France and the UK over the continuing beef ban. But it should produce some long-term benefits.

Implementation of a common asylum procedure across the EU should put an end to 'asylum shopping', where applicants who are rejected in one country immediately try another. The UK government cited a Romanian national who claimed asylum in ten other European countries before arriving in the UK.

Formal extradition procedures will be abolished and replaced with a simple transfer process for people fleeing from justice after having been finally sentenced. Co-ordinated action on money laundering will take place, Eurojust will fight international crime, and a European Police College will be established.

But one word of warning came from Nicole Fontaine, the president of the European Parliament. She said the creation of an area of freedom, security and justice provided an opportunity to restore public support for the EU. Unlike other Union agreements, this must be achieved within the five-year deadline set out in the Amsterdam Treaty.

'Irrespective of the difficulties involved, what is at stake here is the credibility of the Union, its leaders and its elected representatives in the gaze of citizens who are no longer satisfied with resounding policy statements,' she said.


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