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by Philippe de Bruycker, Odysseus Network  Odysseus

The blog post below presents the agenda of our next annual conference that will take place on Friday 10 February 2017 in the European Commission, Brussels. This event is organised with the support of the Representation of the European Commission in Belgium in the framework of the OMNIA Project.

If the crisis started in 2015, one may wonder if 2016 really saw its end with the decrease in the numbers of migrants and asylum seekers following the Balkan Route on their way to the EU. The Odysseus Network has decided to devote its 2017 Annual Conference to different issues closely related to this crisis because of its deep influence on the course of the Migration and Asylum Policy. Before looking at the very diverse issues on the programme, it is necessary to better understand which crisis we actually face(d).

Hence, we have asked two of our colleagues to engage for the opening plenary session in a dialogue on the basis of the articles that both published in the Common Market Law Review in 2016: Thomas Spijkerboer with “Coercion, prohibition and great expectations: the continuing failure of the Common European Asylum System” (CEAS) (link) and Daniel Thym with “The refugee crisis as a challenge of legal design and institutional legitimacy” (link).

The authors agree that this crisis  is not a “refugee crisis” because of the numbers of persons arriving, but a crisis of the European asylum policy due to the way the EU deals with the unprecedented number of refugees it received,  which revealed structural deficiencies as well as a problem of integration through law. Both look for possible solutions in the same direction, in particular towards a greater role and the strengthening of EU agencies (Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO)) while underlining, however, that there are several legal obstacles to a centralisation of competences at EU level or that such a federalisation is only realistic as a long-term perspective.

Spijkerboer considers a much more modest alternative with “a novel system following the example of the proposal for a European Public Prosecutor’s Office under which delegates of the European Agencies would operate within specific Member States subject to the control of national courts” which refers to the collaboration between the Greek administration and Frontex/EASO emerging in hotspots  that will be discussed during Workshop 4 (see below). He concludes that the EU response is likely to make the crisis worse because it does not reconsider the very foundations of the CEAS: “coercion towards asylum seekers, prohibition of travelling from third countries to the European Union and unrealistic expectations of what border controls can achieve”.

Thym’s conclusion is only a bit more optimistic: due to the lack of a consensus about asylum, he considers that the EU  lives a constitutional moment in which conceptual foundations are reconfigured between the option of the ‘welcome culture’ epitomised by the initial policy of the Merkel Government and the restrictive approach symbolised by the closure of the Balkan route, all the while fearing that this process may be complicated due to populist contestation.

After this introduction, nine workshops will follow, gathering well known academics and high level practitioners from Member States, the European Commission, the European External Action Service and EU agencies (Frontex and EASO), as well as judges and attorneys, representatives of NGOs and international organisations (UNHCR, ICMPD). The diverse issues on the agenda follow three streams, each proposing a different approach in order to critically analyse policy and legal developments in 2016 while also reviewing ongoing initiatives.

Stream 1: “Cooperation between Member States”:

Commissioner Avramopoulos for Home Affairs and Migration said on 6 October 2016: “From now onwards, the external EU border of one Member State is the external border of all Member States – both legally and operationally. In less than one year we have established a fully-fledged European Border and Coast Guard system, turning into reality the principles of shared responsibility and solidarity among the Member States and the Union”. 

The words highlighted in this quotation are highly contestable: while the European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) may indeed be a new model, it is unfortunately built on an old logic according to which each Member State remains in control of its external borders. It represents progress on some aspects, but remains in contradiction with Article 80 TFEU (see below) and is no more than another step forward, in line with the ‘incremental method’ of the European integration process. Actually, the name Frontex remains in use as if no overhaul of the policy had taken place, the new Agency being a kind of ‘Frontex plus’ rather than a genuine EBCG (see for the latest developments the Commission Communication of 25 January 2017 on the operationalisation of the EBCG).

• Workshop n° 1 devoted to the European Border and Coast Guard will bring together academics, such as Jorg Monar and Jorrit Rijpma, author of a report on the Commission proposal for the European Parliament, who will engage in a critical dialogue with practitioners. As underlined by Lilian Tsourdi in a paper titled “Bottom-up Salvation? From Practical ooperation towards Joint Implementation”, the discussion about the level of ambition for the EBCG is also relevant for those interested by the supposed transformation of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) into a “European Asylum Agency” that is currently debated by the Parliament and the Council on the basis of a Commission proposal.

• Workshop n°4 is centred on EU Agencies and hotspots seen as part of the gradual emergence of a “European integrated administration” following the words of Lilian Tsourdi presenting this issue on our blog. Hotspots (analysed on this blog by Francesco Maiani) have been conceived as registration and relocation centres, but have evolved into detention centres for processing asylum claims and returning people. This workshop does not aim at underlining the legitimate concerns for human rights that this situation generates (as underlined by a report by ECRE), but will rather analyse how national administrations collaborate with EU agencies such as Frontex and EASO under European administrative law. The workshop places the emphasis on Greece where the involvement of Frontex and EASO in joint processing has been officially recognised in national law.

This raises complex legal questions in EU and national law that will be introduced by Lilian Tsourdi who will present the results of cutting-edge research where she underlines the limits of the European administration in establishing a Common Asylum system.

• Workshop n°7 is about relocation. The failure of this new scheme is blatant despite the recent increase in the number of relocated asylum seekers, as signaled by the Commission in its 8th report on the issue. Relocation has generated political controversies, to the point that two Member States decided to ask the Court of Justice for their annulment.

This workshop aims to explore the reasons behind the failure of this new instrument of physical solidarity between Member States from a legal and technical point of view. This is significant because the Commission has included a permanent relocation mechanism in its proposal for Dublin IV and because the issue of solidarity remains high on the political agenda of the Maltese Presidency after the failed attempt of the Slovak Presidency to promote its idea of flexible or effective solidarity. The EU is thus still desperately searching for solidarity in EU asylum and borders policies, as explained in the papers and podcasts published after our last annual conference in 2016.

Stream 2: “Protection of persons in the European Union”:

• Workshop n° 2 will examine the judicial protection of migrants detained for the purpose of return. It is well known that the Return Directive allows for detention up to a maximum of 18 months, but several conditions have to be fulfilled to justify such a long period. Judicial scrutiny clearly is an essential element to ensure that the legal limits and procedural guarantees are respected in practice. The results of two research projects (“Contention” and “Redial” including a database) involving a European network of judges carried out by the Odysseus Network with the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) of the EUI and the financial support of the European Return Fund will be presented. They investigate in particular the implications that the status of judges (administrative, civil, criminal) may have on their control of the administration and judicial interactions, not only vertically as in the procedure of preliminary rulings involving the Court of Justice, but also horizontally between judges of different Member States. This contribution to the debate will interest all those concerned by the return policy that the EU would like to strengthen with a new action plan on return or even by envisaging amendments to the Return Directive.

• Workshop n° 5 will look at the next generation of asylum legislation  proposed by the European Commission in 2016 (apart for the proposal on Dublin IV analysed in the next workshop). One has to remember that the completion of the CEAS was celebrated in 2013 with the adoption of the second generation of asylum instruments. The proposals for more legislation therefore appear as a surprise.

Actually, the Commission no longer proposes harmonisation by means of directives but rather unification through regulations on qualification and asylum procedures. One should however check if the content of those proposals keeps these promises. Moreover, as legislation appeared almost useless during the “crisis”, one may wonder if more legislation is really what the EU needs. The CEAS is indeed not limited to legislative harmonisation but encompasses other important elements such as institutional cooperation between Member States – an issue that has already been tackled in the book “Reforming the Common European Asylum System: The New European Refugee Lawpublished by the Odysseus Network in 2016 as the outcome of our 7th European Conference.

This workshop aims at discussing the policy model inspiring the Commission proposals regarding reception conditions for asylum seekers, qualification of persons eligible for protection, and asylum procedures, on the basis of a report presented by Steve Peers (the founder of the successful blog EU Law Analysis, where migration and asylum issues are often covered). Vincent Chetail (the Odysseus Member for Switzerland) has already opened the debate with a paper “looking behind the rhetoric of the “refugee crisis” analysing the seven legislative proposals presented by the Commission and concluding that the reform will fail because it exacerbates the systemic flaws of the CEAS underlined by Spijkerboer (see above).

• Workshop n° 8 will be devoted to an analysis of the Commission proposal for a Dublin IV Regulation.

The Dublin system appeared to be dead during the period of the ‘crisis’, but it has apparently been resurrected with the Commission proposal for a Dublin IV Regulation as if it really was the “cornerstone” without which it is impossible to conceive a CEAS. The system of responsibility distribution behind Dublin is however considered a big part of the problem not only in times of crisis (even Germany is considered by some lawyers as having violated EU law by deciding not to apply anymore the Dublin system during the night of 4 to 5 September 2015), but also under normal circumstances (there is indeed a contradiction in a system of responsibility determination built for preserving the national competence of Member States for the implementation of a Europeanised common asylum system). The problem is even bigger as the proposal for Dublin IV could, if adopted, worsen the defects of the Dublin III Regulation currently applicable, following analyses published on our blog (see Hruschkas blog in English or in French, and Di Filippo’s blog).

The debate will be introduced by Francesco Maiani  who is the author of a  report prepared for the European Parliament on the Dublin IV proposal, that includes also ideas for alternative models to the Dublin system. In order to learn more about the negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament regarding the Commission proposal, we have the honor and pleasure to announce that the workshop will involve MEP Cecilia Wikström, Rapporteur on Dublin IV for the LIBE Committee.

Stream 3:   “Management of migration flows”:

• Workshop n° 3 will scrutinise the developments of a second generation of European databases after the creation of the SIS, VIS and Eurodac  due to the transnational terrorist attacks against several EU Member States. As already underlined on our blog, EU legislation appears to have recently acknowledged the need for massive surveillance with the adoption of the PNR Directive and the systematic check of all EU citizens at the crossing of external borders against the Schengen information System (SIS) to detect movements of foreign fighters. Also to be mentioned are the proposals for the creation of a system registering all third-country nationals upon entry and exit at the external borders (EES) and of a EU system of travel authorisation (ETIAS) that will cover all persons not registered in the Visa Information System (VIS), imitating the ESTA system put in place by the US.

This evolution from “securitisation” of migration to “securitisation” of mobility resulting in a blurring of the distinction between citizens and foreigners will be analysed against the background of the groundbreaking jurisprudence that the CJEU is forging nowadays in cases such as DRI, Schrems and Tele2 Sverige. This will be done by a research duo from Queen Mary University in London made of Valsamis Mitsilegas and Niovi Vavoula. What is at stake seems to be the compatibility of mass surveillance as such with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. If this has finally been accepted by the political actors (in particular recently the European Parliament), judges will sooner or later have to rule explicitly about this issue that is (or was?) one of the pronounced differences between the EU and the US to date.

• Workshop n° 6 will be devoted to the proposal reforming the existing Blue Card Directive that is almost the only point of the European agenda regarding legal migration. After having considered that new legislation was premature in a report of 2014, the Commission pushed by its new President presented in June 2016 a proposal to reform the Directive. It has been positively evaluated on our blog, but what is at stake now is the compromise on the Commission proposal that will be negotiated between the Council and the Parliament. The hope is that its content will not be too hollowed out by the Council, which explains the past failure of Directive 2009/50. The change from the intergovernmental to the “community” method introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon in the area of legal migration should allow the European Parliament to fight under the co-decision procedure for a compromise with  real added value.

Philippe De Bruycker will introduce the workshop by analysing the Commission proposal and the respective positions of Council and Parliament before a discussion with a rich panel of practitioners from the OECD, the bar, the Belgian Aliens Office and the Unit for Legal Migration and Integration from DG Home affairs of the European Commission. Among the key issues are the definition of a highly skilled worker (is it not too large with the risk that the mechanism to favour admission will therefore not be ambitious enough?), the acceptance of true harmonisation with the replacement of national schemes by a real European one (will Member States accept to loose the possibility to compete between between themselves?) and the provisions on the mobility of Blue Card holders to allow them to benefit from freedom of movement in line with the objective of article 79, 2, b) TFEU (will the EU manage to extend this freedom to highly skilled third country workers as it did for intra-corporate transferees (ICTs) under Directive 2014/66, in a moment when even the freedom of movement of EU citizens is challenged by Brexit?). In case of success, the EU will still have to explain to the rest of the world that it has this time created a real Blue Card, unlike Directive 2009/50

The so-called “external dimension” is at the core of the European agenda on migration, with the EU more than ever looking for external solutions to the crisis. Everybody has in mind the deal with Turkey of 18 March 2016 (see several analyses on the Odysseus blog) considered – rightly or wrongly – as the element that solved the crisis and even as a possible blueprint for new agreements with other countries. The focus is for the moment on the “Central Mediterranean Route” and the situation in Libya as underlined by the European Council on 3 February 2017 in its Malta Declaration over the external aspects of migration. Workshop n°9 will focus on the new European Partnership Framework with third countries presented by the Commission in a Communication of 7 June 2016. The five main target countries under this scheme (Senegal, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, and Ethiopia) located along the route passing through sub-Saharan countries towards Libya, reflect the EU’s fear that this failed State is becoming an increasingly important departure point for maritime migration using Italy as an entry door to the EU.

Even for observers paying careful attention to policy developments, this partnership framework appeared by surprise because it replaced without explanation the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility, which was the framework previously governing the external relations of the EU and its Member States in this area. The new partnership framework is a less global approach than before as it puts greater emphasis on the idea of “stemming the flows” through the fight against illegal migration. The nexus between migration and development again seems to be at the core of the debate with the return of several questions like: does more development really mean less migration? Is it wise to use development aid to sanction third countries that are not ready to cooperate in the fight against illegal migration? Is development money diverted to the management of migration flows through new financial instruments? (see an extremely critical report of the European Parliament on the EU Trust Fund for Africa and its implications for development and humanitarian aid). Finally, it is the meaning and limits of the notion of development in relation with migration policy that is at stake, as illustrated by the case C-377/12 of the Court of Justice concerning its link with the issues of readmission of illegal migrants.

The workshop will benefit from the participation of high level practitioners such as Georgia Papagianni from the European External Action Service (EEAS) who has contributed to the first and second reports evaluating the results of the new partnership framework. The controversial issue of “humanitarian” visas as a means for asylum seekers to join the EU in a legal and safe manner, which is at the core of the discussions between the Council and Parliament regarding the revision of the European Visa Code, will also be presented by Violeta Moreno-Lax, who was awarded this year the Odysseus prize for the best publication by a young researcher. The recent refusal of such visas by Belgium to a Syrian family generated a question for a preliminary ruling by the Belgian Council of Aliens Law Litigation that will give rise to a potentially very interesting case from the CJEU in the next months under the urgent procedure. This is already documented by our colleague Thomas Spijkerboer, the Dutch Member of the Odysseus Network, who gave a legal advice in this case.

The conference will end with a second plenary session during which, after a statement by Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica, several personalities will react to the conclusions of the three streams of workshops: Allan Rosas (judge at  European Court of Justice),  Jean-Louis De Brouwer (Director at DG ECHO who has been one of the architects of the European migration and asylum policies), Liz Collet (Director of the Migration Policy Institute-Europe) and Sophie Magennis (Head of Unit at the Bureau For Europe of the UNHCR).

The hope is that the conference will contribute to understanding whether 2017 could be the year in which EU Member States will manage to “broaden EU consensus on long term migration policy and apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity” following one of the objectives of the Bratislava Roadmap. The European Council stated in its conclusions of 15 December 2016 that “sustained efforts over the past months to review the CEAS have shown some areas of convergence, while other areas require further work. (…) the Council is invited to continue the process with the aim of achieving consensus on the EU’s asylum policy during the incoming Presidency”. One can easily guess that “the areas requiring further work” actually stand for those that remain the object of strong and persistent divergent views, meaning essentially solidarity.

The supposed “principles of responsibility and solidarity” used by the European Council to build its political reflection on the future of the EU, are not in line with the Treaties, according to which the migration and asylum policies are governed by “the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility” (article 80 TFEU), which is not exactly the same as I have argued in this blog. Observing such misunderstanding about one of the key constitutional principles of the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice by the Heads of State or Government who have simply scratched some words of a Treaty provision does not lead to much optimism. Nonetheless, I would be pleased to acknowledge that I was wrong when we meet at the beginning of 2018 for the next Odysseus Annual Conference.

Even if we know that it is not about a refugee or asylum crisis but a deeper and even existential crisis for the EU, it is nevertheless positive that the more critical moments have passed because of the reactions in favour of the European fortress that they provoked at national level. It could be that the years 2015-2016 will later appear as another crisis that allowed the EU to progress towards more integration. However, continuing with business as usual is risky because it is unlikely that the EU will be ready to face another crisis with the reforms engaged up to date.

Sooner or later, the EU Member States will have to consider crucial and profound changes because the classical principle of indirect administration, according to which EU legislation is implemented at national level, does not work anymore for migration and asylum policies, in particular because the Member States do not all face the same difficulties in this area. Intrinsically linked to the lack of solidarity that appears extremely difficult to overcome, this is a challenge of an institutional nature that the EU will have to face in the future, which brings us back to the subject of the introductory session devoted to the type of crisis the EU is passing through. Searching for solutions to an existential crisis in the outside world through a so-called “new” partnership framework with third countries can maybe provide a period of rest, but the EU will eventually have to find real solutions within its Member States if it does not want to fail in the face of present and future challenges.