Politics & The World

by Andrea Przybyla

Today, the European Commission unveiled its long awaited proposal to reform European asylum rules. “The Dublin looks like Jon Snow stabbed on a table and dead for a couple of days…this reform is the essential thing we need to do to get Jon Snow off the table”, said Frans Timmermans, Commission Vice-President, who put forward two possible visions a month ago: one aiming to completely overhaul the current system, while the other option would largely keep the existing rules.[1]

But how true is the statement that Dublin is dead and off the table? The final proposal is supposed to ensure that the EU is equipped with an improved system that is both sustainable and fair. It incorporates an automated system to monitor the number of asylum applications each Member State receives and a reference key helping to determine when one Member State is under disproportionate pressure, followed by a fairness mechanism to alleviate that pressure.[2] Behind the Commission’s recipe for success hides a submission of the EU to national leaders as well as a failure of European solidarity. Disappointing as it is, it leaves critics of the system, particularly the controversial first-country-of-entry principle, behind with their expectations unfulfilled presenting only a mid-term solution.

National governments, particularly Eastern European states, vehemently oppose the idea of a fair re(distribution) of asylum seekers. The fear that the reform could face the same fate as last year’s plan to redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy is great among EU diplomats. So far, only 1,100 have been relocated, which is not only a mockery of European solidarity, but also a sharp blow to the EU institutions.

In place since the 1990’s, the Dublin Regulation forms the core of the EU legal framework on asylum. It has two main aims: to establish a common framework for determining which EU country decides on an asylum seeker’s application, and to ensure that only one state processes each application. Controversial from the beginning, Dublin has now proven to be a defective tool, while the unprecedented scale of the refugee crisis has become a test for the European Union in itself. Last year, more than 1.2 million refugees entered EU territory.[3] During the biggest movement of migrants since the end of the Second World War, Member States took matters into their own hands, with many too worried about the threat of uncontrolled immigration and unwilling to show solidarity with those situated on the front line.

The Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán promoted the idea of a ‘Fortress Europe’, arguing that ‘European leaders had no mandate to let hundreds of thousands of migrants enter the EU with little or no control’ and that ‘[t]his [would] destabilise European democracies’.[4] The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, promoted a fundamentally different approach of crisis management: in October 2015, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) announced its intention to cease applying Dublin rules to Syrian refugees and halt all deportations to other EU countries for almost 2 months.[5] After Germany had suspended the Dublin rules, the system became de facto obsolete.

For years, critics have been claiming that the Dublin system is an expensive and ineffective regime, unfair both to bordering countries as well as migrants. Only a few “lucky” countries located at the periphery of the EU, among them Greece, Malta and Italy, dealt with 72% of all asylum applications. According to the Dublin rules, the first EU state of entry is responsible for processing an asylum application. This procedure, in fact, leaves no room for a fair distribution of refugees.

A recast of the legislation is long overdue. For many it seems that the EU has failed lamentably in the past months. Member States have returned to nationalism and isolationism. The first option, presented last month, of scrapping the Dublin system by creating a new mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers based on a country’s wealth and ability to absorb newcomers was definitely a welcome step, but that’s water under the bridge now.

The fact that European countries struggle with the smallest changes to tackle the crisis seems to suggest that the political will is insufficient and that Europe is not ready for a more centralized asylum system.[6] This was a decisive factor for the Commission when coming up with the more prudent final proposal. It is clear that, despite many efforts, the EU seems to have significant difficulties in taming its member states, moving further away from a solution than ever.

The remaining option, which forms the foundation for future reform, sticks to the old system. By adding a corrective fairness mechanism to the existing rules, refugees could be redistributed around the Union with the aim to take pressure of bordering countries. Non-complying Member States can face sanctions of € 250,000 per applicant that will have to be paid to the country which takes on the responsibility in their place.

The moral of the story? More Europe and less nation sate remains a daydream. As long as there exists stiff resistance from the Member States, the EU will be trapped in the vicious circle of status quo from which it will be difficult to escape in the future. The hope that the much criticized Dublin system might bite the dust once and for all dies with today’s proposal. Whether the new system will be fairer and based on solidarity, as promised by the Commission, will be seen in the future. And let’s not forget that the proposal will not be spared from resistance of EU Member States opposing the idea of a pecuniary “solidarity payment”.


[1] http://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/commission-says-eu-dublin-rules-as-dead-as-jon-snow-from-game-of-thrones/ 

[2] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-1621_en.htm

[3] http://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/eu-to-announce-overhaul-of-dublin-rules-for-asylum-seekers/

[4] http://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/orban-slams-eu-migration-policies-ahead-of-juncker-s-mini-summit/

[5]  http://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/germany-suspends-dublin-agreement-for-syrian-refugees/

[6] http://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/eu-to-announce-overhaul-of-dublin-rules-for-asylum-seekers/


Image by European Parliament, taken from flickr

Pitching Europe

The European Union (EU) is facing a deep political crisis. With increasing pressure coming from the refugee crisis, with an in-or-out referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU approaching and with the risk for the Schengen area of dissolving, the EU’s political integration process is once again called into question.

As Eurobarometer data for the last decade shows, the percentage of citizens believing that the EU membership is not benefiting their country is on the increase along with the number of individuals who feel ‘mistrust’ and ‘anxiety’ towards the EU. In the eyes of European citizens, the EU is often seen as a remote institution, which lacks the political will to reform and make a difference in their daily lives. For years, European leaders have blamed ‘Brussels’ for their troubles at home and criticised its ‘behind-closed-doors’ decision-making process. Consequently, citizens’ engagement and participation in European politics has progressively been dropping as shown by the trend of voter turnout at the European Parliament elections, because they feel like their voice is not being heard.

Two issues have been identified by the 1989 Generation Initiative as significantly contributing to the EU’s lack of legitimacy. On the one hand, the lobbying industry is inadequately regulated and largely dominated by the most resourceful multinationals. They have greater access to decision-makers to promote their interests and as a result, lobbying activities are mostly confined to the same portfolios such as Energy, Digital Economy and Financial Markets. On the other hand, the Spitzenkandidaten system used in the 2014 European elections has shown signs that campaign personalisation increases voter turnout. However, several problems hampered the last elections and need to be adjusted. The process of nomination of the President of the European Commission needs more visibility, more authority and a greater European dimension to fully reach its potential.

The 1989 Generation Initiative has elaborated two policy proposals that aim to improve the transparency, accountability and representativeness of the European Union.

We call for the introduction of a mandatory register of lobbying activity applicable to all EU institutions (European Parliament, European Council and the European Commission) to increase transparency in the dealings between EU decision makers and outside interests. In the new system, all human resources and capital invested in lobbying by registrants will need to be declared as well as additional information about involvement in EU committees, forums, intergroups or similar structures. The objective is to create a ‘legislative footprint’ that include public records of all meetings and external inputs during the legislative consultation process. In practice, the ‘Transparency Register Secretariat’ will be attributed additional resources and will be in charge of managing the register, of running checks and of imposing sanctions whenever the rules are infringed.

By making the institutions more transparent and holding actors responsible for their actions and decisions, the EU will earn the support and trust of its citizens. In the words of the European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans “It is just as important to enable citizens to know who we meet and why, as it is for the Commission to maintain an open and regular dialogue with stakeholders”. Moreover, the more open the EU decision-making process is, the easier it is to ensure balanced representation and avoid undue pressure and illegitimate or privileged access to information and decision-makers. We believe this reform will encourage a larger variety of external actors to get involved.

Transparency, accountability and representativeness are fundamental to encourage European citizens to participate more actively in the political life of the EU. To this aim, we also propose the direct election of the European Commission (EC) President.  By fully incorporating the Spitzenkandidaten procedure in the European Parliament (EP) elections, the candidate of the majority parliamentary group will automatically be appointed as the president of the EC. Such a revolutionary institutional reform will enable European citizens to hold both the EP majority parliamentary group and the president of the EC accountable for their actions and to sanction or reward them every five years. The message we advocate is the importance to give European citizens a voice in deciding the direction of the EU and ensuring that this reflects the will of European citizens. As the candidates for EC president will be elected on the basis of their European parliamentary group and political standings, citizens will be better able to better understand the programmes of candidates and make an informed decision about the future of the EU, being less vulnerable to populist rhetoric.

With these two reform proposals, we envisage that the ‘access to voice’ and ‘access to information’ to all European citizens will be fundamentally boosted. This is a critical step forward to enable European citizens to engage with EU politics and fully be part of the European project.

Politics & The World

by Viktoria Grzymek

Like many other Europeans, I have anxiously followed the developments in Polish politics in the past weeks. As a child of Polish parents, born and raised in Germany, Poland has always been close to my heart. In the last 23 years, I visited my family in Poland regularly,  and I have been able to witness an almost fairytale-like transformation. When crossing the German-Polish border in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was able to see and feel Poland’s relative “backwardness” in terms of economic well-being. I was also confronted with the prejudicial image of Poland being a country of alcoholics and cleaning ladies, where farmers still use horse carts to plough their fields, quite often during my childhood in Germany.

All of this started to change in 2004 with Poland’s accession to the European Union. What has come to be one of the most decisive factors was the massive inflow of EU funds. In the period 2007-2013, Poland received 102 billion euros from EU funds. Even more interestingly, Poland managed to increase that sum to 106 billion euros for 2014-2020, even though the EU’s financial framework as a whole was reduced. Leaving the numbers aside and putting it into plain words: For 14 years in a row (2007-2020), Poland has been and will remain the largest net beneficiary of EU funds.

This massive structural programme has had several effects. One of them was that Polish citizens were able to develop a close relationship to the EU, as they saw signs stating “This project has been financed by EU funds” on many corners of their streets. Poland’s structural progress induced other positive developments. Tourists began to cross the open borders and my friends, relatively ignorant to Poland only a few years earlier, began to spend their Erasmus semesters in Krakow or Warsaw. The UEFA EURO 2012 has certainly also played a role in changing Poland’s image to a truly European country.

Economically, Poland began to prosper. In the first years of the Euro crisis, Poland was the only EU country with positive economic growth. The unemployment rate was nearly halved between 2003 and 2013 and the quality of life increased. Politically, Poland developed from a “new” member state to a significant player within the EU. Although, with Lech Kaczyński being President (2005-2010), Poland did not necessarily have the reputation of a constructive partner. This changed, however, under Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Bronisław Komorowski who brought political stability to the country and promoted Poland’s standing. When the Ukraine crisis erupted, Poland was considered a relevant strategic partner, next to the usual big players of Germany, France and Russia – a power political novelty in the EU. And since 2014 Donald Tusk is the first Eastern European President of the European Council- cementing 12 successful years of EU membership.

These accomplishments are now being challenged. In October 2015, the Polish people gave its majority to the national-conservative party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Pis – Law and Justice) and thereby heralded the start of a new political era. Gone is the Poland that wanted to have a say in Europe – one of the first official acts of Prime Minister Beata Szydło was to remove the European flag from her government press briefings. The next step was to curtail the powers of the constitutional tribunal by staffing it with PiS confidants and raising the threshold for decisions to a two-thirds majority. Critics fear that this will prevent the tribunal from fulfilling its role as an independent supervisory body, as such a majority will be hard to reach. The Polish government proceeded unhesitatingly to its next project and took control of the public media by means of a new media law.

Thankfully, the Polish people took to the streets, demonstrating for free media and opposing the decisions of the government. These large-scale public protests encouraged me, bringing the Polish national anthem, with its dramatic title “Poland is Not Yet Lost”, to my mind. No, Poland is not yet lost. Nonetheless, it has to be borne in mind that this government was elected by a majority and that Polish society is split. On the one hand, there are young, modern, educated people, wanting to be part of an open Europe. On the other hand, however, there is also a large conservative, often Catholic, share of the population – the main target and voter group of PiS – which did not reap all benefits EU membership and globalisation have allegedly brought.

Many European politicians have expressed their concerns in the last days, which has been perceived in Poland as interference in domestic affairs. Being a member of the EU does certainly not mean that a country loses its sovereignty. Being a member of the EU does, however, neither mean that you can trample on fundamental European rights. And therefore I believe that it is good that EU Commissioner Timmermans announced to carry out a rule-of-law monitoring in Poland yesterday. Considering that it is the first time the Commission makes use of this instrument, it remains to be seen how effective it will be. Prime Minister Szydło in any case reacted on this announcement by saying that Poland will not carry out its foreign policy “on its knees” and that it will not consider partnership in the EU as a privilege but as Poland’s right. If the PiS government does indeed value rights that much, it should reconsider its actions. In the meantime, to save its place in Europe, internal criticism from Polish civil society and external criticism from the EU should not cease.

Final note: It seems like the pro-PiS media propaganda is starting. Check out the cover of the Polish news magazine “Wprost”, depicting Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz, Guy Verhofdstad, and Günther Öttinger in Nazi uniforms…


Image by Grzegorz Zukowski, taken from flickr