Europe is a ‘continent of immigration’, which needs to open legal immigration channels, says Martin Schulz. He calls for a fairer distribution of refugees within the EU. Neither is likely to happen soon, experts say.
Within a period of only ten days, almost 400 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to the European Union earlier this month. Martin Schulz is now calling on Europeans to radically rethink the EU’s asylum policy.
The President of the European Parliament wants to see the focus shifted: the EU should discourage people from embarking on routes of irregular immigration– by opening more legal immigration channels.
"Europe has to recognize at last that it’s a continent of immigration," Schulz said in an interview with the online edition of German news magazine Spiegel. "That’s why we need a legal immigration system. All big regions of immigration on this planet, be it the US, Australia or Canada, have modern laws which regulate legal immigration."
The Blue Card flop
The Green group in the European Parliament has campaigned for more legal immigration channels into the EU for years. "Currently, the EU only has only one real legal way of immigration, and that’s the Blue Card," confirmed Ska Keller, the group’s spokeswoman for migration policy, "and that’s only for highly qualified people."
The Blue Card, inspired by the US’ Green Card system and with a reference to the EU’s blue color in the flag, however, has received much criticism since it was formally adopted in the EU as a directive in 2009: it’s up to every member state to decide the application criteria itself. And some countries have still not transposed the rules of the directive into national law – even though the deadline was two years ago. "The one thing that the system has in common across the EU is that the Blue Card is for the highly skilled with a very high income," said Ska Keller.
Indeed, requirements are tough: in addition to valid travel documents and job qualification papers, applicants for the Blue Card have to prove that they have a work contract or a binding job offer with a salary of at least 1.5 times the average annual salary paid in the member state. But one year after it was introduced in Germany, for example, the new system is widely considered a ‘flop’ there: a mere 139 Blue Cards were issued in the first two months.
And there are even fewer legal opportunities to enter the EU for medium-skilled or low-skilled workers. "In terms of legal migration, Europeans are focused on selected migration, l’immigration choisie, as President Sarkozy put it," confirmed Liz Collett from the Migration Policy Institute Europe, a Brussels-based think tank, saying the slogan in the EU was "'we want the best and the brightest, we want the most skilled people, and legal channels for others are very limited."
Over the past few decades, said Collett, Europeans had developed concerns, "substantiated or otherwise, that people are coming to Europe to game the system. Those fears that people could be taking advantage of European generosity play into a political decision to be strict about who has access to Europe."
In addition, Europe was facing different challenges in comparison to the US, Australia or Canada: "In terms of geography," said migration researcher Liz Collett, "there are some distinct differences in that Europe is basically contiguous on a number of developing regions of the world, whether it is eastern Europe and Eurasia, northern Africa or sub-Saharan Africa."
That proximity itself, she said, translates into many people who are rather inclined to come to Europe rather than try and get to the US and Canada – particularly when it comes to claims for asylum.
Ad-hoc action rather than long-term plan
"Canada and the US proportionately resettle a much higher proportion of recognized refugees from regions of conflict around the world, whereas Europe is much more characterized by spontaneous applications for asylum," said Collett. "That puts Europeans under pressure."
In the interview with Spiegel Online, Martin Schulz also called for a fairer distribution of asylum seekers and refugees across the EU. Under the current rules, dealing with refugees and asylum seekers remains a question of national responsibility. Asylum applications, for example, have to be processed in the country where the applicant first reached EU soil – usually in southern Mediterranean countries like Italy or Greece. In the light of the dramatic images of Lampedusa, Schulz said the German government had to do more to help: "We can afford it – financially and also in terms of receiving more refugees."
Schulz called it a "humanitarian obligation" for the richest continent to receive these refugees. Migration policy expert Ska Keller from the Green group added that German interior affairs minister "Friedrich should recognize and accept that immigration is a Europe-wide phenomenon and that you shouldn’t leave countries alone in dealing with refugees just because they happen to be on the southern border."
Who is entitled to protection?
But researcher Liz Collett is skeptical that the European Union will unravel the asylum system it only agreed on this summer – after years of negotiation - any time soon to correct those flaws. The European Commission commissioned an independent report in 2012 to assess the potential of a relocation system of asylum seekers and refugees within the EU. "But there were a number of legal and technical issues," Collett pointed out, "such as: on what basis would you relocate asylum seekers and/or refugees? Would you do it on the basis of GDP per capita or on the basis of population? Would you do it on the basis of existing capacity to receive asylum seekers? And would you take asylum seekers’ own desires into account? i.e. if an asylum seeker has family in the Netherlands - would you say, well, in that case we would try and get you to the Netherlands?"
Apart from these technical and legal difficulties, the report found that many EU countries simply wouldn’t be equipped to receive the higher number of asylum seekers or refugees who they would be attributed under the new system.
One of the main difficulties in establishing a proper common system, said Liz Collett, was that EU countries tend to have different answers to the question of who is actually entitled to receive protection: "Iraq is a case in point. Swedes are much more likely to recognize a refugee from Iraq than the UK is."