Germany's visa policy of 2000 violated a number of EU laws, the European Commission said Thursday, but subsequent amendments have been enough to avoid legal action. However, some doubts remain.
Joschka Fischer took responsibility for the 2000 visa policy directive
Germany escaped legal action after the European Commission ruled on Thursday that while the lax system at the heart of the German visa scandal violated European Union norms, Berlin had since remedied the problem with a reformed policy that complies with EU rules.
The scandal, for which Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has accepted responsibility, revolves around the loose visa policies that allowed thousands of criminals and illegal workers, mainly from Ukraine, to enter Germany between 2000 and 2002.
Commission spokesman Friso Roscam Abbing told a news briefing that the German policy circular issued by Fischer in 2000, which the Christian Democrat opposition describes as an opening of "the floodgates to a wave of unsuitable migrants," did not comply with a range of European directives or laws.
Fischer's circular contravened EU laws
"The 2000 (instruction) was not compatible with Schengen law, with EU law, with the common consular instructions," Abbing said. Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini added that the 2000 circular that was the basis for the easier policy "ran counter to the Common Consular Instructions (CCI)".
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer passes the entrance of a parliamentary panel investigating the visa scandal in April.
The directive from Fischer's office ordered German consulates, notably in eastern Europe, to give applicants the benefit of the doubt if they could not fully justify their financial means of support or the purpose of their trip.
However, after the German Foreign Ministry had been plunged into a crisis concerning the visas and a flood of migrants, the visa policy was amended to the satisfaction of the EU's executive. "An examination of the guiding circular of Oct. 26, 2004 ... leads to the conclusion that the breaches of the CCI in the previous circulars have been remedied," Frattini said.
Breaches remedied but questions remain
Franco Frattini, EU Justice Commissioner
Frattini did point out, however, that some points in the 2004 circular were unclear and would benefit from clarification, but these were not grounds to invalidate the German policy, he said.
The German foreign ministry welcomed the commission's assessment that the German rules now met EU requirements.
The almost disastrous political lesson learnt by the Germans showed that countries should be aware that there was no place for liberal interpretations in national legislation or instructions of common EU visa regulations adopted for the Schengen passport-free travel area, Frattini added.
Conservative lawmaker targets red-green coalition
However, while the commission appeared to close the book on the incident, others were not so quick to let Germany off the hook. Opposition German EU lawmaker Jochim Würmeling challenged the commission to investigate Berlin's new policies, claiming that these too were flawed.
Würmeling, who said that the commission ruling on Germany's current visa policy was "in no way a virtual acquittal," explained that while there were still discrepancies between the German and the European rules on the burden of proof for visa applicants there was a "grave deviation" from EU law, he said.
Calling the commission's analysis of the 2000 rules "damning," Würmeling then turned on the Social Democratic-Green coalition government saying that its attitude to the visa policy showed "just how crass this wrong decision taken by the government was."
"One gets the impression that the ... government was completely indifferent to what EU rules said about issuing visas," he said.
Visa scandal to cast shadow over election
Würmeling intends to raise the issue again in an attempt to hold the German government accountable in a question time session with Frattini when the EU parliament reconvenes in September, just two weeks before likely German elections.
It could be perfect timing for the opposition parties in Germany who have been hounding Gerhard Schröder's government for months over the scandal.
The visa affair has weakened the bond between the ruling coalition, with ministers forced to testify before a parliamentary commission of inquiry and blame being passed between parties and departments before Fischer took the hit for the team.