EU ministers agree on common immigration pact
The pact is backed by millions of euros in EU funds to enforce the repatriation of unwanted migrants.
Brussels -- The European Union's interior ministers agreed Thursday on a common set of principles guiding member states in the way they manage the influx of non-EU nationals.
The European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, which is due to be formally adopted by EU leaders at their October summit, seeks to improve the management of legal immigration, tighten controls on illegal immigrants and construct a common asylum policy.
"The aim of the pact is to avoid the two obvious potential pitfalls: the creation of a European fortress, and the total opening up to illegal immigration," said Brice Hortefeux, French minister of immigration, who chaired the council meeting because France currently holds the EU presidency.
"I am persuaded that we have avoided those pitfalls," he added.
The pact is backed by millions of euros in EU funds to enforce the repatriation of unwanted migrants and to help developing countries persuade their citizens to stay at home. It also calls on governments to crack down on EU employers who hire illegal immigrants.
But critics argue that the final, watered-down version agreed by ministers in Brussels on Thursday is ineffective and gives too great a voice to national governments.
For instance, the pact calls on EU countries to attract more highly skilled workers from outside the bloc.
But it leaves governments with the power to decide who and how many of them should be admitted in their own countries.
In this context, plans by the European Commission for a EU-wide Blue Card -- granting better working and living conditions to non-EU professionals -- have been effectively sunk by governments' insistence that they should establish their own rules on who can qualify.
And while its introduction is not expected to happen before 2011, countries like the Czech Republic insist that Germany, Belgium, Austria and Denmark should first open up their labor markets to workers from those Eastern European countries that joined the EU over the past four years.
"The expectations on the Blue Card were exaggerated," said German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, one of the initiative's greatest critics.
The pact also calls on member states to tighten controls on illegal immigrants and improve the effectiveness of controls on the bloc's external borders, for instance by sharing out the fingerprints of incoming foreigners in a common database.
Another proposal involves national authorities enacting expulsion orders made by another member state.
However, the EU's border control agency, Frontex, remains grossly underfunded, while there is little evidence that the mutual recognition of expulsion decisions is being implemented, according to a recent study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank.
Hortefeux retorted Thursday that ministers had agreed to "allocate more resources to Frontex."
And the EU's top justice official, Jacques Barrot, said the pact would turn Europe "into a model for the world" when it comes to handling migration flows.
Meanwhile, plans for a common asylum policy are progressing slowly and are now not expected to come into force before 2012.
The European Commission is to set up an institution to allow member states to share their experiences on how they deal with asylum applications.
Highlighting the difficulties existing in the area of asylum policy, some member states have been slow to heed calls by Germany and Sweden to share the burden of accepting about 10,000 highly vulnerable Iraqi refugees.
On Thursday, ministers limited themselves to giving the green light to a fact-finding mission to Syria and Jordan, where many Iraqis fled to after the toppling of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
The mission, which is to take place at the beginning of November, aims to identify those most in need of being relocated to Europe.