"We now have the opportunity to turn the tide."

Will the exodus of refugees from Ukraine affect the faltering negotiations on reforming the EU's asylum system? An interview with Birgit Sippel, Home Affairs spokesperson for the Social Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament.

Dear Ms. Sippel, a year and a half ago, the EU Commission put forward a proposal to reform the current European Asylum System. Which aspects have been and continue to be the subject of heated debate?

In September 2020, the EU Commission published the "New Pact on Migration and Asylum", which is intended to complement and partially revise the proposed asylum reform of 2016. This "pact" is based on the misguided intention to please all Member States. However, there are Member States that reject a humanitarian and solidarity-based asylum and migration policy in principle, even accepting breaches of the law. Instead of introducing genuine solidarity, the proposal of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rather accomodates countries showing a lack of solidarity. For example, the dysfunctional and unjust principle of first entry remains in place. This means that again only the Member States of first entry are responsible for processing the asylum claims and for the subsequent stay. In the pact, a mandatory and predictable relocation of asylum seekers among all EU Member States is nowhere to be found.

As a Member of the European Parliament, are you involved in negotiating the proposals?

Yes, personally, as rapporteur of the European Parliament for the screening regulation, I am dealing with its problematic sections and unresolved issues. In the screening procedure, the Commission wants to introduce a mandatory border-check of all third-country citizens. Persons who have entered the EU irregularly are to be detained at the EU's external borders for up to ten days to be registered and assigned to the appropriate procedures. This extensive detention does not name any exception for children or particularly vulnerable persons. At the same time, the regulation proposes an ineffective monitoring mechanism that won't be able to solve the numerous problems such as illegal and forced push-backs at the EU's external borders. Therefore, much remains to be improved.

What is the position of the EU Member States regarding the proposed reforms?

Overall, the national representatives have not yet been able to overcome the rifts that have opened up in the Council since 2016 on the issue of relocating refugees. That is why we see little momentum regarding the asylum reform. Real progress would require not only the willingness of the Parliament to negotiate, but also that of the Council, as both have to agree on new laws and regulations as joint legislators. In Parliament, the work is progressing, but I fear that some Member States are fundamentally lacking the willingness to seriously negotiate all the elements; instead, only selected aspects of the reform should be addressed.

Likewise, since January 2022, the French Council Presidency has been pursuing a so-called “step-by-step approach”, meaning that only selected elements of the proposed reform are to be completed, while more sensitive issues remain untouched. It is therefore not surprising that the Presidency is focusing on border control and registration at the external borders. However, for the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, it is clear that a sustainable asylum reform must offer a comprehensive solution and not lead to a piecemeal approach where less controversial dossiers are concluded while the fundamental problems remain. Thus, a reform must inevitably address the fair distribution of responsibilities and encompass solidarity not only with Member States, but also with local and regional actors and the people in need of protection.

Did the Parliament and the Council reach agreement on any proposals yet?

Last year, we were able to agree with the Council on the establishment of the EU Asylum Agency, which extends the mandate of its predecessor, the Asylum Support Office. Moreover, I am glad about the reform of the so-called EU Blue Card, which facilitates immigration for highly qualified persons, such as academics and certain professions.

Since 24 February, Russia has been waging war against Ukraine, causing millions of people to flee, mainly to the EU. In response, there is currently a great willingness to help and show solidarity with refugees across Europe. Does this development also influence the negotiations on the Migration and Asylum Package?

Certainly, it would be welcome if the current situation would bring us a little closer to concluding the negotiations on the asylum reform. Unfortunately, I rather observe dynamics indicating that the dramatic situation in Ukraine overshadows all other challenges regarding asylum. For example, hardly anyone still talks about the humanitarian catastrophe that the Polish government has been creating at its external border with Belarus since the summer of 2021, refusing entry to people who have followed the false promises of the Belarusian despot Lukashenko.

The numerous deaths of migrants at sea, which we continue to witness, also hardly play a role in the public perception anymore. As far as the negotiations on the asylum package are concerned, I see a similar picture in the Council. The meetings revolve around ad hoc responses to the immediate needs of millions of people from Ukraine.

For example, the Council Decision of March 4, 2022, activated the Temporary Protection Directive, which provides for a temporary protection status for various categories of people from Ukraine, as well as their family members. With this status, they are provided with social and medical protection for an initial period of one year (maximum three years), have access to the labour market and children and young people have access to the education system.

Despite the fact that this decision was right and important, the Council's focus remains fixed on the urgent needs of people and, unfortunately, only little time remains to address the fundamental questions that we have to face when reforming the asylum system.

Do these fundamental questions include how the EU should respond to the instrumentalisation of asylum seekers?

Absolutely. As long as EU Member States cannot agree on a common, just and dignified approach on dealing with people in need of protection, they leave each other vulnerable. We see that Member States, and civil society in particular, are very capable of supporting millions of people seeking protection. At the Belarusian external border, for example, many volunteers wanted to provide support. In Poland, however, they were not allowed to enter the border zone. Neither were the media and aid organisations despite only a few thousand people whom Lukashenko had lured to Belarus with false promises, ruthlessly exploiting them for political purposes. A clear common stance of the Member States, based on our values and our human rights responsibilities, would have sent a much stronger message from the EU.


Do you believe that the EU's approach to protect people fleeing Ukraine represents a turning point in the EU's migration and asylum policy?

I would like Member States to realise that a more inclusive approach to migration, including inclusion in the labour market and society, can work well for everybody. This includes the increasingly important task of integration, facilitated by the effective and swift provision of temporary protection. This way, we could bring about a positive turn in the overly used negative narrative about uncontrolled displacement and migration. For in fact, we are not experiencing migration crises; rather, we are witnessing crises of the Member States' joint capacity to act in the field of migration and asylum.

We now have the chance to turn the tide and (re)build mutual trust and solidarity in Europe. Nevertheless, we cannot wait for these perhaps too optimistic wishes to come true. For now, I do not see a fundamental change of thinking in many Member States. It seems that even Commission President von der Leyen will not live up to her responsibility anymore and demand the implementation of the existing asylum law from Member States that break the rules, if necessary, with infringement proceedings.

Therefore, it is essential to forge new alliances with those Member States that endorse a humane and just migration policy and to start developing common policies. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser has already expressed her support for this idea very explicitly. I hope that the first results will soon be visible, so that in the long term we can be as supportive to all those who seek protection in the EU as we are currently to the people from Ukraine.


Birgit Sippel has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2009, where she is the spokesperson for the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE).

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