The great asylum game

Why big plans for a joint EU immigration policy floundered at Dover.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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After all the pre-match hype, the European Union (EU) meeting on asylum and immigration policy produced a 0-0 draw.

According to the ads, the meeting was going to agree common policy, such as European forces for border control and EU centres for processing of asylum seekers. Shadow UK home secretary David Davis warned that a ‘gullible government’ was ‘giving up powers’ to Brussels, when it should be ‘getting a grip’. The Daily Mail reported that home secretary David Blunkett was going to ‘give away our “front door key”’ (1).

But the meeting bore no European border guards, no EU asylum processing centres or quotas, and only a vague aim to harmonise policy by 2010. It didn’t even agree a new system of qualified majority voting on asylum and immigration issues (which would remove the veto, and mean that policy would get passed more easily). The UK opposed common border guards; France and Germany blocked Spain and Italy’s push for immigration quotas; and Germany and Italy’s plan for asylum centres in north Africa failed to win adherents (not even the UK, which had proposed the idea in the first place) (2).

This vacillation is the result of a policy built on paranoia. Asylum policy is driven not by political or strategic goals, but by fears of social instability. Haunted by the figure of the shifting, rootless asylum seeker (and particularly its imagined effect on white, working-class constituencies) European political elites band together for support. But then another bogeyman appears: the faceless Brussels bureaucrat, stealing control of national borders. So the UK government is caught between two fires, running this way and that.

EU immigration proposals have been on the table for a while. It was back in 1998 that Italy first proposed a European coastguard. In February 2001, then UK home secretary Jack Straw proposed an EU resettlement programme based on refugee camps set up near foreign trouble spots. In March 2003, Blunkett suggested a variation on this theme, ‘transit processing centres’, set up on routes taken by asylum seekers into Europe (3). Asylum seekers would be dealt with in camps outside the EU; those who were successful would be distributed to different European countries according to pre-agreed quotas.

You can see the appeal. Political elites’ worry about asylum and immigration isn’t driven by old-style xenophobia or racism. It is immigrants’ unknown quantity that is a source of concern – people from who-knows-where turning up unbidden at Dover. This comes across in the media coverage: rather than racial stereotypes, asylum seekers are shown in off-focus with covered faces, climbing over fences and slipping on to trains.

The idea was that under an agreed EU proceedure, the UK government would get a known number of known quantities. X Nigerians and Y Kosovans, legit asylum seekers, signed and sealed. A leaked UK government document in 2003 fantasised: ‘[they] should gradually reduce spontaneous arrivals of asylum seekers leaving the domestic cases with residual cases only.’ (4) There would be none of the furore that occurs when Afghan families are packed off back home. Hard decisions would be made in some far-off processing camp, out of the media eye.

But when the UK government is accused of handing control over to Brussels, it backpedals. Having been at the forefront of joint EU asylum policy, the UK is now slouching in the rear ranks. Blunkett has gone cool on his old ideas, and now emphasises his resolve to stand up to Brussels. One Home Office spokesman briefed: ‘We won’t sign up to an EU processing centre, any common border guard that would involve taking away our own border controls or any new EU consular service.’ (5)

Asylum policy is more about PR than practicality. It is about the government giving the appearance of being in control, more than actually designing systems that work. The government has an exaggerated fear of the public being easily enflamed, and driven (as it puts it) ‘into the arms of extremists’. All it takes is a newspaper warning of the dangers of losing control of British borders, to send the government scurrying back home.

Britain is trying to manage its conflicting fears by resorting to the ‘opt-out’ deal. It can look to the EU for support, and join EU measures aiming to increase security. ‘We gain through cooperation…. We have to make sure [EU borders] are secure’, said one Home Office minister. But if there’s anything the government feels uneasy about, it can opt out. ‘If we don’t like something, we can remove ourselves from it…there’s no slippery slope of scare scenario’, said Blunkett (6).

Although there is no European superstate on the cards, new kinds of informal cooperation seem to be occurring among European states. EU brigades won’t be policing the White Cliffs any time soon, but they could be wandering around the weaker parts of the EU and its neighbours to ‘support’ immigration systems.

According to Blunkett, Britain already helps Greece and Italy patrol their borders, and has offered assistance to the new Eastern European member states. The European Commission is funding a project in five north African countries, helping them to ‘develop’ their asylum laws, and training officials to process asylum claims (7). Meanwhile, back in 2003 an Observer investigation uncovered an EU-funded asylum camp in Croatia (8).

Politicians’ rhetoric grabs the headlines, but these new developments deserve more attention. National sovereignty is more likely to be eroded quietly rather than by legislative fanfare – and most flagrantly, in weaker states, rather than in the European heartland. These new ad hoc measures are unscrutinised and unaccounted for, agreed in backrooms and executed away from the cameras. They undermine immigration systems, which should be a matter of the people of Croatia or Morocco rather than the bureaucrats of Brussels. No doubt they also stymie unfortunate would-be immigrants, keen to seek a better life in Europe.

But these measures are also small scale. In general, there is a chasm between the high-octane asylum debate and the lack of effective immigration measures on the ground. Politicians may talk tough about fortress Europe, but they couldn’t agree on where the drawbridge should be, let alone manage to raise it. The UK government is good on gestures, but its asylum policy has been chaotic and leaky.

The free movement of people is generally a good thing – it is right that aspirational young people from Lagos or Istanbul should be able to build their lives in London or Paris. At present, however, they’re scuttling through porous borders to the sound of politicians’ speeches about how much of a problem they are. Immigrants end up as political pawns in Britain’s game of opt-in, opt-out hokey cokey.

(1) Daily Mail, 25 October 2004

(2) EU Agrees Immigration Plans, But Opt-Outs Remain, Deutsche Welle, 26 October 2004

(3) Fencing off debate, by Josie Appleton

(4) Shifting a problem back to its source, Guardian, 5 February 2003

(5) Blunkett Vows to Veto Common EU Asylum System, Scotsman, 24 October 2004

(6) Blunkett claims EU victory on asylum, Guardian, 26 October 2004

(7) EU Approves Refugee Camp Pilot Schemes, Deutsche Welle, 1 October 2004

(8) Secret Balkan camp built to hold UK asylum seekers, Guardian, 15 June 2003

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Topics Politics


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