The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) has heard that compared to October, when the European Council unanimously called on the EU Executive to draft emergency proposals concerning the EU border with Belarus, the situation on the ground has deescalated significantly.
European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas told members on Thursday that the calmer situation was also due to the diplomatic efforts he lead in the countries that had allowed airlines to fly migrants directly to the Belarusian capital Minsk.
The improved situation caused the debate in the LIBE committee to show up a deepening of the fault lines between the left and the right, between opponents and supporters of the controversial proposed derogations to EU asylum rules, which are to be granted for a limited six month time period.
The EPP Group agreed with the Commission’s assessment that a “de-escalation is not a solution” as Schinas put it, while the far right argued for a wider application of the emergency proposals across the Union.
However, the Parliament’s Social Democrats, Liberals, Greens and the far left called for the withdrawal of the proposed changes.
The measures include the possibility to extend the registration period for asylum applications to 4 weeks, instead of the current 3 to 10 days, and simplified and quicker return procedures for failed asylum applicants.
Also taking part in the debate were European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, and representatives of three organisations, the EU Agency of Fundamental Rights (FRA), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).
“Member States should desist from trying to change EU law so fundamentally that it would critically undermine the right to asylum” The UNHCR’s Sophie Magennis
The FRA’s Constantinos Manolopoulos expressed his understanding of the “urgency of the situation” but argued that the proposals should be improved by better safeguarding migrants’ rights to access asylum application processes, and by including “children, LGTBI persons and the disabled” into the proposal’s category of vulnerable people.
The UNHCR’s Sophie Magennis and ECRE’s Catherine Woollard criticised not only the proposals but also the legal actions already taken by the three Member States concerned, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
“Member States should desist from trying to change EU law so fundamentally that it would critically undermine the right to asylum”, Magennis argued, adding that the “principle of non-refoulement (forbidding a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger of persecution) must be always respected” and that push-back practices, widely used at the moment, must end.
She encouraged EU legislators now deliberating the Commission’s proposals to use “rigorous scrutiny” and referred them to a UNHCR report identifying the current practices of the three Member States as not complying with international and EU law.
Woollard, whose organisation represents 105 NGOs across 39 European countries, added that partners working in the three Member States and in Belarus had reported widespread push backs and “unprecedented violations of asylum law”.
Poland, in particular, was singled out by both Magennis and Woollard for continuing to refuse assistance offered by the EU’s border agency Frontex, and for denying access to the border to UNHCR staff, NGOs and the media.
When pressed on this, Schinas said that the Commission continued to engage with the Polish authorities and that he “cannot understand” why Poland is not taking up the Frontex offer, adding “I hope Poland will reconsider” its position.
Addressing the Commission, veteran Renew Group MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld (NL) argued that “saying ‘it’s important to grant access’ is not good enough. You have to ensure access”
The proposals, she added, were deeply flawed “if you cannot guarantee the very, very minimum of safeguards that you foresee”.
"Addressing the Commission, veteran Renew Group MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld (NL) argued that “saying ‘it’s important to grant access’ is not good enough. You have to ensure access”. The proposals, she added, were deeply flawed “if you cannot guarantee the very, very minimum of safeguards that you foresee”
Commissioner Johansson admitted that “the EU aquis is being infringed”. That made it so important for the Commission to “clarify which derogations are acceptable and which derogations are not”, she stated.
Several members took up this admission and wanted to know whether Johansson was planning to open an infringement procedure, but by this time the Commissioner had left for another appointment.
Chairing the meeting, Maite Pagazaurtundúa (ES, Renew) told members that the Commissioner would provide a written answer shortly.
The rift between the two main groups over the emergency proposal was illustrated by Jeroen Lenaers’ (NL, EPP) re-tweeting the S&D Group a short while after the meeting.
For the Renew Group, Fabienne Keller (FR), also questioned whether the situation at the border could still be considered an emergency.
Schinas did call the situation “not a migration crisis, but a particularly cruel, unprecedented hybrid attack”.
Having explained to critical MEPs before that it was a crisis nonetheless, made all the more grave because it was “state sponsored”, and that, in any case, the Commission was in no position to not act on a unanimous Council request, Schinas told Keller that this was now “up to the European Parliament and the Council to decide”.