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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Friday, September 22, 2006


Tampere, 22 Sept. (AKI) - The European Union's justice and interior ministers, meeting in the Finnish capital, Tampere, have sharply diverged over how the 25-member bloc should deal with the rising tide of illegal immigrants to Europe, as well as terrorism and cross-border crime. At the end of a two-day meeting, ministers on Friday failed to agree on new measures aimed at stemming the rising tide of illegal immigration to southern Europe, forging a common EU asylum policy by 2010 and bolstering the bloc's fight against terrorism and cross-border crime.

At the talks in Finland, Spain's justice minister called for help to deal with the surge of mainly African migrants arriving in Spain's Canary Islands. About 24,000 illegal migrants have made the often perilous sea crossing this year, putting intense pressure on the Canaries and prompting Spanish officials to describe the situation as "critical" and an "untenable emergency."

Spain wants greater involvement of other EU member states in the EU Frontex border agency that has hurriedly created an EU border patrol force that operates in the Mediterranean. But Germany's interior minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said Madrid should not be asking for money from other states to cope with its illegal immigration problem, and pointed out that Germany had borne a similar problem for years.

Austrian justice minister, Karin Gastinger, claimed Spain had sent "the wrong signal" in its decision in 2005 to grant an amnesty to some 500,000 undocumented foreigners in 2005, saying it exerted "some kind of pull factor to the people in Africa."

Italy's interior minister, Giuliano Amato, suggested that funds would be better spent in the African countries where would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers are coming from.

The clash of view reflected worries by EU officials that the 25 EU leaders are not yet committed to sharing powers in the sensitive immigration field. Currently, all justice and security policy decisions must be passed unanimously.

EU justice minister Franco Frattini has put forward proposals, backed by the Finnish EU presidency and discussed at the Tampere meeting, to end national vetoes - the right of one EU member state to block legislation that all the others endorse - in immigration, cross-border policing, counter-terrorism policy. These involve a switch from unanimity to qualified majority voting to speed up decision-making. Police cooperation and anti-terror vetoes should be given up immediately, but immigration policy vetoes could be scrapped later, Frattini said.

Spain's justice minister, Jan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, said dropping vetoes now would speed up approval of important measures to combat human trafficking and smuggling - scourges affecting his country.

However, only Spain, France, Luxembourg and Portugal were reported to back the Frattini plan, which received fierce opposition from Germany, Britain, Ireland and Denmark, scuttling any chance of pushing through the moves by the end of the year.

German justice minister Brigitte Zypries argued that her country was not prepared to give up its veto until a final decision was made on the stalled European Constitution. The fate of the new EU charter, which introduces qualified majority voting in immigration, terrorism and cross-border crimes, is highly uncertain after French and Dutch voters rejected it in plebiscites last year.

The document needs the approval of all EU states before it can enter into force. Poland, the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, as well as Greece, Slovakia, Hungary, Malta and the Czech Republic have reportedly swung behind Germany's position.

The EU Commission and the Finnish EU presidency insist that the bloc cannot wait on the fate of the EU charter to reform decision-making in these important areas. "We can't sit with our armed crossed waiting to see what happens about the Constitution," said Finland's justice minister, Leena Luhtanen.

The Finnish EU presidency does not intend to drop the veto reform proposals, and plans to bring up these up again at a 5-6 Octobers summit of EU justice ministers in Luxembourg ahead of the European Council summit in December. The EU charter is however unlikely to move ahead before Germany assumes the EU presidency next year.

The original 15 EU member states in 1999 decided to launch attempts to develop a joint immigration and asylum policy, as larger numbers of refugees flowed into Europe. But progress has been slowed by the complexity of aligning national immigration rules and reluctance by EU countries to give up control over who they allow to enter their territory.

Currently, all justice policy decisions must be approved unanimously, which has meant lengthly delays in passing key European anti-terror legislation. Dropping national vetoes is allowed under the current EU treaty, but requires the agreement of all EU governments, and, in the case of some states - an example being Ireland - national ratification.
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