09/2009: Mario Sepi


Mario Sepi
President of the European Economic
and Social Committee (EESC)


‘’Assessment of recent EU immigration and
asylum policy developments”


Ü Eurasylum: The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) plays an important role as an institutional intermediary between EU policy-making bodies and organised civil society. As such, it has always been committed to involving civil society in the development of new EU immigration and asylum policies. One particular area in which the EESC has expressed a keen interest is integration of third-country nationals. In a number of recent Opinions, the EESC has stressed the need for a holistic approach to integration, requiring the involvement of all players concerned, especially the social partners and organised civil society. Against this background, the EESC plays a major role in the European Integration Forum which was established earlier this year as part of the process launched by the European Commission to develop a Common Agenda for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals. Can you sum up and discuss some of the EESC’s key positions and activities in the field of integration of third country nationals ?

Ü Mario Sepi: The European Economic and Social Committee is a consultative body to the EU institutions and because of this role our engagement, as far as integration of third country nationals is concerned, goes back to the main key steps of the EU policy in this field. The evolution of our opinions on this matter has been parallel to the stronger and stronger need for the EU to tackle the integration issue through a holistic approach based on the active contribution of civil society.

In 2002 we issued an own-initiative opinion on “Immigration, integration and the role of civil society” which aimed to stimulate political and social debate within the EU decision-making arenas in order to include the principles of integration policies in all EU policies related to immigration and asylum. A major proposal among our demands was to promote the social integration of immigrants, by ensuring that newcomers and people arriving on the grounds of family reunion as well as refugees and asylum seekers are protected by international law.

The EESC has been in line with the Commission on the notion that a close connection between the idea of a common immigration policy and a common integration strategy is essential. This is why we have, at the same time, regretted the lack of a suitable legal framework for the admission of economic migrants. Furthermore, through the opinion that we approved in 2005 on the Green Paper on an EU approach to managing migration, we stated that equality of treatment and rights for migrants were core principles to be taken into account in the adoption of any future migration instruments.

More recently, with the creation of the European Integration Forum which was launched in April 2009 as a joint initiative of the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Commission, we believe that a big step has been achieved and a concrete signal has been launched in the direction of a more solid and effective integration policy of the EU. As a matter of fact I am strongly convinced that integration is a two-way process, founded on the rights and obligations of third country nationals and the host society, enabling immigrants to fully participate in the same way as all other citizens in the civil society of the EU territory.

These preoccupations, which are at the heart of the EESC, also go hand in hand with our insistence that anti-discrimination policy should be focused on the rights and protection of minorities. We should not forget that several Member states have sizeable minority populations of different cultural origins and habits and the EESC plays an active role in mobilising all the actors involved at the level of civil society for upholding and assuring minority rights in the EU.

The first meeting of the European Integration Forum was in fact also the occasion to reaffirm our continous pushing for a genuine participatory integration policy and for the fact that it is no coincidence that all our opinions have remained free of the foul stench of xenophobia; our Programme for Europe: Proposals of Civil Society is a clear demonstration of this.

Ü Eurasylum: In the field of immigration policy, the EESC has often stressed the need for the EU to have a highly harmonised legislation, so that immigration can be channelled through legal, flexible and transparent legal procedures in which third-country nationals are treated fairly, with comparable rights and obligations to those enjoyed by EU citizens. The Committee further considers that cooperation between national authorities and the social partners would enable a considerable number of people who are working illegally to regularise their administrative situation and to legalise their job. Can you highlight some of the EESC’s recent positions in the field of immigration and discuss the way in which these have fed into the European Commission’s emerging policy and legislation on legal economic migration ?

Ü Mario Sepi: I firmly believe that immigration is one of the most important social and economic issues of our time. This is my idea especially in my role as President of the EESC, because the work of our Committee and the expertise of our members allows me to reinforce such a view, by observing and dealing on a daily basis with the work of civil society organisations which try to help, at local level, the integration of immigrants in real terms and to contribute to actions that make the rule of law work in concrete terms. Men and women from far-off lands are forced to leave their homes in search of better, more acceptable standards of living for themselves and their families. Others come to Europe in search of a democratic society and institutions and the rule of law.

Unfortunately, this is a time when immigrants are often used as scapegoats for unemployment whereas they are actually its first victims, often exposed to redundancy and deprived of the social protection afforded to native citizens of the country.

Our committee strives for a society in which all citizens have the same rights and acknowledges the positive contribution of immigrants to Europe’s economic and cultural development. Therefore, we want migrant workers to enjoy the same rights as national workers, as soon as possible. We need an effective and legally binding European charter of rights for migrant workers, or, more simply, Member States should start ratifying the UN Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of their families. The problem is the governments’ lack of will, as is shown by the fact that no European country has signed the above mentioned Convention.

Beyond the rights of migrant workers, we have to focus on legal channels for immigration, since employment is among the pull factors. More legal ways to find a job for migrants would avoid the progressive strengthening of the illegal labour market and the exploitation of third country nationals who are staying irregularly in Europe. Back in the time, in 2001, the European Commission proposed a directive on conditions of admission and stay of third country workers but the Member States’ diverging views prevented this legislation from being adopted. I believe that it is time for Member States to find a consensus on this issue.

Immigration is a complex subject because it touches on several fields: from social affairs to economic matters, from international cooperation and development to the respect of fundamental rights. Therefore, tackling only illegal migration is not enough, and we should adopt a broader view and perspective. For this reason, I believe that the European Economic and Social Committee, thanks to its know-how and its capacity to approach interlinked issues, has a fundamental role to play in immigration policies.

Indeed, in the field of legal immigration, we already have important instruments, such as the directives on family reunification, on long-term resident status, and on the conditions of admission of students and researchers. Nonetheless the categories targeted are not sufficient, although we have to consider that legal immigration policies are relatively recent and that the admission of migrants is still a prerogative of the Member States. I hope that the Member States are now ready to discuss new ways to improve our immigration policies.

We are following with interest the emerging ideas and the development of proposals for the Stockholm Programme, and we anticipate that much more attention will be given to admission criteria and the rights of migrant workers in the next legislative measures. This would also be due to other factors, such as the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty. We, as a Committee, stand ready to contribute to this process through our opinions and recommendations.

Ü Eurasylum: In the field of asylum, in an Opinion issued earlier this year, the EESC stressed the need for the second phase of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) to address the shortcomings of the first phase. According to the EESC, a major shortcoming of the first phase of the Common European Asylum System was that the legislative measures which were adopted by the Member States allowed too much scope for national interpretations. This has led to the Member States enacting very different policies and legislation. According to the EESC, while harmonisation must retain a degree of discretion for national legislation it should never be used to reduce current levels of protection in the Member States. Instead, it should serve to improve legislation in those Member States where protection is inadequate. The EESC further supports the forthcoming establishment of a European Asylum Support Office. Can you discuss the EESC’s positions on asylum and any consultative role it is expected to play in the development and running of the European Asylum Support Office ?

Ü Mario Sepi: The most recent developments in the Mediterranean, and the number of migrants who died trying to cross to Europe, require that EU leaders rethink their approach to immigration for two main reasons: first, in order to make the European Pact for Immigration and Asylum move forward and achieve a more effective asylum policy which would finally be coherent with the European legislation on freedom of movement; second, to achieve a serious and integrated strategy of protection of human, social, economic and cultural rights for immigrants, which should be viewed as a real asset by all the Member States.

As stated in our most recent opinion on the issue of the EU policy plan on asylum, the Committee believes that, in the field of immigration as with other European policies, aspirations and values have been replaced by rhetoric, and too often practice and laws have conflicted with values.

The EESC believes that the second phase of the creation of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) should address the shortcomings of the first phase. A critical review of the first phase should therefore be carried out before the second phase can begin. Bearing in mind that in the second phase of the Common European Asylum System the Council of the European Union will adopt decisions under the ordinary procedure and by co-decision with the European Parliament, the EESC fervently hopes that progress can be swifter and legislation of a higher quality.

The EESC considers that European asylum policies should be harmonised in a manner that they can ensure a high degree of quality, without lowering international levels of protection. The improvement of legislation in those Member States where protection is inadequate should be favoured through new legislation that allows asylum seekers access to the labour market and to training. The EESC is calling for the work of NGOs specialising in asylum and refugees to be recognised and for these NGOs to be given full access to the procedures connected with their activities.

While strongly welcoming the fact that the EU has given fresh impetus to the development of the Common European Asylum System through the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, the Committee also believes that no real move towards its implementation and further improvement through new legislative measures will occur as long as some Member States are able to put stops and obstacles, and therefore slow the project.

In this context I would also like to recall the importance for the EU to express a firm attitude of rejection towards any practice that is contrary to the spirit of the European integration core values. Recent examples include repatriation or border control agreements with countries that have not signed the main international legal instruments relating to asylum rights. These put the whole image and reality of the EU at risk vis-à-vis its own citizens as well as towards those who believe in the values that the EU should represent.

In the same vein, it is also very dramatic to observe that a few member states are able to create an opposition block to the implementation of the Immigration and Asylum Pact, by failing to assist a small number of member states that are affected by migration pressures on the Southern frontier. The current situation, together with the thousands of deaths that have occurred in the Mediterranean over the last few years, directly concern the EU institutions, which should feel propelled to make strong proposals for more effective and humanitarian actions.

As European Economic and Social Committee we are not only in favour of the European Asylum Support Office – which will be a concrete measure able to manage and better coordinate asylum seekers movements – we also firmly stand ready to cooperate, through all our means, with the EU institutions and the current Swedish EU presidency on this matter.

We believe that our experience in this field, as well as the very good cooperation we have established with the European Commission in the recent development of the Integration Forum, and the common goals we share with the Swedish Presidency for the future of EU integration, immigration and asylum policy, shouldl give us an important role to play in making this project work.

We will try to make the functioning of the Asylum Support Office a winning challenge for the EU, by bringing on board all the relevant actors of civil society and allowing them to contribute and reinforce the cooperation in the field of asylum policy at all levels of society.