On the 6th April the European Commission announced its intention to subject the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) to an extensive overhaul. No less than seven out of the nine legislative documents the CEAS currently consists of are scheduled to be changed significantly.
The most significant change concerns the Dublin Regulation which, according to the will of the Commission, should be amended by an EU-wide distribution mechanism to create a fair and balanced procedure of determining the member state responsible for newly arriving asylum seekers. This distribution key would shift the responsibility to take care of new refugees from the member state of first entry to the member state which according to a set of still to be defined criteria such as size, wealth and unemployment rate, is next in line. Incoming refugees would no longer apply for asylum in a specific EU-country but in the EU as a whole.
Alongside the proposal for a reformed Dublin Regulation the Commission proposed to transform the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) into a full-fledged asylum authority, with field offices in all the member states and directly in charge of processing asylum applications. Also, asylum procedures across the EU are scheduled for further harmonization so that a single asylum space can be guaranteed.
Together with the proposal for the creation of a European Border and Coast Guard, the Commission´s latest initiative to reform the CEAS represents an important step towards a supranational solution of the refugee “crisis”. A permanent distribution scheme would support Greece and Italy and reduce refugee flows into the north to amounts small enough to remain unnoticed by public hysteria.
However, significant challenges remain. The first big question concerns member state´s willingness to grant the European Commission such far reaching changes in the allocation of refugees and in the delegation of competences. The redistribution of refugees under the emergency scheme that was introduced last autumn is running glutinous like sugar beet syrup. In March 2016 only 1.145 out of 106 000 refugees were successfully redistributed. Also EASO and Frontex are facing persistent difficulties to receive sufficient personnel from the member states. It remains unclear how the European Commission intends to increase member state´s motivation to contribute to the Common European Asylum System.
The second big question mark concerns refugee rights. Under the new Commission proposal, the right to choose one´s country of asylum is essentially restricted to a hardship clause. The vast majority of refugees will be legally obliged to accept the country they are assigned to. If they do not, refugees face the risk of detention. Despite the plans to also reform the receptions conditions directive, it seems unlikely that the EU will be able to guarantee widespread humanization of refugee treatment in Europe. How can refugees escape degrading treatment, a hostile environment or a lack of food provisions if they are forbidden to change their country of asylum? The mills of the Commission´s infringement procedure grind too slowly to motivate member states to end grievances in their asylum systems.
To make sure the proposed reforms will work, a stronger member state contribution is necessary. Otherwise, it will be difficult to ensure the proper functioning of a permanent distribution mechanism and of a European Asylum Authority. At the same time effective means to guarantee a dignified treatment of refugees across the EU need to be found as a precondition for any reform. If not, the Union will risk its credibility as a normative power.