Parliament split on ‚progressive‘ Swedish immigration programme

MEPs last week (8 October) debated the Swedish EU Presidency’s proposed new programme for freedom, security and justice in the EU. The plans, which are in line with Sweden’s progressive national policies, were welcomed by liberal MEPs but described as weak on immigration by southern Europeans.

The meeting in the European Parliament, which featured no less than four parliamentary committees as well as representatives from national parliaments, aimed to explore the proposed Stockholm programme, which will set out the EU’s priorities for the next five-year period on thorny issues such as EU citizenship – including measures to protect citizens – solidarity, access to justice and reaping the full benefits of the single market through European contract law.

British Liberal MEP Diana Wallis, speaking to EurActiv, welcomed the method of linking discussions across committees, as well as the message of yesterday’s meeting. "I think it was a very good process in the sense that four committees had to meet together and see the whites of one another’s eyes. It seems to me that we were heading towards a much more balanced outcome than we might have had in the past," she said.

Wallis believes that the Swedish plans strike the correct tone, shifting the emphasis from immigration and security to "how we can make people’s lives easier when they take up the opportunities offered by mobility around Europe".

The UK MEP argued that in recent years, the sensitive issues in this debate had been "blown off course by 9/11," but was quick to stress that now, the "civil law side of things" receives "equal billing with everything else".

Familiar faultlines emerge

However, as expected the programme provoked criticism from southern Europeans who believe the Swedish priorities do not go far enough in their treatment of security and immigration.

Maltese centre-right MEP Simon Busuttil argued that "the axis on security seems to have been watered down" in the text, a point echoed by a number of Italian MEPs.

Diana Wallis said that "we’re beginning to see where the fracture lines in the house are," and added that "security is the main sticking point".

"Do we want to go further in terms of underlining security? Who knows what the final outcome will be in terms of immigration and migration? That could be difficult," she concluded.

Bigger battles await

In reality, while last week’s debate may prove useful in determining future areas of conflict, it will have very little legislative impact, Kris Pollet, senior policy officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), told EurActiv.

"This was purely a political debate," Pollet said, emphasising that the actual decision on what will be in the Stockholm Programme lies solely with EU leaders at European Council level. In fact, the ECRE official doubts that the debate will have any impact whatsoever on the final wording of the programme.

The same political faultlines exist at Council level, meaning that in order to find consensus on the final draft, Sweden will push for as broad a programme as possible, Pollet argued. As a result, it is only after the Council has approved a programme that the real political battles will emerge.

When the Commission uses this broad, vague programme as a roadmap for proposing specific legislative instruments in these sensitive areas, the ideological faultlines will harden and likely lead to heated debates, he concluded.

Liberal MEP Andrew Duff (UK) proposed that the text should address the complexities of the "core group process" (allowing qualified majority voting in the Council), in which "a core group of member states is propelled forward," adding that it also "would be helpful to spell out explicitly the competences of national parliaments".

German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht said "there are fundamental rights that are absolute," claiming that "there is no balance in this text. We see more and more preventive measures". "I don’t think proportionality is guaranteed," he added.

Italian far-right MEP Mario Borghezio claimed that the plans did not go far enough. "The document doesn’t contain what it should," he said, arguing that in particular, the programme lacked "a judicial response" to "terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism". He also urged legislators to "look closely" at possible links between terrorist organisations and human trafficking networks.

The European Civil Liberties Network (ECLN) opposes the Stockholm Programme, arguing that it "will extend militarised border controls, discriminatory immigration policies, mandatory and proactive surveillance regimes and an increasingly aggressive external security and defence policy".

The ECLN believes these policies constitute an "attack on civil liberties and human rights" and called for "active civil society engagement and opposition to dangerous authoritarian tendencies within the EU".

Maltese centre-right MEP Simon Busuttil explained that his group "wants a citizen’s Europe and a safer Europe, with the emphasis on the second element". He regretted that in the draft resolution, "the axis on security seems to have been watered down". He also advocated "a strong solidarity, solidarity of action, not of words".

This was echoed by British Socialist MEP Claude Moraes, who argued that "the key points on solidarity in this resolution need amendments" to strengthen them. "This is a balanced text," he concluded, though he added that "we will need new instruments on asylum".