‘An imperfect system that works will be better than a bad one that doesn’t’

Migration has become the albatross around the EU’s neck, but a recent agreement aims to achieve what many thought impossible: a major overhaul of the bloc’s asylum procedures.

It’s what countries such as Cyprus, Italy and Greece have been clamouring for since the migration crisis exploded to the fore back in 2015, when millions poured into Europe, with delayed aftershocks in Cyprus.

Since then, however, little has changed in terms of policy at the EU level – until June 8, when EU governments agreed a deal in principle.

But what does it mean for Cyprus, considering its unique situation with the Green Line and not being a member of Schengen?

The interior ministry told the Cyprus Mail that: “With the agreement in principle that has been reached, a first big step towards a common approach at EU level on the issue of solidarity has been taken and this is the great benefit for Cyprus.”

But let’s get into the details first.

Put simply, the agreement between EU governments sets out to apply “mandatory solidarity” for the first time. That means countries not on the frontline – the latter being Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and others – will have to take in at least 30,000 asylum seekers a year. Those who decline to do so will have to instead pay €20,000 per migrant into an EU fund.

But Akel MP and party spokesman George Koukoumas told the Cyprus Mail that: “Cyprus and other Mediterranean countries are not asking for money or technical infrastructure. They are asking the other member states to assume their share of responsibility for hosting refugees.”

There’s also a catch attached to that money: frontline countries where migrants first arrive will be responsible for beefing up their reception facilities, in part, to make deportations and returns easier – but also to stop them from making their way on to countries such as France and Germany. This, too, has proven controversial for some.

It would cement frontline states as border guards, required to implement stricter asylum procedures for those deemed unlikely to be accepted, but they would also get more powers to send back rejected applicants.

There are other controversies: many of the frontline countries have been accused of being deliberately nasty to those arriving in hopes of dissuading more from doing the same. In Cyprus’ case, the massively overcrowded Pournara reception centre has frequently been lambasted as appalling.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the agreement which creates expedited border procedures for those arriving via irregular (illegal)

entry or by sea means fewer safeguards for those applying. The procedure would become mandatory for those arriving from countries whose nationals have less than 20 per cent rate of being granted protection, along with anyone who withheld or used false information.

The aim is to have their application processed within 12 weeks and it means a quicker departure for those rejected to a wider number of countries – in some cases not even the countries in which they initially resided.

Officially, according to a draft text seen by Politico, a migrant must have “stayed” or “settled” in a country, or have family there, in order to be sent to that location. It’s not immediately clear what that means for Cyprus, for which about 95 per cent of applicants arrive from the north via the Green Line – many of whom took flights from Turkey.

HRW stated that the agreement could lead to people being sent to countries they have merely transited – for many of those in Cyprus that means Turkey. But as Turkey does not recognise Cyprus the prospects of any deal there are low.

Overall, the agreement has been hailed by the government as a success, and the Cyprus Mail asked the interior ministry to put the development into perspective.

“Of course, the agreements alone will not solve the problem, but they now formally make it a common European problem that will require a common response,” the interior ministry said. “This is a very important development and creates the basis for Cyprus to be able to achieve even more in the future.”

In essence, the government reasons that the agreement – which is still subject to serious haggling before it becomes EU law – won’t solve the migration issue for Cyprus, but it constitutes a “big step” forward.

But Akel expressed deep reservations over the direction in which the deal is headed.

Koukoumas told the Cyprus Mail that the deal is fundamentally flawed as richer countries will simply buy their way out of taking on more responsibility. The party wants an overhaul of the Dublin Regulation, which was originally signed in 1990 and stipulates that the first EU member state that an asylum seeker steps foot on is usually responsible for processing their claim.

That means countries such as Cyprus and Greece are disproportionately impacted compared to central and northern EU members.

“If a mechanism for the mandatory relocation of refugees is not established in all EU member states, according to each member’s capabilities, the dramatic situation in the southern Mediterranean will not change,” he said.

“Voluntary relocation of refugees by the countries of central and northern Europe will not solve the issue, as voluntary relocations have been planned for years without results.”

The opposition party also levied further criticism as it decried the deal as replicating the one with Turkey signed back in 2016.

“The idea of replicating the EU-Turkey agreement with north African countries raises serious questions, not only regarding its compatibility with asylum law but also based on the experience we have from the case of Turkey – where the agreement ended up being a weapon in the hands of [Turkish President Tayyip] Erdogan to blackmail Europe,” Akel said.

But the interior ministry denied there is such an equivalence.

“These are completely difference agreements,” it said, adding that the deal, if it goes through, is between member states.

“One concerns the EU with a third country, which is not bound by acquis communautaire and is not accountable for its compliance with the agreement beyond some economic implications it may have if not adhered to.

“This case pertains to a European Regulation that constitutes a legislative tool binding on all member states and creates obligations among them based on responsibility and solidarity,” the ministry said.

As for the richer central and northern countries simply buying their way out, the ministry essentially said that it’s better than what’s happening now, which is not much.

“The agreement should be viewed in comparison to the current situation in which central European member states did not accept any responsibility for burden-sharing and started from the premise that each member state should take all necessary measures to protect the external borders and asylum applications as a first-entry country.

“Therefore, the fact that the agreement now establishes shared responsibility for managing migrants is very significant,” said the ministry.

And not everyone thought the bloc could even get this far.

“I wasn’t sure this day would come,” said Maria Malmer Stenergard, migration minister for Sweden, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said after the announcement.

The essence of the agreement was neatly captured by the Economist, who described a potential upgrade as “an imperfect system that works will be better than a bad one that doesn’t”.