by Benjamin Fox
Last week’s agreement between the UK and Austria to work together on ‘third country’ asylum schemes is the latest confirmation that the EU’s southern borders extend well beyond the Mediterranean Sea.
The link up with London makes Austria the first EU country to commit to outsourcing asylum claims.
Austria’s scheme will differ from the UK’s £100 million arrangement to fly asylum seekers to Kigali for their claims to be processed, as migrants deported to Rwanda will be allowed to return to Austria if their asylum applications are successful.
But the idea is not new, nor did Brexit Britain mint it. Several EU countries, starting with Denmark, have been mulling over how to outsource asylum claims.
The European Commission, in striking multi-million euro ‘cash for migrant control’ deals with Turkey, Tunisia, and now Egypt, has also bought into the concept. Germany, long regarded as among the most progressive European governments on migration, has indicated that it will outsource the screening of asylum claims.
On Monday, Italy and Albania signed an agreement to process up to 36,000 asylum seekers a year, picked up by Italian vessels in the Mediterranean, in the EU candidate country, much to the shock of many politicians and the general public.
Consequently, reporters have every right to be bemused by the Commission’s insistence that the plans of Austria – or, indeed, any other EU member – to offshore asylum to a third country is not possible under EU law.
“Currently, EU asylum law applies only to applications made on the territory of a member state but not outside,” a Commission spokesperson told reporters on Monday (7 November).
EU governments can take these words with a pinch of salt.
It is a bit rich for the von der Leyen Commission, which has spent recent months brokering agreements – and then loudly extolling their virtue – with Tunisia and Egypt that are specifically designed to prevent people from migrating to or seeking asylum in Europe, to claim that the bloc’s rules prevent the outsourcing of migration control.
The EU executive can claim that these North African countries will prevent would-be migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea rather than processing asylum claims, but this is an exercise in semantics.
With such double standards from Brussels, it is hardly surprising that Austria, and potentially others, feel confident enough to press ahead with their own plans.
The link-up between London and Vienna is vindication for UK Home Affairs Minister Suella Braverman. Human rights lawyers and activists have traduced Rishi Sunak’s government, its political opponents and the EU over the deal. But it is not the end of the saga.
The Sunak government is currently appealing against a UK court ruling that the scheme is illegal on human rights grounds. Those legal challenges have ensured that more than 18 months after London struck its £100 million agreement with Paul Kagame’s government, the first asylum seekers are still yet to depart for Kigali.
The Supreme Court in London is expected to determine in December whether the Rwanda deal breaches the UK’s commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Should the court rule that it is illegal, Sunak’s government will be pressured to quit the ECHR. The question for Austria, other EU countries, and, potentially, the Commission itself is whether they would also be prepared to leave the ECHR.
*first published in: Euractiv.com