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Council discussed Balkan visas, Syria

26 October 2012

Commissioner Cecilia Malmström (left), Cyprus Minister for the Interior Eleni Mavrou & Cyprus Minister for Justice Loukas Louca. Photo: EU Council

This week, EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers met in Luxembourg. On the first day of deliberations, three pressing issues were in focus; protection of refugees from the Syrian conflict, negotiations on the common asylum system, and visa-free travel between the Western Balkans and the EU.

On Syria, Ministers and EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström discussed the establishment of a regional protection programme, to protect the thousands upon thousands of people fleeing the conflict there. In September alone, it is estimated that 65 000 people fled Syria to neighbouring countries in the region, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The regional protection programme, set up in cooperation with UNHCR, would improve protection through local integration of refugees, resettlement and other efforts.

Also on the agenda were the ongoing negotiations between the Ministerial Council and the European Parliament on the common EU asylum system. The common system has been underway for more than ten years and a deadline has been set by member states to the end of 2012, to finish negotiations on the proposals set forth by the Commission. The purpose of common EU policies is to ensure a high level of protection of refugees, as well as equal treatment, across the Union.

"Despite a few remaining hurdles, we are moving steadily towards the goal of achieving a common asylum system by the end of this year. We have identified the remaining obstacles, and with a bit of pragmatism and a little more effort I think we can achieve this in the coming months. That would be a great day for the European Union", EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said at the press conference following Thursday's meeting.

Participants also discussed the system of visa-free travel from the Western Balkan countries, in effect since a few years, in light of the increasing number of asylum seekers from that region. Such applications in EU countries are up 75% since last year, although only a very small number of applicants are granted protection. Council participants asked the countries of the Western Balkans to prevent abuse of the system, and for the Commission to keep monitoring the situation.

"It is time for the Western Balkan countries to seriously address this issue, so that visa freedom is not put at risk", Cecilia Malmström said, and underlined that the most important task in the long term is to improve the situation of the Roma minority in these countries.

The issue will also be raised at the ministerial meeting in Albania on 5-6 November with countries of the region.

During Thursday's meting, Ministers were also briefed by Cecilia Malmström about her recent visit to Greece and the situation for refugees along the Greek-Turkish border. The Council continued Friday with, among other things, deliberations on confiscation of criminal assets and illegal drug use in Europe.

More: Read Cecilia Malmström's own blog post about the Council negotiations, the press release from the Council about the progress towards the common asylum system, and watch the video from the press conference. Pictures from the Council meeting are available here.