For foreign affairs minister Jean Asselborn, "This pandemic has laid bare the vulnerability not only of the Schengen system, but of the European Union as a whole."
Photo: Mike Zenari
Delano caught up with Luxembourg’s foreign affairs minister Jean Asselborn (LSAP) to ask him about challenges related to rule of law, asylum seekers and the Schengen zone.
Natalie A. Gerhardstein: Let’s discuss rule of law: do you expect the new mechanism agreed on this to pass through European Parliament and Council and, if so, will it be applied if the likes of Hungary and Poland continue to breach rule of law?
Jean Asselborn: We need a strong mechanism to protect and promote the rule of law inside the EU. Following the agreement among EU heads of state and government in July this year, a provisional understanding on a mechanism to protect the union budget was reached with the European Parliament on 5 November. This legislative proposal includes a conditionality regime according to which EU funding can be withheld when a member state breaches the principles of the rule of law and thereby seriously risks to affect the financial interests of the union.
At the level of the [European] Council however, Hungary, joined by Poland, have signalled that they cannot agree at this stage to the Multiannual Financial Framework and NextGenerationEU package in the light of the aforementioned development. This is a quite regrettable development, which risks to delay the disbursement of EU funds in the current situation where the economic impact of the covid-19 crisis is being felt throughout Europe. Especially the young generation expects a clear stance from the EU on rule of law issues. The EU should remain steadfast in its approach and our values should not be eroded further in this process.
The pandemic showed the Schengen Agreement is fragile, but can Schengen signatories pull together and agree a framework for maintaining open borders in similar situations in the future?
This pandemic has laid bare the vulnerability not only of the Schengen system, but of the European Union as a whole. In the early days of the crisis many member states reverted to national reflexes to address the pandemic, which was not in the spirit of the European Union and led to very unfortunate situations. People living in border areas were submitted to checks at border crossings and the free movement of goods, among which essential goods in the fight against this pandemic, was hindered.
Fortunately, we were able to quickly set up coordination mechanisms and to avert major damages to the functioning of the single market and the Schengen free travel area.
For Luxembourg, it is important to ensure that all measures taken in an effort to counter this virus are compatible with EU law. It must be reminded that the free movement of people is a fundamental right under the EU treaties and that everything should be done to uphold it.
The crisis which has emerged because of the coronavirus has made clear that a thorough discussion is needed. Together, all member states need to establish how best to protect our common European achievements of which Schengen is a central part.
The EU presidency next year is Portugal, then Slovenia, both of which agreed to take in unaccompanied minors from the Moria camp. Would you expect there to be a push from them during their presidencies to get a more formal EU solution to the refugee situation?
The current state of play of the EU’s refugee policy is unfortunately deplorable. These days, only a handful of member states show solidarity with countries of first entry by participating in voluntary coordinated efforts to relocate refugees. Some member states have simply given in to populist movements calling to limit access to international protection, and others have even breached legally binding EU instruments.
Moria was a tragedy and another striking example of our dysfunctional migration policy. We must learn from our mistakes and overcome our divisions. I sincerely hope that we will swiftly come to an agreement on a more systematic approach to the situation of unaccompanied minors and lay the foundations for a comprehensive EU migration policy that strikes the right balance between responsibility and solidarity and is fully respected by all member states.
Unfortunately, discussions on the EU commission’s pact on migration and asylum have so far not facilitated a breakthrough on these crucial issues. I have repeatedly made the point that the number of arrivals is currently by far below the figures of 2015/2016. We would only be talking about relocating a couple of thousand people among member states. We also need to ensure that a transparent, predictable and mandatory mechanism will guarantee fair burden sharing in case of a renewed crisis. Squaring this circle will be a heavy task for the current [European] council presidency, and it will keep the incoming and future presidencies even busier. Luxembourg will be a constructive partner in these efforts to achieve a fairer migration management system. I expect others to do the same.
An alternate version of this interview will appear in the January 2021 print issue of Delano which will be released on 16 December.