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October 1999, Volume 6, Number 10

EU: Tampere Summit

The European Union will hold its first summit devoted to policing and judicial issues in Tampere, Finland in October 1999, with immigration and asylum issues figuring prominently on the agenda. Germany, Austria and Italy are pushing for a common European asylum and immigration system, with common standards for considering asylum and immigrant visa applications. The UK, on the other hand, favors "mutual recognition," in which each EU-member nation would respect the immigration and asylum decisions made by other nations. Spain, Portugal and Greece, which receive few asylum seekers, fear that common standards, including financial assistance for asylum applicants, might increase the number of applicants.

Some countries believe that common standards for dealing with asylum seekers will make it unnecessary for the EU to develop a formal burden-sharing arrangement.

The UNHCR echoed the fears of many critics that EU nations may begin treating asylum as a discretionary political act rather than as a basic human right. UNHCR reported on September 21 that there was a 12 percent decrease in the number of asylum requests in August 1999, compared to the previous month, with 35 percent of the asylum requests filed in Germany. In 1998, about 290,000 foreigners applied for asylum in the EU.

According to the EU, there are 17.6 million foreigners among the 374.6 million residents of the 15-member European Union. About half of the foreigners are from developing countries, and most are in Germany, France and the UK.

On September 21, the European Court of Justice ruled that European member states are entitled to carry out identity checks on EU citizens entering the country, and that the practice is not a violation of the principle of free movement.

Schengen. France, Germany, and the Benelux countries launched an intergovernmental effort in 1985 in the Dutch city of Schengen to remove barriers to border controls between themselves. At about the same time, the Single European Act of 1987 aimed to remove barriers to trucks that were moving goods between EU member nations.

Abolishing border controls meant that one country would have to trust another to inspect entrants at the new common external border of Schengen-member states, and eventually force Schengen members to agree on a common list of countries whose nationals would require visas to enter, a shared database that all border inspectors can easily check to determine who should not be admitted, and other issues that moved member states toward a common immigration policy. The Schengen agreement went into force in March 1995.

The original list of Schengen member states has grown to 10, and in 2000 the five Nordic countries that have had a free-movement agreement for the past four decades are scheduled to join. Schengen has been incorporated into the basic law of the EU, the Amsterdam Treaty and all EU members except Denmark, Ireland, and the UK are expected to participate fully. [The UK argues that, as an island nation, its immigration control situation is different. If the UK can inspect all entrants, it believes it does not need internal controls]. The Eastern European nations expected to join the EU are expected to be full Schengen members from their date of entry.

The SIS, the common database on persons that individual countries do not want admitted to the Schengen area, has been the focus of much debate in Europe. On the one hand, the SIS seems to have dramatically reduced car theft. However, there are no clear guidelines about how a person is entered into the SIS by a Schengen member government. For example, when a person attempting to obtain a visa to France was denied the visa because he was in the SIS, it took an appeal to a French court to learn that the German government had entered the man's name in the SIS because he applied for asylum twice and had his application denied. The French court concluded that this was not a valid reason to be entered in the SIS and granted the visa.

This case illustrates a general difference between Europe and the US in visa issuance. The US generally does not permit denials of visa applications overseas to be reviewed in US courts; many European countries do permit some visa denials to be appealed to administrative tribunals and eventually courts. The US argues that issuing tourist visas is a high-volume activity—the average application is disposed of in one to two minutes—and the stakes are too low to justify elaborate review procedures. Review procedures in any event would be cumbersome, the US Department of State argues, because most refusals are based on the subjective belief of the consular officer that the applicant will remain in the US.

In FY97, the US DOS received 7.5 million applications for nonimmigrant visas, issued six million, and refused visas to 1.5 million applicants, a 20 percent refusal rate. By comparison, the UK received about 1.4 million visa applications and refused about 90,000.

There may be an emerging consensus across the Atlantic. The US visa regime began in 1917 and required most Eastern Hemisphere immigrants and visitors to obtain visas for US entry. Only in 1986 did the US begin to experiment with visa-free entry and in 1999, nationals of 30 countries, in which the rate of denying visas to applicants is under three percent, can enter the US without visas.

"Passport Controls at Europe's Internal Borders not Violation of EU Regulations," De Financieel-economishe Tijd, September 22, 1999. "French Interior Minister Maintains Right to Asylum," AFP, September 18, 1999. "EU ministers discuss reform of refugee policies," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 17, 1999. "Fewer people ask for political asylum in Europe," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 21, 1999. Richard Norton-Taylor, "Peers fear for rights of asylum seekers," News Unlimited, September 9, 1999. Clarence Lusane, "Race against time," Prague Post, September 8, 1999.