Maltese S&D MEPs abstain on EU’s new migration legislation

Malta regards the agreement as failing to reach the right balance between solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility between EU Member States.

None of the four Maltese MEPs forming part of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) voted in favour of the EU Regulation on asylum and migration management, the main legislation being proposed in a package of ten legislative texts aimed at reforming European migration and asylum policy. The Regulation, by rapporteur Tomas Tobé (Sweden, EPP), was nevertheless adopted when it was put to a vote at the European Parliament’s plenary mini-session in Brussels yesterday.

It was last December that, after eight years of negotiations, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU reached a political agreement on new rules to handle irregular arrivals of asylum seekers and migrants in the European Union. In the Council, through its Minister for Home Affairs, Law Enforcement, and National Security, Byron Camilleri, Malta made clear its position that it regards the agreement as failing to reach the right balance between solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility between Member States in this field. Owing to its geopolitical location and other realities, the smallest EU country feels the agreement fails to give the necessary guarantees that its needs will be fully met, and will not translate into a just and effective system able to withstand current and future challenges.

The Maltese MEPs forming part of the S&D Group who were present for the voting session yesterday – Alfred Sant, Alex Agius Saliba, and Josianne Cutajar (Cyrus Engerer was absent due to parliamentary work in Oslo) – all abstained while David Casa (EPP) voted in favour. The second Maltese EPP MEP, Roberta Metsola, took the decision to refrain from voting while serving as President of the European Parliament. At a press conference following the vote, she said: “We have listened, we have acted, and we have delivered on one of the main concerns of people across Europe. This is a historic day for Europe.”

The way responsibilities are shared is flawed”

Speaking to The Journal, the Head of the Maltese S&D delegation, Alfred Sant, said that though the contents of the resolutions presented to the European Parliament are an improvement on the current set up, they still fall short of the effective solidarity that peripheral and frontier countries need to administer smoothly the asylum policies envisaged at EU level. “The way responsibilities are shared is flawed without a fair balance between frontier states and the rest that ensures the former are not left to carry the can when crises emerge, which is why I abstained on the relative texts,” he said.

MEP Alfred Sant (Malta, S&D). Photo: Eric Vidal/European Union

“The Migration package falls short”

Alex Agius Saliba also criticised the migration regulation for keeping the voluntary responsibility-sharing system, leading him to abstain from voting. “This package falls short,” he said,” offering inadequate solutions for a long-standing European challenge. We needed bolder steps and stronger solidarity within the EU. Therefore, I couldn’t vote for this proposal.”

MEP Alex Agius Saliba (Malta, S&D). Photo: Jan Van De Vel/European Union

“A better balance could have been achieved”

While describing the vote as another step towards the closing of eight gruelling years of negotiations for a reformed Common European Asylum System, MEP Josianne Cutajar said that a comprehensive reform is indeed needed to provide a balance between the fair sharing of responsibility among Member States and the effective solidarity towards those Member States most affected – all while strengthening the safeguarding of human rights.

“In this regard, several concerns were raised, including those of many human rights’ activists wanting a more ambitious text,” she commented. “Let us, however, not forget that, overall, this Pact still offers an improvement to the status quo and it would have been risky to leave it to a new Parliament, given the current polling trends. In light of all this, I supported all but two files in the package. I decided to abstain on the Asylum and Migration Management Regulation and on the Asylum Procedures Regulation since I felt that a better balance could have been achieved on the fair sharing of responsibility and effective solidarity between member states, especially for frontline member states like Malta.”

MEP Josianne Cutajar (Malta, S&D). Photo: Eric Vidal/European Union

“Text does not respect human rights”

On his part, Cyrus Engerer reiterated his position against the agreed text and explained why he would have voted against had he been in Brussels. He lamented that the agreed text does not respect human rights and fails to introduce mandatory solidarity with the Member States that face the biggest number of irregular migrant arrivals. He also pointed out that children can continue being detained upon arrival in what is equivalent to prison and that not all countries deemed as “safe” are, in fact, safe for everyone. “There is nothing historic on what has been agreed,” he said.

MEP Cyrus Engerer (Malta, S&D). Photo: Philippe Stirnweiss/European Union

Protesters interrupt vote

More than 160 migrant charities and non-governmental human rights organisations have strongly criticised the Pact, asserting that it significantly curtails asylum rights for those entering the EU irregularly. Their concerns include the absence of legal representation at borders, the potential for deportation during the appeal stage of their claim, and the suspension of certain legal protections if a member state suspects that individuals are being “pushed” or trafficked from a third country. Dozens of demonstrators rallied outside the parliament building yesterday, protesting the vote on the Migration and Asylum Pact. Inside the chamber, the start of voting was disrupted by shouts of “This pact kills – vote no!” from protesters in the public gallery.

‘This pact kills!’: Protests as European parliament votes to tighten migration laws. Courtesy of Guardian News.

What’s in the package of ten legislative texts?

1. Solidarity and responsibility

In order to assist EU countries subject to migratory pressure, other member states will contribute by relocating asylum applicants or beneficiaries of international protection to their territory, making financial contributions, or providing operational and technical support. The criteria according to which a member state is responsible for examining international protection applications (the so called Dublin rules) will also be updated.

The regulation on asylum and migration management, by rapporteur Tomas Tobé (Sweden, EPP), was adopted with 322 votes in favour, 266 against, and 31 abstentions.

2. Addressing situations of crisis

The crisis and force majeure regulation establishes a mechanism to respond to sudden increases in arrivals, ensuring solidarity and support for member states facing an exceptional influx of third-country nationals. The new rules will also cover the instrumentalisation of migrants, i.e. when they are used by third-countries or hostile non-state actors aiming to destabilise the EU.

The bill, by rapporteur Juan Fernando López Aguilar (Spain, S&D), was confirmed with 301 votes in favour, 272 against, and 46 abstentions.

3 & 4. Screening of third-country nationals at EU borders

People who do not meet the conditions to enter the EU will be subject to a pre-entry screening procedure, including identification, collecting of biometric data, and health and security checks, during a period of up to seven days. Member states will have to set independent monitoring mechanisms to ensure the respect for fundamental rights.

The text, by rapporteur Birgit Sippel (Germany, S&D), was endorsed by 366 votes to 229, and 26 abstentions. MEPs also approved new rules for the centralised system on conviction information (ECRIS-TCN), with 414 votes to 182 against and 29 abstentions.

5 & 6. Faster asylum procedures

A new common procedure will be established across the EU to grant and withdraw international protection. Processing asylum claims at EU borders will in future have to be faster, with shorter deadlines for unfounded or inadmissible claims.

The bill, by rapporteur Fabienne Keller (France, Renew), was adopted by 301 votes to 269 and 51 abstentions. For the Border return procedure the result was 329 votes to 253 and 40 abstentions.

7. Eurodac regulation

The data of those arriving irregularly to the EU, including fingerprints and facial images from six years old onwards, will be stored in the reformed Eurodac database. Authorities will also be able to record if someone may present a security threat or was violent or armed.

The text, by rapporteur Jorge Buxadé Villalba (Spain, ECR), was adopted with 404 votes to 202 and 16 abstentions.

8. Qualifications standards

Parliament also backed new uniform standards for all member states for the recognition of refugee or subsidiary protection status, and regarding the rights granted to those qualifying for protection. Member states should assess the situation in the country of origin based on information from the EU Asylum Agency and refugee status would be reviewed regularly. Applicants for protection will have to remain on the territory of the member state responsible for their application or in which the protection was granted.

Steered by rapporteur Matjaž Nemec (Slovenia, S&D), the text was endorsed with 340 votes to 249 and 34 abstentions.

9. Receiving asylum applicants

Member states will have to ensure equivalent reception standards for asylum seekers when it comes to, for example, housing, schooling, and health care. Registered asylum applicants will be able to start working at the latest six months after filing the request. The conditions of detention and the restriction of freedom of movement will be regulated, to discourage applicants from moving around the EU.

The act, by rapporteur Sophia in ‘t Veld (Netherlands, Renew), was approved by 398 votes to 162 and 60 abstentions.

10. Safe and legal way to Europe

Under a new framework on resettlement and humanitarian admission, member states will, on a voluntary basis, offer to host UNHCR-recognised refugees from third countries, who would travel to EU territory in a legal, organised and safe way.

The bill, by rapporteur Malin Björk (Sweden, The Left), was adopted with 452 votes in favour, 154 against and 14 abstentions.

Next steps

Once the package is formally approved by the Council, the laws will enter into force after their publication in the EU’s Official Journal. The regulations are expected to start applying in two years’ time. For the reception conditions directive, member states will have two years to transpose the changes into their national laws.

Main photo: Daina Le Lardic/European Union.

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