BREAKING Help from the European Commission for Romania to join Schengen: Brussels presented the plan requested by Austria to fight illegal migration on the Western Balkans route / Vienna’s reaction expected
The European Commission presented on Monday, just three days before the decisive JHA Council for Romania’s entry into Schengen, the plan to combat illegal migration on the Western Balkans route, according to a press release from the European executive. The plan is an attempt to mitigate the major concerns expressed by Austria, which announced through the voice of its prime minister and interior minister that it does not want to accept the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen for an alleged inaction of these two countries in the face of immigration on the Western Balkans route.
Commission data show that this year almost 130 000 irregular border crossing attempts were reported by Frontex at the EU’s external borders on all Western Balkans routes, three times more than in the same period in 2021. These numbers have also been cited by Austria, which says it has more than 100,000 asylum seekers on its territory.
Romania, through President Klaus Iohannis, Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă and Interior Minister Lucian Bode, rejected the accusations, saying that only a tiny fraction, less than 3% of illegal migrants applying for asylum in Austria would have passed through Romania.
Austria voiced its opposition to Schengen enlargement only two weeks ago, raising the issue ahead of a regional election in which the party of the prime minister and interior minister is the runner-up.
The European Commission promised two weeks ago that it would quickly present a plan to fight illegal migration along the Western Balkans route, precisely to allay Austria’s concerns and unblock the vote on Schengen enlargement.
The plan proposed by the European Commission on Monday includes a series of measures taken in partnership with non-EU countries along the migration route.
G4Media will report later today on Austria’s possible reactions to the European Commission’s proposed plan. A possible reaction of rejection of this plan by Vienna could mean that Austria is still opposed to the enlargement of the Schengen area, which it has said is not working and needs a change of rules.
The Romanian government already welcomed on Monday the European Commission’s Western Balkans Action Plan: „Romania appreciates the comprehensive nature of the document presented by the European Commission, which includes concrete measures and important action areas in response to the challenges related to the phenomenon of illegal migration on the Western Balkans route. In this context, the Romanian Government expresses its confidence that the set of measures and instruments proposed by the European Commission in the Plan published today are likely to respond also to the concerns recently expressed by Austria regarding the developments this year on the Western Balkans route, offering pragmatic solutions towards the efficient management of this situation. Romania reiterates its full willingness to contribute actively and consistently to the implementation of the measures and actions proposed by the European Commission in a full European spirit of solidarity and responsibility, in close cooperation with the rest of the European partners”, reads a press release issued by the Executive.
Austria remained the only EU member state to oppose Romania and Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen, after the Dutch government announced on Friday that the parliament in The Hague would give its consent to Romania and Croatia’s accession.
But Schengen membership requires a unanimous vote at a meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers on 8 December.
Full press release from the European Commission:
Ahead of the EU-Western Balkans Summit of 6 December 2022 and the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 8 December, the Commission is presenting an EU Action Plan on the Western Balkans. This Action Plan follows up on the Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council (Home Affairs) of 25 November, where Ministers committed to implement the EU Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean, proposed by the Commission on 21 November.
The Action Plan on the Western Balkans identifies 20 operational measures structured along 5 pillars: (1) strengthening border management along the routes; (2) swift asylum procedures and support reception capacity; (3) fighting migrant smuggling; (4) enhancing readmission cooperation and returns as well as (5) achieving visa policy alignment. The measures are focused on support to or actions by Western Balkan partners, and action in the EU. It aims to strengthen the cooperation on migration and border management with partners in Western Balkans in light of their unique status with EU accession perspective and their continued efforts to align with EU rules.
The Action Plan sets outs a series of measures to reinforce the EU’s support to Member States facing increased migratory pressure along the Western Balkan routes. Irregular movements along the Western Balkans routes have significantly increased this year due to several factors, including economic pressures and insecurity resulting from ongoing conflicts. The non-alignment of visa-free regime with the EU’s visa policy also contributes to an increasing number of people that arrive directly by air to Western Balkan countries and move onward to the EU. Close cooperation with our Western Balkan partners is essential to address these shared migratory challenges.
Pillar One: Strengthen border management along the routes
Reinforcing border management along the whole migration route is essential to reduce irregular flows, also in light of the evolving modus operandi of smugglers, the increased use of violence, and the risks of firearms trafficking and organised crime. The EU has already concluded status agreements with Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia, allowing Frontex to deploy the European Border and Coast Guard standing corps to joint operations in the region. The Frontex joint operations and deployments will be strengthened, and new status agreements will be negotiated swiftly. At the same time, we will review and potentially increase Frontex support to Member States at the EU external borders.
Pillar two: Ensure swift asylum procedure and support reception capacity
The EU remains committed to strengthening the asylum capacity of Western Balkans partners and is supporting reception across the region through an ongoing Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) programme across the region. Continued support for the Western Balkans partners includes further strengthening their asylum and registration procedures as well as ensuring adequate reception conditions. The EU will notably continue to work with the Western Balkans partners to develop contingency planning and ensure preparedness for the winter season.
In the EU, a swift implementation of the roadmap on Dublin transfers and Eurodac registrations are also actions required to address secondary movements and improve migration management.
Pillar three: Fighting migrant smuggling
During the EU-Western Balkans Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial on 3 November 2022 the Commission launched an Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnership. To continue strengthening actions along the whole route it is necessary to establish a Europol operational task force, enhance participation of all Western Balkan partners in the EMPACT cycle 2022-2025 and implement the recently adopted IPA programme on anti-smuggling. Reaching an agreement with co-legislators on the proposal to sanction transport operators involved in migrant smuggling is also essential. As a bridging measure, the Commission will consolidate an operational toolbox with measures targeting transport operators.
Pillar four: Enhancing readmission cooperation and returns
The full implementation of readmission agreements with Western Balkan partners is the backbone of return and readmission cooperation. We will support Western Balkans partners with EU action to step up returns in the region, strengthening operational capacities through Frontex, as well as convening Joint Readmission Committees. A new programme on returns from the region will be developed in 2023, stepping up cooperation and coordination at operational level between the EU, the Western Balkans and countries of origin.
Pillar five: Achieving the alignment of visa policy
Visa policy alignment is crucial for the good functioning of the visa free regime of the Western Balkans with the EU. All Western Balkans partners should align their visa policy with the EU as a matter of priority. The Commission is adopting today its Fifth report on visa suspension on the monitoring of the EU visa-free regime with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The report focuses on actions taken to address the recommendations made by the Commission in the Fourth report, addressing the requirements for visa-free continue to be fulfilled but immediate steps are needed on alignment with EU visa policy.
The EU and the Member States will need to work jointly to achieve the goals set in this Action Plan and to ensure its effective implementation. Reporting and monitoring through the existing Commission and Council mechanisms are instrumental to that end. This Action Plan complements the ongoing work targeting other key migratory routes to Europe and may act as a model to develop similar plans addressing the specificities of other migratory routes.
The recent developments further underline the need to find sustainable and structural European solutions to our common challenges based on the comprehensive approach set out in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed in 2020. It remains crucial to ensure the adoption of these reforms before the end of this legislative term.
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