Title VI of the Treaty on European Union provides, in Article K1, that asylum policy shall be regarded as a matter of common interest for the purpose of achieving the objectives of the Union. Title VI also lays down clear rules and procedures for co-operation in this area, in addition to spelling out the respective roles of the member states, the Commission and the European Parliament. This formal commitment in the Treaty on European Union enshrines, in a binding instument, co-operation in the area of asylum which was already happening in a more informal way to deal with problems agreed to require a joint rather than an individual response.
In 1991, for example, the European Council adopted a work programme aimed at harmonisation of the asylum policies of the member states. Although the work programme did not contain any definition of the term "harmonisation", it was generally understood to mean the development of common rules and practices. This was a recognition of the fact that it is not sufficient for member states to develop harmonised legislation but that their implmentation practices should also be similar.
Initially, it was agreed by the Council that the protection of persons who are victims of persecution should be re-affirmed and the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees applied. As regards the tasks to be performed, priority was given to preparing the implementation of the Dublin Convention and harmonising the substantive rules of asylum law in order to ensure uniform interpretation of the 1951 UN Convention. Work also concentrated on specific aspects of asylum policy and, in particular, on practices that would counter the abuse of asylum procedures.
Implementation of the programme has continued following the entry into force of the Treaty on European Union. Co-operation was further enhanced by a plan of action approved by the European Council at its meeting in Brussels in December 1993. During Ireland's recent Presidency of the European Union, the working agenda in the area of asylum included measures aimed at ensuring appropriate conditions for the reception of asylum seekers in general and unaccompanied minors in particular. These measures were considered under the Irish Presidency in consultation with concerned agencies such as the UNHCR, for example, which acknowledged Ireland's progressive contribution in this area and they continue to be developed by the member states under the Dutch Presidency.
Progress has been made in setting out the guiding principles of the 1991 and 1993 work programmes in various resolutions and positions adopted by Council. However, these instruments are not of a legally binding nature and their implementation is a matter for each member state. The development of common rules and practices is not advanced, therefore, and could best be described perhaps as having reached an approximation stage rather than a stage of harmonisation of policy.
The Refugee Act, 1966 provides a statutory basis for the implementation of the State's obligations under the 1951 UN Convention and the related 1967 Protocol. The Act takes due account, where necessary, of measures adopted at EU level.