EU Migration and Asylum Pact: Discussion

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Michael Shotter, director of migration and protection at the European Commission. Today's engagement will allow us to explore the migration and asylum pact in more detail.

Before we begin, I must advise Mr. Shotter that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. I ask him to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, he should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I wish to advise witnesses giving evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts that the constitutional protections afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence to committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, evidence given is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from another jurisdiction should also be mindful of their domestic statutory regime. If a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter, he or she must respect that direction. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I now invite Mr. Shotter to make his opening statement.

Mr. Michael Shotter

Good morning. I thank the committee for the invitation to speak today. I hope members have received the slides I sent yesterday because I will be speaking to them this morning. By way of introduction and with reference to the first of those slides, in September the Commission brought forward a new pact on the subject of migration and asylum with the objective of building long-term and stable migration policy and translating European values into its management. The first thing I would like to underline is that it is a new pact. Back in 2016 following the migration crisis of 2015-2016, we had tabled a reform of the common European asylum system but as committee members will be aware, we have not been able to close a number of proposals that we put on the table at that time. The idea was to come with a new pact to break through the deadlock and to create a stable system to ensure a future-proofed system. The starting point for our new pact is to acknowledge the reality of migration, including the fact that it has enriched our countries, both economically and socially. In terms of regular migration pathways, this side of our migration policy works pretty well but in terms of irregular migration, we must accept and admit that our system does not work so well.

What Europe has to do now is better manage the challenges that we face with migration because the system we have in place now has a number of shortcomings. That is why we have tabled this comprehensive approach which is built on an integrated policy-making methodology. It is built on four main pillars, the first of which concerns the external environment and the importance of good, strong co-operation with non-EU countries and of building win-win external partnerships. In order for this to be achievable, investment is required and the process involved is long term. We need to get stuck into that right now and to do so on the basis of tailor-made and mutually beneficial partnerships with third countries. These partnerships aim to address the shared challenges we face with regard to migration. Migration is not just a phenomenon that involves people coming to Europe. If one looks at the figures for Africa, for example, there is migration going on all over the place within the continent itself. We have common challenges and the partnerships are predicated on the basis of working together on those challenges, such as in the areas of migrant smuggling, developing legal migrant pathways and tackling the effective implementation of readmission agreements and arrangements.

The second pillar I want to mention in this comprehensive approach concerns more efficient and faster procedures vis-à-vis border management. The Commission proposes to introduce integrated asylum and return border procedures. This is an innovation of the pact of September. It will also include a pre-entry phase for screening, which is not a procedure in itself but relates to certain activities that should be carried out, including for example, the identification of all people crossing the EU's external borders without meeting the entry conditions or having disembarked after a search and rescue operation.

It seems common sense that we should have an identification of each person arriving, and health checks and security checks. That is what is meant by screening. We need to also to ensure registration in the EURODAC database. This screening phase will also allow individuals to be rapidly and effectively channelled towards the right procedure. That could be the border procedure, which we would make mandatory under certain circumstances, for example, for people coming from a country with a recognition rate of below 20%, or it could be the normal asylum procedure, or, if a person is not applying for asylum, it could be straight into a return channel.

By the way, I should mention that the border procedure is an accelerated procedure which is aimed at providing quick decisions but always respecting the fundamental rights requirements. We have to have an individual assessment of every applicant making an asylum application, and whether or not they are in the border procedure, we always need an individual assessment. At the same time, we would also envisage strengthening all of the other procedures and subjecting these procedures and the way member states carry these out to stronger monitoring and operational support from EU agencies.

I should also mention the EU’s digital infrastructure for migration management and I have already mentioned the EURODAC database. It is proposed to modernise this so it is more effective at covering, for example, individual applicants rather than applications. For example, if a person applied for asylum in one member state, it would be able to track that more effectively by being able to see whether that person then applies for asylum in another member state. The present database is not so efficient at covering that kind of situation and we need to fix these deficiencies.

The third pillar mentioned on the first slide concerns the fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity, which is one of the core issues that we need to get right in the pact. I will come back to that shortly on a separate slide.

The fourth pillar I set out on the opening slide is about legal pathways and integration. The pact is not about creating a fortress Europe. A credible legal migration and integration policy is essential for benefiting European societies and economies, and also for building those external partnerships that I mentioned earlier. The Commission proposes, therefore, to launch talent partnerships with the key non-EU countries that will match labour and skills needs in the EU. I would like to make a distinction within these legal pathways in that there can be economic legal pathways but there can also be humanitarian legal pathways, which are, of course, of great importance. The pact intends to strengthen resettlement and promote other complementary pathways to protection, seeking to develop a European approach to community sponsorship to give civil society a stronger and more structured role in the reception and integration of newcomers. We have set out these objectives in the recommendation on legal pathways to protection in the EU.

Last week, the Commission came forward with and adopted a new comprehensive action plan on integration and inclusion. This action plan promotes inclusion for all, recognising the essential role of integration in a stable asylum and migration policy. We need to get that right, and there is an important local dimension of that in terms of working in partnership with different stakeholders and also with local and regional authorities.

I will now move to the next slide. It is important to ensure the sharing of responsibility and solidarity, and this is a principle set out and enshrined in the treaty itself. What we would do is elaborate on this principle, in particular through a new proposal, which is the asylum and migration management regulation that will replace the Dublin regulation. This sets out a common framework, sets out rules on responsibility and also sets out a solidarity mechanism. Member states, by this solidarity mechanism, will be bound to show solidarity to each other. Solidarity is not optional; it is compulsory. In particular, we focus this on situations of pressure because we must make sure that member states contribute in times of need to help stabilise the overall system, support member states under pressure and ensure the Union fulfils its humanitarian obligations. That is a very important point and I want to emphasise this mandatory solidarity component.

As I mentioned earlier, the 2016 proposal was also aimed at putting in place a solidarity mechanism and, of course, it proved very difficult to find a way through with our earlier proposal. We have tried to learn from this earlier experience and Commissioner Johansson and Vice President Schinas were mandated by the President to carry out a series of exchanges with stakeholders, but in particular with member states, to try to find a way by which we can come together on this very important point, which is to find the right balance between responsibility and solidarity. That has involved an acceptance in our proposals of the need to have a flexible system in place. We cannot have an unduly rigid system but we cannot compromise either on the objective we want to achieve here, which is to provide effective support to the member states that need that support. That will most likely be the member states that are geographically exposed and, as we have seen, that are constantly under pressure due to their geographical position.

On this basis, we need to reconcile the fact we need a compulsory system, we need it to be flexible and we also need it to be effective. These are the key objectives we have integrated into the design of our system. This involves, for example, recognising that solidarity should be provided, and that could be in terms of location but it also could be in terms of providing support in the area of return. That is an innovation in our new proposal. We call this "return sponsorship" and it is a rather important additional way of offering solidarity. However, we do not confine it to those people solidarity options. There are also various other options like capacity building and also providing support in the external dimension, along the route which impacts the member state under pressure. The mechanism, as I said, needs to always help the member state that is under pressure so this flexibility needs to be counterbalanced by certain guarantees. This is, in the first place, ensured by the Commission working with the member state that will be under pressure to identify its real needs. It is not for the Commission just to say to a member state: “Take this, it is something that is useful for you.” It has to be something that really is useful to the member state that is under pressure. At the same time, given the balance we need to strike between responsibility and solidarity, we need to ensure that those rules on responsibility are more effective and address the issues relating to unauthorised secondary movement. This is the other side of the coin, in a sense, and we need to get that right and acknowledge that the system does not work as it should in that area either. Therefore, we have proposed some improvements in that area as well.

As I mentioned, return is of fundamental importance. We acknowledge this in the solidarity mechanism but we also acknowledge that we need to step up with EU-level support to member states in this area because we need to have a more efficient system. We need to give protection to those who need protection, but for that system to work well, we also need to acknowledge there are those who, having been assessed after application, have been found not to need protection.

For those who applied and are found not to require protection, we need to find dignified ways of ensuring that the return system, which is linked with readmission to third countries and so there is an external dimension that also works well.

Members will see on the slide a reference to common governance of migration and better governance. It is important that each member state has in place a strong and robust system of its own at national level. We depend on that. It is the European way to build on good, strong, national systems. That is essential for another nucleant of the European way, which is that we can ensure mutual trust between member states. In this area that is at a premium. We need to make sure that each member state has a robust system in place which ensures better strategic planning, both at national and European level, and also enhanced monitoring of migration management on the ground with annual reports, etc.

The final slide shows the pact in the form of a completed puzzle. The puzzle is intended to depict that this is not an easy area. It is a challenging area but we need to get all the pieces of the puzzle to fit together. The internal and external dimensions both need to work. We cannot have one piece and not the other. They both need to fit together; the one supports the other. All of this is essential to ensure full communication in terms of an overall comprehensive approach.

I mentioned the effective border management through the screening regulation, the asylum procedures regulation, known as the EURODAC regulation.

I will make a brief comment on crisis. We are not in a permanent state of crisis. There was a crisis in 2015-2016 provoked by the situation in Syria but it is not the normal functioning and we should not design a system exclusively for situations of crisis. We need to prevent crises and put in place stable systems to avoid these crises. We cannot always avoid crises. They come from outside, therefore, we need to have better rules in place for when a crisis occurs. The starting point is a stable system working in a more normal setting, which is able to respond also to pressure without breaking. That is the reason we have this pressure mechanism for dealing with solidarity.

I should also mention the special status that we recognise for search and rescue operations and disembarkations. It has to be acknowledged that it is an obligation under international law to rescue people in distress at sea and, where they have been rescued, to disembark them in the nearest place of safety. If a person is disembarked on that basis, it is in a rather different setting from someone otherwise disembarking across the border in an irregular manner.

I mentioned the legal pathway. That is the resettlement recommendation. The asylum and migration management regulation is the centrepiece in a way because it is where we find this common approach.

Finally, the grey pieces of the puzzle are those which discussed last time around. While we have not completed these proposals there has been a lot of progress in the co-decision procedure. There is no point reinventing the wheel. We would encourage the swift adoption of these proposals, for example, setting up of an EU asylum agency. It is very important to get that done quickly. I am very happy to answer members' questions.

I thank Mr. Shotter. With the agreement of the committee we will go into private session for a few minutes. The broadband connectivity drops out every little while. We were able to hear his presentation but it is not clear. We will go into private session for a few minutes. He might disconnect or move to a better location.

Mr. Michael Shotter

Okay.

The joint committee went into private session at 9.34 a.m. and resumed in public session at 9.38 a.m.

I thank Mr. Shotter again for his contribution.

I thank Mr. Shotter for that very detailed presentation and for sending the slides to us in advance. I want to touch on a couple of issues but I will start with his final comments on the external dimension. What steps does he believe should be taken to deal with third countries? Is there a risk of being overly reliant on third countries, which may start to have a slightly different approach to this issue? We have seen that in wider EU external negotiations in recent weeks and months. Is the allowance for differential responses within member states creating a risk also? We are speaking here in Dublin. Ireland is located at the most western tip of Europe where dealing with a refugee crisis is not necessarily an immediate challenge. It is a long way to come here but is there a risk in terms of the different approaches by member states depending on the political mood within member states?

Touching on the political mood and the public mood, I would appreciate hearing some of Mr. Shotter's thoughts in this regard. This issue has gone back to the Council but what is the more precise role of the parliaments of the member states? We have been discussing the migration refugee crisis for some time.

Mr. Shotter has been working on this at the highest level for many years, but still the discussion, unfortunately, can sometimes be too Brussels-centric. Trying to get public buy-in requires a greater buy-in from member state parliaments. I would appreciate Mr. Shotter's thoughts on how we can involve member state parliaments to a greater extent than just having ad hoc meetings of committees such as this one. It is great that there is a detailed focus on this topic, which was suggested by Senator Chambers from the outset. Is that being repeated by other member states?

To conclude and tie it all together, what is the next step for the pact?

I thank Mr. Shotter. I am really happy we are having this conversation because this is one of the most important policy changes at an EU level that there has been for some time and it will have an impact on all member states. It is one of those controversial issues that, domestically, can be difficult to deal with. I do not know whether this is to ease the concerns of member states but much of the commentary and the media around this seems to have a strong focus on a robust returns system. I do not know whether that is to let member states know that this will limit, more so than now, the numbers of people coming into the European Union but I am not sure that is the correct message to send out. I agree that migration, diversity and people coming in are good for member states and we should champion and welcome that diversity.

The proposal states that there will be a common approach to governance. Does Mr. Shotter envisage new laws being proposed or new directives issued on that front to try to streamline how member states adopt this pact?

As for how member states deal with this, there is again a focus on flexibility, which is the bedrock of the European Union and of how we do things by consensus. In that vein, however, there is a focus on member states not having to agree to relocate persons but instead being able to provide financial and administrative support, along with a returns mechanism. That seems to benefit, to a certain extent, the wealthier member states. Furthermore, if a government is trying to have a fair migration policy and wants to help to relocate people, it gives domestic opposition, which might be against that, a stick to beat it with because it can say the government should just pay the money instead, provide administrative support and focus on the returns. If the focus and objective is to ease the burden on the small number of member states that have been most affected by the migration crisis, that is, those at the front line in this regard, will the fact that there is an easy out for other member states not to relocate people and simply provide money instead make the big difference it has been suggested it will make?

How does Mr. Shotter think the pact has been received by member states? Has the reaction been positive or tepid? What has their feedback suggested about how they have adopted it or whether they have embraced it wholeheartedly?

Mr. Michael Shotter

On the external dimension and whether there is a risk in placing so much emphasis on this tailor-made approach with regard to external partner countries, as I was trying to explain earlier it is not we are placing exclusive emphasis on it; all the components have to be in place. It is not that we say to do the external and not to do the internal; all of it needs to be done, and that is what makes it rather complex and difficult. We cannot ignore the essential nature of tackling the issues. What are causes and drivers of migration? One has to consider the smuggling and criminal networks and the challenges third countries themselves have in dealing with migration, such as their own asylum system or the fact they may have many asylum seekers or people seeking protection. They can be helped with their own systems. I could go on with examples, such as developing their economies and societies in such a way that they will be better able to meet the challenges. There is a common ground where we can come together and find these common interests. It takes time, effort and investment, not only in terms of money but also in getting it right and understanding. It may be that the circumstances are quite different in one third country compared with another and, therefore, we need to be able to tailor-make these partnerships.

Legal migration also plays a part in this. We should aim to have a win-win relationship in that regard, where we may have needs in sectors of the economy or the functioning of society and the third country may have an interest in developing training and expertise in that area. We do not want to have a brain drain but a circular movement in order that we meet that ethical concern. It is not an optional part of a stable system; it is an essential part of a stable system. The issue of return is not an attractive subject to speak about but we have to acknowledge that it is part of a stable functioning system to get that side of the policy working well. That cannot be done without working in partnership with third countries because those third countries need to readmit people, and that is often a sticky and difficult point. That is why it is so important to get the external dimension right and to do it in a tailor-made way.

Deputy Richmond mentioned the differentiated responses from member states, and I think he was referring to the solidarity mechanism [inaudible]. Therefore, I might join this answer with another point mentioned. We included the flexibility to acknowledge that that is the way in which the European Union should work and having learned from the previous experience that this was quite a divisive issue. Equally, we understood that relocation, at the end of the day, is often what makes a difference on the ground to the country under pressure. We had to find a middle way on this.

In that regard, we built in some guarantees to ensure that the balance is correct. We have also got a critical mass correction mechanism. We build in to the regulation a central role for both relocation and return sponsorship to recognise the point that Senator Chambers was making, namely, that we need in the regulation itself to provide some guidance on this. It is not just total flexibility. We give some central preference to the role of these people-based solidarity measures, whether relocation or return sponsorship. If too many member states opt for the other path and if there is too much of that and not enough of the people-based solidarity, this correction mechanism will step in. It will also make it obligatory for all member states, once a threshold has been passed, to provide a certain amount of that people-based solidarity, whether through relocation or return sponsorship.

On the role of member state parliaments, it is obvious that this is a very important subject in political terms and, therefore, the role of national parliaments is essential. As for the interest of other parliaments, last week I had a similar hearing with the upper chamber of the Dutch Parliament, and a week before, with the Dutch lower chamber.

We acknowledged that parliaments have a keen interest. We have to find a way - that is also for the committee's national system - to keep abreast of how issues are developing.

Of course, there are some elements of this regulation which are set in Brussels. There is a sort of tension there and that was picked up also in the question of Senator Chambers. Also, there is discretion in the way the policy is implemented on the ground. Of course, the national parliaments have a clear interest in seeing how the policy is implemented on the ground.

I was also asked how the pact is being received by member states and what the next step for it is. The pact, when it came out, was as well received as we could expect it to be. The Commissioner, Ms Johansson, was clear. Nobody will be happy with this pact. It is such a difficult area. She was not expecting everyone to be jumping up and down in the street. It is a difficult area and we are calling upon all Members of the European Parliament as well to come with an open mind and find a compromise and a way through because that is the only way we will do this properly. Our objective in framing the pact, therefore, was to find a landing zone territory in pitching the pack and finding the balance so that all could come together and find that ground on which to negotiate.

There is still a negotiation to be had. That is for sure. It could not be expected that our proposal would come out and be instantaneously adopted by the Parliament and the Council, but what we wanted was to find that common landing zone where useful negotiations can take place rather than find ourselves in a deadlock situation. In that regard, it was well received and well understood that that is what we had tried to do. That is very positive. That is how we see it.

Now, of course, we are two months on from our proposal being made. We have had quite intense discussions already in the Council. It is premature to expect a breakthrough in December but we have had very useful exchanges under the German Presidency. The objective is to take this forward in the Council meeting on 4 December in as ambitious a way as possible through a progress report. That is my understanding of the objective of the German Presidency. That would be a good stepping stone to take this further forward under the Portuguese Presidency.

However, as the committee members could see from that puzzle slide I presented, there is a lot on the table, there is a lot to be discussed and it is complex. Member states need to feel comfortable with the details of what we have put on the table. That takes a little bit of time as well. It will need political steer from the political level but it will also need a sense of ownership which comes when member states have had a chance to study the finer details. One needs to bring those two elements together and achieve always a sense of momentum on this difficult subject.

There was a question on the common governance as to whether we will bring forward new legislation. What we have set out in the asylum and migration management regulation proposal on the governance is the proposed legislation. We would not be coming forward with anything extra. It is a framework. It is not imposing this in a detailed way. It is rather setting out a framework calling, for example, for a national strategy to be adopted. However, it does not then set out what precisely is in that strategy, which is obviously for implementation by the member state and also in light of the European strategy.

When it comes to the question on returns, this is an important essential component of the pact. I hope I have made that clear. We need to move towards a common EU system of returns. It is a difficult subject. What we have to do here is to find a way that is fully in line with our values and our protection of individual rights and to respect the dignity of those involved. At the same time we need to draw a distinction, if we are to have a stable system, between giving protection to those in need of protection in line with our obligations and acknowledging that those who do not follow the legal channels that we should put in place do not have an open right to come and stay within the EU. Therefore, we need for a stable system to be able to draw that distinction and deal with the consequences of it. I hope I have answered the questions.

I thank Mr. Shotter for his informative briefing this morning. I will begin with a few comments. Mr. Shotter stated that we are not in the middle of a crisis such as we saw in 2018 and 2016. That may be true but the figures published on deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean still show that it is very much a crisis. This year alone, it is estimated that 979 migrants have died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. In 2019, the number of deaths amounted to 1,900. It is reckoned that between 2014 and 2018, for instance, approximately 12,000 people drowned and were never found. It is still very much a crisis and there has been a failure by the international community to deal with the entire migrant crisis.

At this point , I want to say "Well done" to the Naval Service which, like many other groups and organisations, and NGOs, went to the Mediterranean. The Naval Service helped save in excess of 8,500 lives in the Mediterranean. It is important to acknowledge that and say "Well done" to all involved.

Unfortunately, the migrant crisis came to the fore again during the summer with the fire in the Mória refugee camp on Lesbos. It again highlighted the failure of the international community and the European community to deal with the issue.

I welcome the fact that a new pact is being looked at. It is a long time coming.

I have two questions. Back in February-March, as part of a broader geopolitical play, we saw Turkey open its borders and more than 35,000 migrants flooded into Greece. That breached the 2016 pact in which Turkey was to get €6 billion in return for curbing migrant flows. On this pact, what is being considered to stop the issue of migrants and refugees being used as a political football by countries such as Turkey?

In 2018, for example, the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, committed to Ireland taking in 36 unaccompanied minors. To date, we have taken in only eight. Those 36 were supposed to have been taken in by the end of 2019. Listening to Mr. Shotter's briefing this morning, he talked about flexibility and solidarity being compulsory. What in this new pact ties a country in? What if they make a commitment, as in this example, to take in unaccompanied minors and then fail to comply and follow through on that, much to the annoyance of many organisations right across the board? Once countries sign up and agree to take in asylum seekers or, in this case, unaccompanied minors, what is there to ensure that they follow through?

I thank Mr. Shotter for his comprehensive report and his acceptance that the system is not working. I would reiterate much of what other members have said, in particular on whether to call this period a crisis. It is a crisis for a large number of people. What Deputy Brady discussed was horrific, particularly the numbers.

My questions will be somewhat similar. I get that we want a stable system that can deal with normal situations and crises. How will the rapidity that Mr. Shotter mentioned work? What will the better workable pathways for humanitarian entry and economic entry look like? What does "return sponsorship" mean?

In this day and age, I do not entirely understand how the EURODAC database was set up to deal with applications rather than applicants. I would have expected the search facility to sort out that problem. If basic agile software development had been employed, the need to check the system on the basis of an applicant and have that information to hand would have been solved quickly. When does Mr. Shotter foresee this problem being sorted? When does he foresee the better workable pathways, the more rapid system and the sharing of responsibility coming into operation in the real world?

Mr. Michael Shotter

I thank members for those pertinent questions. I should clarify a comment I made. By not explaining what a crisis is, I can create misunderstandings. We want to have special rules for a defined concept of "crisis". That is what we set out in special legislation covering crisis situations. As a legal construct, we have set these situations as being exceptional because we accept that, where there is a mass influx of such a scale in a crisis that it not only jeopardises the overall functioning of a national system but also places the wider European system in question, we need to have tailor-made rules. They will be at a high level rather than a low level. We envisage that the exceptionality will mean that there will be shorter deadlines for certain matters and longer ones for others because the system will be under so much pressure. We believe the net may need to be cast wider in terms of the kinds of person who will be eligible for solidarity support because of the scale of the crisis.

I wish to clarify my comment on this matter. When I speak about the crisis, it is a legal definition. A person drowning in the Mediterranean is a tragedy. Each life lost is a tragedy and I do not want my comment in any way to be taken as meaning it should be seen as a normal situation. Of course it is not something that we can accept. Nor do we. There is a special focus in our pact on search and rescue activity, which is not a specific competence of the EU. It is a national competence. Member states are signatories to the relevant international conventions. While saying that, I do not want to give the impression that the European Union has nothing to do in this area. We have acknowledged that we do. We see the close proximity between search and rescue activities and obligations and migration policy. Therefore, we have found it relevant and necessary to say something in this field. For example, we have issued a recommendation to try to bring member states together on this subject and we intend to set up a special contact group between member states, with civil society organisations and shipping companies able to participate. For example, a Danish vessel picked up migrants in distress in the Mediterranean during the summer. It saved their lives, then found itself in limbo because of the difficulty in finding a place to disembark them.

We understand that we should have a role, even if it is not our legal competence, and we intend to play a role in bringing member states together as much as we can and avoiding a situation where persons lose their lives because they cannot be rescued. We have produced guidance to make it clear that rescuing people at sea is not something that can be criminalised under EU law. There is important and necessary EU legislation that is intended to tackle smuggling activity, but a provision contained therein has given rise to some debate. We have come forward with guidance to make it clear that people should not be criminalised under EU law for activity that is mandated by international law. That seems straightforward and obvious, but we felt the need to make it crystal clear because there was a discussion around this subject. We give special acknowledgement in our legislation to the difference between persons disembarked after search and rescue activities and those arriving irregularly simply by crossing the border. In a number of ways, we have seen the importance of helping to give extra clarity and support in the area of search and rescue activity.

The situation on the ground in Lesbos has been mentioned. It is difficult to accept. We are working with the Greek authorities to improve the situation, including under our existing framework of rules. We have set up a task force with them to try to improve the situation on the ground. We must work closely with them to do that. We can only do something like this by working with national authorities.

The difficult situation in March at the border between Greece and Turkey was also mentioned. We cannot be naive in our policy. We must work with Turkey, just as we must work with other partner countries. It is not an option to build a frontier and then believe we can neglect or not work with our partners. We must work with them. That is the world in which we live. However, we should also have effective border protection and control and a way of managing our border that enables us to avoid being in a difficult situation like the one that occurred in March. That said, it is a difficult balance to achieve. We must respect our international obligations, which include giving access to asylum to those who need asylum. I accept that we must do this in a way that does not lead to us being instrumentalised in this process.

Irish solidarity and how to ensure that solidarity promises are translated into action were mentioned. Ireland has proved to be solidaire. It has stepped up. We acknowledge that, even though it was not obliged to, Ireland has come forward.

In the voluntary setting we have put out calls for member states to provide support following search and rescue disembarkations, as I mentioned earlier. Ireland has stepped forward on a regular basis on that, which is very much appreciated. I also draw a distinction, as I mentioned, between voluntary and compulsory. With legal pathways, whether humanitarian in the form of resettlement or other legal pathways, we also acknowledge there is a more voluntary approach when member states step forward and volunteer pledge. For example, in the area of resettlement, this works rather well. We would like to see the leadership in resettlements spread more widely among member states but the process works rather well.

For the solidarity we envisage for times of pressure, this would be in the form I mentioned of compulsory solidarity. There, the regulation itself would impose requirements. There would be some flexibility but there would also be correction guarantees that I mentioned. There would be an obligation under EU law to provide the solidarity that has been committed to and pledged in that way.

There was mention of the rapidity of the system and we want it to work as quickly as possible. When there is pressure on the ground, although falling short of a crisis, as I mentioned earlier, but still not a position with which we should be comfortable, we need to step in with solidarity in an efficient and rapid way. We try to make processes as swift as possible while also making this something to bring member states along rather than just issuing a diktat. We do not want to do that but instead have the process owned by the member states.

There was a question on return sponsorship, which is an innovation. It applies if a member state is under pressure and has persons to which a return decision has been given. These people have gone through the process and been identified as not having a right to stay; they have legitimately been issued with a return decision. This may have been appealed but the return decision would have stood. Such persons should be returned. The member state providing the solidarity, or the sponsoring member state, would offer for a number of such persons with return decisions to help the member state under pressure to return those persons to the third country concerned. That may involve voluntary return support or reintegration support. It could involve using diplomatic or other connections in the area.

The objective is to do this from the benefitting member state, so there would not be a transfer within the European Union to the sponsoring member state. Sometimes it is difficult for a return to be carried out, and there may be a number of reasons for this, including a difficulty with the third country. We have also acknowledged that to provide support to the benefitting member state, after a certain period has elapsed - we have put eight months in our proposal - there can be a transfer to the sponsoring member state. We are interested in relieving the pressure on the benefitting member state. If we cannot relieve the pressure by the primary route, which is to carry out the return from that country to the third country, then after this period, as a sort of backstop or guarantee, the person would be transferred at that point. After that eight-month period has elapsed, it would involve the sponsoring member state.

On the European asylum dactyloscopy database, EURODAC, issue, it is the way with legislation that when it is reviewed we can find elements that can be improved. This is indeed what we have identified at this point and the system can be improved. We need a good system in place to effectively monitor how the asylum system is working, track persons and avoid abuse, as the system can be abused. We should not be naive about that. It is true there has been a certain openness, in some respect, to playing the system. It is one aspect we want to tighten and improving the EURODAC regulation is part of that reform we think is useful and necessary. We would like the EURODAC regulation to be adopted as quickly as possible.

An earlier question concerned the way ahead for member states. One of the big political issues between member states is the package approach, with nothing agreed until everything is agreed. That is understandable. When there is a balance between responsibility and solidarity, we need to see that balance across instruments. We understand a certain linkage between the different proposals on the table set on in the puzzle slide. Having said that, we would like, if we can, to make progress and be able to move ahead with individual proposals on a pragmatic basis. The European Union asylum agency is one example and we would like to move forward and adopt it as quickly as possible. EURODAC is another good example where we should be able to move it forward quickly, recognising that there is a linkage with other parts of the pact.

I thank the delegation and the witness for the presentation. Reform is very much needed in this area and previous attempts at such reform have failed. In assessing the nation states of the European Union, it seems some countries will have problems for whatever reason with this new proposal. They are Hungary, Croatia, Greece, Malta, Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria. It is going to be hard to get agreement on this and I have no doubt the witness is aware of that.

I have three short questions. I appreciate what the witness has said about the official definition of a crisis. I understand there were approximately 140,000 arrivals in 2019 and that figure is a decrease on previous years. Is there a reason the numbers arriving are decreasing at this point?

Reference was made to the agreements with Turkey so far but will the witness speak to those a bit more? How has the existing agreement been working and how might the process work in future under these new proposals? It seems the interaction was fraught with difficulty and problems. Has the existing agreement with Turkey worked to some extent and how might it improve under the new proposals?

Finally, reference was made to the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. These proposals were published when it was in the news and very much on our minds. Is the witness satisfied that the new proposals, if implemented, will end overcrowded and inhumane encampments. Is he satisfied the proposals will deal with this and how, in practice, will it happen so there will be no need for these encampments on the scale we have now?

Mr. Michael Shotter

Again, these are very pertinent questions and the Deputy is absolutely right. This is a difficult matter and it is one of the most difficult on the European policy table.

We are under no illusions about that, but that is why we have tried very hard to find the landing zone. Probably as a result, no one is entirely happy, but the point is to find a way of coming together without compromising on our values and standards, and acknowledging our core objective of having in place a better, more stable, fairer and future-proofed system.

The numbers have gone down but that is not to say there is not a lot of pressure. We see that. It varies. Since 2015, when the pressure was very intense and there was a crisis in the eastern Mediterranean, we have seen shifts along the various migratory routes. We found there was a period of intense pressure in the central Mediterranean, linked to the circumstances in Libya. When the pressure reduced in that region, the rate of regular crossings reduced fairly dramatically. Recently, we have seen a lot of pressure arising in the Atlantic because of arrivals to the Canary Islands, impacting Spain. The circumstances are dynamic and always will be. It will depend on the migratory routes, flows and instability in the region. In some respects, these are issues that can be far outside our control. We have to be responsive to these developments. We must obviously work with our partners, to the extent that the issues can be under our control, to help to stabilise the movements and do so in a way that prevents dangerous crossings and prevents people from falling into the hands of the criminal networks. That is the importance of the external dimension.

This year, the numbers have been greatly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. They are low, relatively speaking, but there are still areas experiencing genuine pressure. It is a question of the long tail of the movements. A movement might have occurred a year or two ago, but if a national system is overwhelmed, it can give rise to a situation such as the overcrowding in the Moria camp. It is important to be able to tackle backlogs in the system and to have efficient procedures in place. Without these, there is a cumulative build-up. That is not good and it leads to pressure. If a system becomes overwhelmed, people become stuck in circumstances in which nothing moves forward as it should. The asylum process cannot be completed, leading to very bad frustration, which can boil over, resulting in overcrowding. Therefore, we need to have efficient systems in place and, of course, we need to achieve these by giving the support needed. If we want to have procedures at the borders, as we believe is appropriate, we must acknowledge that it can increase the pressure on the member states of the first arrival. Therefore, we have to be there with our support, through the agencies, for example, and through Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office. It is really important that the upgraded European Asylum Support Office, the EU asylum agency, be as operational as is necessary to provide the required support. All of this needs to be in place to help member states.

The task force is a new development that was announced by the President at the same time as the pact was launched, in September. We have set up this task force to cover Greece. There is also a pilot project to help the Greek authorities with a new camp or new sort of reception centre on Lesbos, one that is of the standards we need to see, namely, standards that are in line with our values on reception conditions. We can do this only by working with the Greek authorities, but we obviously need to be there with them to help them because this is what European solidarity is about. It is not just a matter of operating through the solidarity mechanism but it is also a matter of support at European level.

The EU-Turkey statement has worked to an extent, as stated. It has not worked in every aspect, but the EU has done a good job in resettling people from Turkey. Turkey houses many people in need of international protection, amounting to 3 to 4 million. We acknowledge that. It points to the importance of the legal pathways. That part of the statement has worked well. The numbers went down dramatically after the statement was put in place. It really was essential. It was a game-changer at the time but, at the same time, other aspects of it have not worked entirely as they should. We need to work with Turkey to make sure there is an improvement. In this regard, I mentioned the importance of the partnerships. We must continue to work with partner countries if we are to introduce the stability desired.

I thank Mr. Shotter. I have a few questions and I will try to be as brief as possible.

With regard to the debate and conversations prior to those on the future of Europe, could Mr. Shotter indicate how the debate on migration should be factored in? Should it have the same prominence as the green transformation and the rule of law, for example, in upcoming deliberations before those on the future of Europe?

I like Mr. Shotter's jigsaw apparatus. We sometimes get a little disillusioned with some of the EU's institutional jargon but, at the same time, jargon is important to get the conversation going. Community should be an integral part of any conversation on migration. The EU has a great track record and footprint in respect of supporting our peace process. In the early 1990s and mid-1990s, a lot of funding was channelled through the peace and reconciliation programme. There were various programs to build up capacity at community and local levels after the conflict. It was basically a question of empowering communities. On migration, are we doing enough to empower communities at local level and to allay genuine fears about the dignity of people looking for asylum and trying to integrate into communities? Are we doing enough to place community and community capacity-building at the heart of our deliberations on migration?

My last point is a general one based on my insights from having been to Jordan and Lebanon. In both countries, around 25% of the people are seeking asylum or are in camps, to one degree or another. Countries such as Uganda facilitate large numbers coming from South Sudan. Are we doing enough to provide pathways for graduate teachers within the EU to work with the Red Cross or United Nations to provide assistance to people in their own countries? We should bear in mind the track record and patterns in this regard. I must put up my own hand in that, in 1995, I went to the Middle East as a teacher, not for the remuneration although an attraction of the Middle East is that teachers get well paid there.

As a young teacher in 1995, had a pathway or opportunity been provided I would rather have had the opportunity to go to Africa to do some support work. Are we providing enough pathways for our European Union graduates to spend time in places like Africa or to help out in dealing with the enormous education needs of people who are seeking asylum and so on?

I thank Mr. Shotter for attending this morning and for his insights and experience in this area, which will be extremely important in mapping out a comprehensive new pathway for the way we deal with migration.

Mr. Michael Shotter

Would the Chairman like me to reply to the points he made?

Mr. Michael Shotter

On the future of Europe, in tabling our proposals in September we wanted this part of the future of Europe to become the present of Europe. It is not a matter for a futuristic debate. We would like these proposals, which are all urgently needed, to become Europe's present. In that sense, I would not move them to forward looking discussion. We need them to be put in place now. That is the priority. It is interconnected with a vision of the world and with the image the European Union projects. We need to put in place a stable system that is in line with our values and to show that Europe can come together on what has been a divisive issue. It is difficult, but we think it is essential to bring member states and the Parliament together now on this and not to push it out to the future.

The Chairman is correct about the importance of community. We are in Brussels at a European level. We need to reach out to the local and regional level. We know the importance of the local and regional level. In terms of integration, for example, it is important that we get it at local and regional level and we are working in that regard with the European cities. We have a lot of outreach. As I mentioned, last week we brought forward with our action plan, which is a core component of the overall comprehensive approach but one that can only be delivered at a local and regional level and the sense of community and local ownership referenced by the Chairman. It is very important, not only in that dimension, but on a range of policy issues. When we have consultations we are extremely interested in what that local level can contribute. We need to work to the extent that we can with the local level and to maximise our outreach in that regard.

The Chairman asked about Jordan, the Lebanon and Uganda. I understand the third countries, Jordan and Lebanon, have an awful lot of displaced persons and persons in need of international protection. This is where the importance of the legal pathways of resettlement comes in. We brought forward our resettlement recommendation, which was intended to send a signal that at European level we intend to take a stand and provide money to help member states, as we have in the past but we want to send the signal that it will be provided through the EU budget to support member states in their pledging on resettlement. This involves operations with the international organisations like the UNHCR and it is for the most vulnerable people. The humanitarian pathways that we provide are of key importance in terms of supporting countries like Jordan and the Lebanon. The Chairman is correct that this leads-in to my first point in regard to the importance of the partnerships. We need to build up the partnerships with these countries because a lot of them are under a great deal of pressure. The pathways for developing local skills, such as teacher exchanges as mentioned by the Chairman, can be very rich and rewarding but it is dependent on a third country being interested in this type of arrangement. It may be that it can participate and so we need to bring our EU funding possibilities into play through, for example, the ERASMUS programme, to provide policy support in this area. The point that this underlines is a point I made earlier, which is that we need to have an integrated approach or a whole-of-government approach to our policy making. There are many useful things happening in the development world through our outreach such as, for example, ERASMUS. We need to bring together these different policy tools. These are not in the area of my directorate-general, but across the Commission we need to bring together all of our policy tools to make these interesting partnerships, which can be mutually rewarding as indicated by the Chairman.

I hope I have covered all of the Chairman's questions. I thank the committee for the opportunity to have this exchange with it today.

Deputy Ó Murchú would like to come in again if that is okay with Mr. Shotter.

Mr. Michael Shotter

Yes.

I thank Mr. Shotter for his very comprehensive answers. On the Eurodac regulation, Mr. Shotter spoke about the need for it to be amended. I am not sure if I understood him correctly. He said that checks can only be made on the basis of applications, not applicants. Is there a difficulty with the database system or is this determined by the regulation? Is there a software issue that needs to be dealt with? My understanding is that initially there was a difficulty around the database but perhaps it is the case that this is determined by the regulation. I would like to be clear on that point.

Mr. Michael Shotter

It is an issue in the regulation, not an IT issue. We have an IT agency called eu-LISA, which we work with closely on all databases. It is not an IT issue, it is a regulatory design issue. We need to correct that. We will have to engage with the eu-LISA agency to have it sorted. That will take time to roll-out. We need to get the regulation right in the first instance. In regard to these databases, we always have to pay particular attention to data protection requirements and we do and have done so. I do not think that is the issue here. We have taken care to design it in a data protection by design way. The issue is that the regulation did not provide for this. We need to get that right. It is issues like that we need to fix.

I thank Mr. Shotter.

Gabhaim buíochas le Michael Shotter as ucht a theacht go dtí an coiste inniu. I thank him for coming to the committee today. Is léir go bhfuil na rudaí sa díospóireacht, solúbthacht agus dlúthpháirtíocht, iontach tábhachtach fosta. It is clear that flexibility and solidarity are part of the debate agus ag croí na díospóireachta, at the heart of the debate. Gabhaim buíochas le mo chomhghleacaithe uilig. I thank my own colleagues. Gabhaim buíochas arís le Michael Shotter fá choinne a chuid ama agus a dhíograis maidir leis an ábhar tábhachtach seo.

I again thank Mr. Shotter for participating in the discussion on this very important subject.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.40 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2020.