Reforming The Common European Asylum System: Business As Usual?

July 12, 2019

Salvatore Nicolosi

Assistant Professor at the Utrecht University

Twenty years after the European Council of Tampere that in 1999 set out the political roadmap to establish a Common European Asylum System (CEAS), the European Union and its Member States still struggle to design a solid and future-proof system. The migratory pressure on the EU increases the need for effective responses. With more than 1 million people reaching Europe in 2015 and more than 18,000 drowning at sea in the period between 2014 and 2019, a solid asylum system becomes all the more urgent.

The reform of the CEAS certainly constitutes a relevant context to reflect on the dynamics of regulation in a particularly sensitive area of European integration. Nonetheless, a closer look at the ongoing reform illustrates how it leaves behind the actual way forward to the realization of the goals established in Tampere twenty years ago. Specifically, the creation of a uniform status for those granted asylum in one state that is valid in all member states. This post will also argue that this creation of a uniform status is a faithful interpretation of Article 78(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.

Unfolding the Reform of the Common European Asylum System

In an attempt to tackle the structural shortcomings of the CEAS particularly exacerbated by the massive refugee flows of 2015, the European Commission adopted two packages of proposals. A first package adopted on May 4, 2016 comprises the proposals to recast the Dublin Regulation (COM/2016/270) and Eurodac Regulation (COM/2016/272), and a proposal aimed at establishing a EU Asylum Agency (EUAA) that will replace the current European Asylum Support Office (EASO) (COM /2016/271).

A second package of reform was adopted on July 13, 2016 and includes a proposal for a Regulation repealing the Qualification Directive (COM/2016/466), a proposal for a Regulation repealing the Procedure Directive (COM/2016/467), a proposal to recast the Reception Directive (COM/2016/465), and a proposal for a Regulation establishing a EU Resettlement Framework (COM/2016/468). Provisional compromises have been concluded between the Council Presidency and the European Parliament’s rapporteurs on five of the seven proposals. As has been emphasized (ECRE 2018:3), this is remarkable progress, especially if compared to the first (1999-2005) and second phase of harmonization (2009-2013), which in both cases took five years to conclude. Nonetheless, such an optimistic view is to be resized by contextualizing the process of reform within the wider political crisis contaminating the whole EU fabric (Joannin 2018).

On a whole, the new regulatory framework of the CEAS can be divided into two parts: on the one hand, a set of proposals aims to recast already existing instruments and, on the other hand, a set of proposals introduces new complementing instruments, such as the EU Resettlement Framework and, to a certain extent, the new EU Asylum Agency.

The priorities of the new regulatory model

The reform of the CEAS essentially builds on two priorities: 1) an emergency-focused approach to cope with current migratory pressures, and 2) further harmonisation, to ensure more consistent application of EU rules across member states.

Admittedly, the emergency-focused approach is visible in the recast proposal of the Dublin Regulation. The main novelty is the “corrective fairness mechanism” designed to relieve overburdened States by relocating asylum seekers to other Member States. The mechanism would be automatically triggered as soon as the applications falling under the responsibility of a Member State exceed 150% of its fair share, as determined by the Regulation itself, which is calculated on the basis of its population and GDP, and operate until applications fall below the 150% threshold. Nevertheless, the Member State that would benefit from relocation still has duties concerning the registration of applicants and other pre-checks formalities (Maiani, 2017). The European Parliament made a significant contribution to the reform suggesting valuable amendments (Wikström Report). This is the first version of Dublin to show sensitivity about applicants’ integration potential, in that it envisages that applicants who are relocated will have family members or links with the particular member state. The relocation system is supposed to work routinely and regardless of a particular situation of emergence and with no thresholds as suggested by the European Commission. Despite the concerns on its practical effectiveness, it may constitute a stepping stone for future negotiations (Nicolosi, 2019).

In view of fostering further harmonisation, the two regulations mentioned above (COM/2016/466; COM/2016/467) are proposed to repeal the current Qualification Directive and Procedure Directive, respectively. This is a relevant innovation, as the regulation compared to the directive has the advantage of direct applicability, thereby providing for enhanced harmonisation in the field. However, despite such a formal change, the proposals offer at best a mere window dressing of the existing directives. As has been emphasised, the effectiveness of Regulations also depends on their concrete application by national authorities, depending on the domestic administrative capacities and the actual circumstances on the ground (Thym 2017). Moreover, the presumption of uniformity that these regulations are supposed to provide is undermined by the difficulty of fully harmonising the reception conditions. The transformation of the Reception Directive into a Regulation proved difficult, if not impossible, due to the social and economic differences across Member States. This definitely remains one of the main challenges for the CEAS for which uniform reception conditions could be the main guarantee for a long-term sustainability of the whole system.

A new legal design?

Apart from reconfiguring existing instruments, the reform of the CEAS reflects to a certain degree some new legal design. This is more visible in the new set of measures proposed to enforce the implementation of the asylum acquis on the one hand, and introduce new regulatory measures, such as resettlement programme. As regards the first aspect, the establishment of a fully-fledged EU Asylum Agency can be seen as a natural consequence of a process that has over the most recent years expanded the role of the existing EASO (Scipioni, 2018).

While this new legal design is functional to a strategy conceived to assure a higher degree of implementation, some concerns arise.  In particular, while de jure the Agency is supposed to assist Member States in examining asylum claims, the recent involvement of EASO in Greece, one of the top refugee hosting Member States, confirms the risk of the agency overstepping its operational powers with Greek officials and effectively dictating asylum outcomes.

A new legal design is reflected also in the proposal for a permanent EU resettlement framework. The proposal rests on the idea of a “third country’s effective cooperation with the Union in the area of migration and asylum.” Such a regulatory model aims to introduce conditionality criteria, based also on the relevance of a particular country for the EU foreign policy. This may dangerously conflate the humanitarian reasons beyond the international protection policy with the fight against irregular migration.

Concluding: The Missing Tile in the Reform of the CEAS

Taking a holistic approach to the analysis of the reform, one may note that it does not depart from the general paradigm of preventing secondary movements that over the years has proved practically ineffective. While some elements, including the emphasis on further harmonization or the establishment of a Union Resettlement Framework, may constitute an added value, it seems the whole reform misses the opportunity to realize one of the goals established in Tampere twenty years ago.

In endorsing the political roadmap to develop the CEAS, the Tampere Conclusions established as long-term goal of “a uniform status for those who are granted asylum valid throughout the Union.” This aim became a clear obligation in the letter of Article 78 (2) TFEU. Such a status would entail the mutual recognition of positive asylum decisions (ECRE, 2014), a circumstance that the current reform of the CEAS does not provide, despite being the third phase of regulation.

Despite the potential that mutual recognition of positive asylum decisions can play in fostering the integration of recipients of international protection, as it will give protection recipients the possibility to enjoy free movement, which is distinct feature of the whole EU project, the ongoing reform reiterates an approach which limits the integration potential of beneficiaries of international protection. The essential machinery of the CEAS reform reproduces a set of punitive features specifically designed to ensure compliance with the obligation for the asylum seekers to apply and stay in the first member state of entry or the member state that granted protection. The reform does not clarify what rights or entitlements a recipient of international protection might enjoy in another Member State. The protection status still links the beneficiary with a single Member State. Such a circumstance is not only undesirable because it frustrates the integration potential of recipients of international protection, but it also impairs the essence of mutual recognition as a catalyst of trust, clashes with the authentic and teleological interpretation of Article 78 and limits the reform of the CEAS to business as usual.

Suggested Citation: Salvatore Nicolosi, Reforming The Common European Asylum System, RefLaw (July 12, 2019),


  • Bwanga Makabika Christian Posted July 13, 2019 at 8:49 am

    A sound analysis of CEAS from Tempere Act in 1999 to date.If europeans happen to settle first their regional discrepancies then a kind of hope might be envisaged,forseen driving us into a long term productive asylum system.
    There still more to do in terms of memberstates commitment in link both with humanitarian vertus and the international protection of refugees pursuant to the Geneva convention,and their protocole included as well.

    Christian Bwanga,
    Refugees camp manager
    DRC,Sud Ubangi,Libenge.

  • JMP Posted July 13, 2019 at 6:39 am

    It’s interesting to think about the mutual recognition of positive asylum decisions. I take it that in effect the current EU system involves the mutual recognition of negative such decisions.

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