EU Readmission Agreement (Turkey)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
EU Readmission Agreement (Turkey)
The Committee may be aware that EU readmission agreements are intended to play an important role in tackling illegal immigration by establishing a contractual framework, based on reciprocal obligations, for the return and readmission of nationals of countries that are parties to the agreements, as well as third-country nationals and stateless individuals who have transited the territory of one of the parties. EU readmission agreements are negotiated by the Commission on the basis of a mandate given to it by the Council.
The EU has concluded 13 readmission agreements with non-EU countries and has a mandate to negotiate agreements with eight more, including Turkey. Those agreements are subject to the UK’s title V opt-in. As the process for reaching agreement is divided into three stages—approval of the negotiating mandate; signature of the draft agreement; and conclusion of the agreement—the UK has three opportunities to opt in. The most important stage is the draft decision to conclude the agreement, as that is the point at which the EU and member states are legally bound by it.
The first document to which the motion refers is a draft Council decision to sign the EU readmission agreement with Turkey, while the second document is a draft Council decision to conclude the agreement. Once the Council has adopted the draft decision on signature, the agreement is sent to the European Parliament for approval. The draft decision to conclude the agreement may be adopted only after the European Parliament has given its consent. The agreement takes precedent over any other legally binding instruments on readmission that are concluded between individual member states and Turkey, which include the UK’s bilateral agreement with Turkey. However, the obligation to readmit third-country nationals and stateless persons only fully takes effect three years after the agreement has entered into force. During that period, bilateral agreements will continue to apply.
In May, the then Minister for Immigration wrote to inform the European Scrutiny Committee that the Danish presidency intended to seek the Council’s approval to sign the agreement with Turkey by the end of June. Although a mandate to open negotiations was agreed in 2002, and formal negotiations began in 2005, Turkey has resisted efforts to sign the agreement because it wants the EU to offer visa liberalisation in return.
The Government did not opt in to the decision to sign the agreement in order to allow time for parliamentary scrutiny, for which we are grateful. However, they would like to opt in to the decision concluding the agreement for two reasons: first, because they believe that an EU-wide readmission agreement makes it more likely that illegal migrants entering at the EU’s eastern border will be returned to Turkey before reaching the UK; and, secondly, because they think that the agreement represents an important first step in strengthening co-operation with Turkey on a broad range of justice and home affairs issues. The European Scrutiny Committee recommended that the factors determining whether the UK should participate in the agreement should be explored in this Committee before a final decision is taken.
I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for the opportunity to set out why the Government propose to opt in to the readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey, and the benefits that we expect from it. I hope that this Committee will support the agreement, which will help to protect the UK by strengthening co-operation in the key area of EU border security.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham set out, the EU has been negotiating an agreement with Turkey for a number of years. It is now ready for signature. Although the accelerated time scale that we anticipated in June, as set out by my predecessor, has not materialised, we hope that full signature will not be long delayed. We acknowledge that the swifter time scale did not allow the UK the three months normally required to consider whether to opt in at signature stage, but we recognised in this particular case that there were excellent reasons for wishing to secure the agreement. That was why my predecessor did not propose we should opt in at signature stage, but recommended that we do so on conclusion. That process allows us to participate fully in the measure, but gives sufficient time for proper parliamentary scrutiny, which the Government continue to believe is important.
There are two main areas for debate, the first of which is to set out why we believe that participating in the agreement will have benefits for the UK over and above our current bilateral arrangements with Turkey. Secondly, Turkey is a key strategic partner for the EU, not only on migration co-operation, but on a wider
The readmission agreement will formalise reciprocal arrangements to document and remove illegal entrants from the EU and Turkey. Importantly, after three years, the agreement will also apply to third-country nationals who have passed through the territory of individual member states and Turkey. There are provisions on time limits, and effort must first be made to return the migrant directly to his or her country of origin. During those three years, existing bilateral arrangements will remain in place.
The Government do not automatically opt in to every EU negotiating mandate or readmission agreement. Our reason for wishing to participate in this agreement is not that we are currently prevented from returning Turkish illegal migrants—indeed, we have a good bilateral relationship with Turkey—but that illegal border crossings via Turkey are a significant source of irregular migration in Europe.
Frontex reports that, in the first quarter of this year, 56% of all illegal crossings of the EU border were recorded at the land border between Greece and Turkey, and that the numbers had increased by 30% compared with the same period in 2011. Interviews conducted with those migrants indicated that many intended to travel on to the UK. We note the positive efforts that Turkey has made, including the opening of a 600-bed removal centre in Edirne earlier this year, which was built with Turkish funds and is very close to the Greek border. Greece’s current enforcement campaign has also been a significant deterrent, but the problem runs much deeper.
The readmission agreement will play an important part in tackling the flow of illegal migration, to the direct benefit of the UK. By ensuring that every country in the EU has good arrangements for returns, the agreement will help to ensure that would-be illegal entrants are removed before they reach our borders. Such upstream action is particularly important for the UK because many of the irregular migrants recently encountered in Turkey claimed nationalities that would make documentation and return difficult for the UK Border Agency, if they succeeded in travelling on to the UK.
Our support through our participation in the agreement, rather than relying on existing bilateral arrangements, will help to strengthen the agreement. It will also emphasise the value that we place on working closely with our European partners and Turkey to tackle irregular migration and cross-border criminality.
We also believe that the agreement will help to strengthen the EU’s co-operation with Turkey on wider justice and home affairs issues. As hon. Members will be aware, the UK Government strongly support Turkish accession to the EU, which will be subject to Turkey implementing a range of justice and home affairs reforms, including on its capacity to tackle organised crime and terrorism, border management, judicial reform and anti-corruption activities. Significant progress has been made, although further reform is needed. The UK is a key partner in several EU-funded projects that address key aspects of border security, including the establishment and management of removal centres for illegal migrants.
Turkey has asked for progress on visa liberalisation with the Schengen zone in return for implementing the readmission agreement. The EU has agreed about the need to take steps towards visa liberalisation as a “gradual, long-term” process in return for Turkey’s conclusion of the readmission agreement, and alongside a broader framework for co-operation on justice and home affairs. The EU is developing a road map setting out the stages required before implementing a visa-free regime for Turkey. Of course the UK does not take part in Schengen visa arrangements, so we are not subject to the visa liberalisation provisions set out in the road map.
Given the possible impact of EU liberalisation on the UK’s borders, we welcome the road map’s emphasis on a set of legislative and administrative reforms on which liberalisation will depend, such as on document security, migration management, public order and security. Such reforms would benefit the UK and contribute to combating illegal migration into the EU.
The Commission has drafted proposals on a broader dialogue and co-operation framework between the EU and Turkey to address the full range of justice and home affairs policy fields, which build on the Stockholm programme and the EU’s accession negotiations with Turkey. The proposals are a response to the Council conclusions agreed in June under the Danish presidency of the EU, which were strongly shaped by the UK’s arguments about the strategic importance of developing enhanced dialogue and co-operation with Turkey. Progress on such co-operation should not depend on the signature of the readmission agreement although, in practice, the two are closely linked, especially with regard to combating illegal migration. Our participation in the agreement not only will support a measure that is likely to be of direct benefit in securing returns from the EU to Turkey, but will make clear our intention to stay active in addressing a range of strategic interests that the EU and Turkey share, which include not just migration, but tackling terrorism and transnational organised crime, and promoting judicial co-operation in civil and criminal matters.
I look forward to our proceedings. I hope that the Committee will support the Government’s decision to opt in to the agreement as part of our work to tackle illegal migration and secure our borders, as well as our wider aim of securing enhanced co-operation between Turkey and the EU in other areas of justice and home affairs.
The Chair: We have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind the Committee that questions should be brief. It is open to Members, subject to my discretion, to ask related, supplementary questions.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I, too, rejoice at your chairmanship, Mr Brady, although I sometimes worry when you are in the Chair because one feels as though one has become an involuntary member of the 1922 committee—[ Interruption. ] Very involuntary.
Chris Bryant: The papers before the Committee refer to the fact that the Government have rightly opted in to a large number of EU readmission agreements, but why have they refused to opt in to those with Armenia and Belarus?
Mr Harper: We decide on a case-by-case basis. We participate in all 13 of the readmission arrangements that are in force, although I will not bore the Committee by listing them all. As the hon. Gentleman correctly stated, we recently decided not to participate in the arrangements with Belarus and Armenia. We look at the agreements to decide whether they are in the United Kingdom’s interest, and we decided that those two sets of arrangements were not. However, we are able to take part at a later stage, if we wish to do so.
Mr Harper: We look at the issues across the piece and assess whether we think they are in the United Kingdom’s interest and whether they will improve our position compared with our existing arrangements. In those two cases, we did not take part in the negotiation mandates, but that does not rule out our taking part at a later stage.
Chris Bryant: One of the other matters to which the papers refer—the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham also referred to this—is the fact that Turkey has been somewhat slow in moving forward on the EU readmission agreement because it wants visa liberalisation. What is the Government’s position on visa liberalisation with Turkey?
Mr Harper: As I said, Turkey wants visa liberalisation with countries that participate in the Schengen arrangements. There is a complicated process in the road map to achieve that. We are happy for Turkey to participate in the negotiations. Of course, they do not affect the United Kingdom, because we do not participate in the Schengen arrangements, and we do not have any plans to change our existing visa arrangements with Turkey.
Chris Bryant: When I was Minister for Europe, my counterpart, Mr Egemen Bagis, who is still the Europe Minister in Turkey, was adamant that one of the most important ways of improving relations between Britain and Turkey was visa liberalisation and for us to withdraw
Mr Harper: It is worth saying that we have very good relations with Turkey, as I set out in my opening speech. Turkey is pressing for the liberalisation of the regime with the Schengen countries. The readmission agreement does not affect our existing visa arrangements with Turkey, which we plan to leave unchanged.
Chris Bryant: Another point to which the paperwork refers—in a letter from the Government—is the fact that a significant number of Syrians have come into the European Union through Turkey in recent years. Will the Minister update the Committee on the exact situation now, given the present problems in Syria?
Mr Harper: There has indeed been a significant increase in the number of detections of Syrian nationals in Greece, and we have seen a rising number of asylum claims by Syrians. We will continue to monitor what is going on in Syria, and the impact on asylum, but at this stage we see no particular cause for concern.
Chris Bryant: If the Minister does not have any statistics now, will he write to me with the number of people who are coming through? The paperwork is a few weeks old. I assume that, as with many mass migration movements, there is not an attraction that is pulling people towards particular countries, but a propulsive movement throwing them out of other countries, and that situation must be particularly acute in Syria. If the Minister has been inspired by further numbers, I would be grateful to see them.
The UK received about 400 asylum applications from Syrian nationals in the first six months of 2012, compared with 500 in the whole of 2011. There has therefore been an increase, but the number is not significant if we balance it against the total number of asylum claims, which is 12,500. We remain mindful of the risk of people’s nationality swapping, and we consider cases carefully to assess that. As I said, there has been a significant increase in the number of detections of Syrian nationals in Greece, compared with the same period last year, but it is difficult accurately to assess the numbers.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful for that information, but in the debate last Thursday I think that the Minister cited a total figure for asylum into this country of 19,084, and he now says that the number is about 12,000. I would be grateful if he could clarify in writing the difference between the figures.
I have a last question. Cyprus currently holds the EU presidency, and the sometimes obstructive way in which it has engaged in some of the dealings with Turkey—for understandable reasons or not—has made it difficult for the whole EU to move forward. How would the Minister characterise Cyprus’s negotiating position in relation to the EU readmission agreement with Turkey?
Mr Harper: As far as I am aware on this matter, the constructiveness or otherwise of the EU has not changed since the conclusion of the Danish presidency. The United Kingdom has good relationships. The matter is ongoing, and we hope that it takes a step forward sooner rather than later.
Chris Bryant: But I thought that the reason we were not able to have the three months properly allowed to Parliament to make its mind up about opting in was because the Cypriot Government had made it clear that they would not move anything forward during their presidency.
Mr Harper: My understanding is that the previous presidency was, like all presidencies, keen to conclude matters before the presidency changed hands. We are hopeful of progress under the current presidency, and if that does not happen, we hope that there will be early progress in due course. We will obviously have to see what the Turkish position is regarding wanting to sign up to the agreement, but we hope that there will be rapid progress over the next weeks and months.
Chris Bryant: I am sorry, but I am afraid that the Minister has not got this right. I do not think that he has read the papers properly, because they make it clear that we are going through the process only because the Danes had to finish with the matter by the end of their presidency because the Cypriots were not going to move forward. That is surely the whole reason for this debate.
Chris Bryant: It is the characterisation in the Minister’s predecessor’s letters, which by definition, because he is now the Minister, is his characterisation. That is surely the only reason why the matter has had to be expedited and we are not able to have the full and proper constitutionally accepted three months’ process.
Mr Harper: As I set out, because we did not take a decision at the signature stage and are opting in at the conclusion stage, we are still able to have the proper parliamentary process. The hon. Gentleman is not putting this in the way I would choose to.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 11720/12, a draft Council Decision concerning the signing of the Agreement between the European Union and Turkey on the readmission of persons residing without authorisation, and No. 11743/12, a draft Council Decision concerning the conclusion of the Agreement between the European Union and Turkey on the readmission of persons residing without authorisation; and supports the Government’s recommendation to opt in to the draft Council Decision on conclusion.—(Mr Harper.)
Chris Bryant: I should take the opportunity today, having failed to take the opportunity last Thursday in the Chamber, to welcome the Minister to his new role. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I note that the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay, a Liberal Democrat
I feel slightly sorry for the Minister on two counts. First, it looks as if the boundary changes, which was his piece of legislation, are not going to happen. Secondly, it looks as if the House of Lords reform, despite getting a three to one majority in the House of Commons, will now be ditched. So these have been a very productive two and a half years.
I know that the Minister is a very generous and thorough Minister, so I look forward to doing business with him. The other thing that I am slightly sorry for him about is that he has now got me again—we were up against one another on constitutional affairs. It feels a bit as if I have a stalker now that he has come on to immigration. In fact, I had a stalker at one point, who turned up outside my flat in London, rang the buzzer and said, “Hello. My name’s Malcolm. I’m very submissive.” I said, “Well, … off, then.” He said, “I’m not that submissive,” and stayed until the police removed him. I am sure that I will not need to have this stalker removed.
The way the Government are dealing with the issue that we are discussing is absolutely right. It is absolutely right and proper that we have a strong working relationship with Turkey. Turkey’s role in the world is vital to us not only because it is one of the largest growing economies in the world and the only significantly growing economy on the border of the EU but in terms of preventing criminality coming to the southern Balkans, through Greece and then into the rest of the EU. Many people trafficking routes, and for that matter drug trafficking routes, have been through Turkey. In terms of our relationship with Russia, Turkey is vital in maintaining diversity of access to petro-carbons for the EU.
Most importantly, in a geopolitical role, it is vital that we make sure that Turkey looks to the west at least as much as it looks to the east. The danger of the position that the French and the Germans have adopted in relation to Turkey’s potential accession to the EU and, for that matter, Cyprus’s sometimes hard-nosed negotiation has been that many more Turkish people are now beginning to think that their future lies to the east, in particular with Iran, Iraq and Syria. That is potentially a dangerous development for the EU, so I entirely concur with what the Minister said about the importance of Turkey’s role for the UK.
I also happen to think that this measure will help somewhat—not dramatically, but somewhat—towards ensuring that home affairs issues can be improved in Turkey. We have seen a dramatic change during the past 10 to 12 years in relation to the death penalty, the rights of women and many other issues. There is still a significant piece of work to be done by the Turkish Government in relation to the Kurdish people, further rights for women, the way that the criminal justice system works and the use of torture. But in all of those areas, the previous Government worked as closely as the present Government do today with their Turkish counterparts to try to ensure that the future is rosy.
It would be a particularly harsh irony if, after all the years of Europe saying to Turkey, “We want you to join the EU, but if you want to do so you’ve got to change this, that and the next thing”, Turkey changes all those things and then we slam the door on their possible accession. Therefore, I wholeheartedly support the Minister’s
The Minister is also right to say that the process of readmission from the UK to Turkey, and on occasion vice versa, has gone well in recent years. We have had an extremely fruitful relationship in that regard. I am conscious that, when I had responsibility at the Foreign Office for consular cases, there were occasions when the Turkish Government wanted to be more helpful than its local authorities would sometimes prove to be. Plenty of British people have been caught up in the trammels of the criminal justice system in Turkey. They sought justice and found it difficult to achieve. The more we can do to bring Turkey forward, the more it will be in the interests of the British taxpayer, economy and Government.
I have one slight cavil about the process that has landed us here today: the process regarding British adoption has been curtailed because of the necessity to bring it forward before the end of the Danish presidency. I do not think that any one member state in the EU should, for its own advantageous reasons or because of personal grievances, have that kind of hold over the whole European Union. Notwithstanding that, we fully support the Government’s position, and we hope that, when everything is signed, sealed and delivered, Britain will opt in.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome; I welcome his welcome. Regarding his points on stalking—or not—which I saw on Twitter last week, I can assure him that there is absolutely no danger whatsoever of him being stalked by me; perhaps by other people.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the readmission agreement and for our broader strategic co-operation with Turkey. He is right to say that that was the policy of the previous Government, and it is one that this Government take seriously. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary argued strongly at the Council meeting for that strategic co-operation.
I have checked since the earlier questions. It was the case that the previous presidency was keen to seize the deal following the lengthy negotiations. It wanted to adopt the Council decision and it set out why it wanted to do so—those were the reasons, rather than the reasons that the hon. Gentleman set out. However, I welcome his support for the readmission agreement. I hope that it will be supported by the Committee and by the House in due course.