The creation of a common EU asylum policy would be in Britain's interests

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The Independent Online

When they meet in Luxembourg today, the interior ministers of the European Union will be faced with the task of forging a coherent EU policy towards asylum and immigration. This will not be easy. Asylum is a sensitive issue throughout Europe. Prominent politicians in Italy and the Netherlands argue that they are taking more than their fair share of refugees. There are concerns in France and Spain that terrorists are getting into their countries, on the basis of false asylum claims. And we are all too aware of the bigotry and malice that has been stirred up in Britain by the arrival of these unfortunate souls.

Immigration too is a controversial area. The accession of 10 new nations on 1 May has vastly increased the EU's border, and there are worries that economic migrants will soon pour in from the impoverished nations on the Union's eastern borders. The question of asylum and immigration goes to the heart of the EU's deepest fears and insecurities.

That makes it all the more vital that this meeting is used to re-affirm the liberal and humanitarian principles of the European Union. Some of the proposals on the table are so self-evidently sensible that they hardly require discussion. The pooling of information to combat terrorism related to asylum and immigration is a good example. If the security forces in one EU nation are aware of an atrocity being planned in a neighbouring state, there ought to be an established intelligence network for passing that information on.

Then there is the question of the EU's enormous new frontier. The idea of a European "border police" has caused much consternation among anti-EU zealots in Britain, but to establish such a force would simply be to recognise that several of the new member states, such as Lithuania and Slovakia, are relatively poor, and need help to guard their frontiers effectively.

It also makes sense to devise a standard criterion for determining refugee status. If each nation within the EU could agree on what constituted a "well-founded fear of persecution", it would not only be a powerful and symbolic rebuke to the tyrannies of the world, but would also discourage asylum-seekers from heading en masse to those countries known to have the most humane systems. Once they reached any EU country, they would know they were safe.

To this end, a central European asylum office to process refugee claims for the entire EU is also under discussion. It is claimed in some quarters that such a body would cut down the scope for "asylum shopping", whereby asylum-seekers move from country to country seeking the best circumstances for their asylum claims. But this is a poor justification. Asylum-seekers do not "choose" countries in the manner of fussy consumers. They go where they have been told they will be treated with a modicum of civility, and where friends and family members have gone before them.

The real merit of this proposal is that it would compel all EU nations to fulfil their humanitarian responsibilities. It would also make it harder for governments to adopt a hard line when they felt it politically opportune to so. There would be practical advantages too. A central EU database containing the fingerprints of asylum-seekers would help the authorities to keep track of both the numbers coming in and the countries in which they are residing.

In Britain, none of these benefits have been discussed. The public debate has centred on the proposal that we drop our veto on a common EU asylum and immigration policy. This has been portrayed as a ploy to make us surrender control of our borders to Europe. It is no such thing. Britain would retain its opt-out, meaning that we could ignore EU legislation sponsored by other states if we felt it necessary. The purpose of this meeting is not to erode Britain's sovereignty, but to make the whole EU function better. It is manifestly in Britain's interests for that to happen.