Leading Article: An enlightened EU immigration policy

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The Independent Online
IMMIGRATION is the largest and most contentious problem facing the European Union. The pressures of poverty in Africa, war in the Balkans and political and economic stress in the former Soviet bloc are sharpening the dilemma that the Union must resolve. Raise the barriers against immigration too high and Europe will alienate its neighbours, destroy its moral credibility and deprive itself of the economic and cultural benefits that immigration can bring. Lower the barriers too far and political co-operation will fracture, the far right will rise, disorder will spread and the welfare systems of member states will totter.

At the moment, a disproportionate burden falls on Germany. Countries such as Britain, which already have strong controls in place, have been reluctant to surrender sovereignty in this area. Now the European Commission has come up with proposals for a common immigration policy. It emphasises the need to reduce migration pressures by dealing with root causes and to distinguish among the various types of immigrants: false and genuine asylum-seekers, refugees from war zones and economic migrants. The categories have become blurred by the massive misuse of asylum applications, the uncertain status of refugees and the inconsistent responses of governments.

The principal ideas of the Commission are that the European Union should help create new rights for legally resident immigrants, that immigrants should be encouraged to integrate rather than to retain their original citizenship, as they mostly do in Germany and France, and that there should be machinery for burden sharing.

Almost any policy will look inadequate if the pressures continue to rise, but this one is promising. If pursued, it should help to reduce popular fears of being flooded, soften racial tensions and relieve the pressures on Germany. It might also, as intended, provide better protection for the rights of genuine asylum-seekers. But it does not entirely solve the problem that victims of political persecution find it increasingly difficult to cross frontiers or board aircraft to the haven of their choice. The onus of policing asylum policy will continue to fall on private sector transport companies, an unfair burden for the asylum seekers as much as for the companies.

Nevertheless, the Union is now being offered a new and enlightened policy that seeks improvements for immigrants as well as their hosts. It deserves careful, considered assessment rather than the Pavlovian aversion with which Britain so often responds to anything from Brussels.