Published: Thursday 5 June 2008

The European Immigration Pact, to be launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy, has a good chance of becoming a major success for the French EU Presidency, diplomats say.


France wants to make progress on a common European immigration policy during its presidency, with the sensitive issue of illegal immigration top of its list (EurActiv 11/04/08). According to French Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux, the planned “immigration pact” would rely on three pillars: 

  • The refusal of ‘en masse’ regularisations, 
  • harmonisation of asylum policies and 
  • rules for the return of illegal immigrants. 

Key to finding a collective solution will be the implementation of a partnership with Southern countries. France will therefore be driving a rapprochement between the EU and its Mediterranean neighbours, with the launch of a “Union for the Mediterranean” on 13 July. 

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Enjoying a broad consensus among EU countries after having overcome resistance in the European Parliament and benefiting from the recent nomination of a French Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, France is confidently pushing ahead its agenda to bring immigration in Europe under control. 

As one diplomat put it, after the comeback of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Sarkozy is no longer even seen as an extremist trying to keep immigrants at bay. 

The French minister for immigration and national identity, Brice Hortefeux, has made an unprecedented effort to tour every European capital and sell the French idea of a European Immigration Pact. In his own words, the initiative has received “an excellent welcome”, as all countries share the same concerns about migration. 

European Parliament more favorable than ever 

The draft Directive for the return of immigrants is considered to be the backbone of the pact. It stands a good chance of being adopted, since it became clear yesterday (4 June) that a majority of MEPs were in favour of the compromise. The inter-institutional deal is that the Council will accept the directive if Parliament does not adopt new amendments. 

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group played a pivotal role in the context of earlier tension between the leading centre-right EPP-ED group and the European Socialists (PES) on the issue. The group’s shadow rapporteur, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (VVD, Netherlands), said ALDE will support the compromise package, “although it is not a perfect arrangement”. She pointed out that the only nasty surprise could come from the Socialists, who were divided over the issue.

Although their leader Martin Schultz issued a declaration which basically welcomes the ambitions of the French Presidency, Socialist MEPs have tabled 18 new amendments to the compromise. But the chances of any being adopted are slim, experts said. 

Tough measures 

The procedures, which are still to be formally agreed upon by the Council (EurActiv 25/04/08) provide for a period of “voluntary departure” of illegal immigrants of up to four weeks. If the illegal immigrant does not voluntarily come home during this period, the national authorities can issue a “removal order”. 

Such removal orders include a re-entry ban of a maximum of five years. Then the countries can use “coercive measures” to carry out the repatriation, usually by air, of illegal immigrants who resist removal. 

When there are serious grounds to believe that illegal immigrants are hiding, EU states have agreed a procedure to keep them under “temporary custody”. Such imprisonment should not normally exceed six months and the maximum retention can period can be as long as 18 months, according to the draft directive. 

When illegal immigrants who have been issued with a removal order are found in another member state, they can be returned to the authorities of the country where the order was first issued, and that country has to pay the costs. 

Provisions have been agreed to ensure consistency with human rights standards and the respect of the dignity of the individual. 

Commission gives France a helping hand 

Addressing concerns over the European Immigration Pact, Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot said he will present a proposal laying down basic common principles that will “guarantee that actions will be based on full respect for the rights, freedoms and principles enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU”. 

A presentation of a proposal and a press conference will take place in the EP in Strasbourg on June 17. 


Amnesty International and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) were among the few to criticise the ‘Returns Directive’. “By accepting this compromise text, the European Parliament will undermine its own mandate to protect human rights and allow EU law to erode existing international human rights standards,” said Nicholas Beger, the director of Amnesty International’s EU Office. 

“We need a Directive on returns, but not at all costs. We are particularly concerned about the excessive detention periods in this directive and the lack of real opportunities for migrants to leave of their own accord before being removed by force,” added Bjarte Vandvik, the secretary General of ECRE. 

Martin Schultz, the leader of the Socialist group (PES) in the European Parliament, stated that the Socialists have also been supportive of a common European migration policy and asylum, based on shared responsibilities between member countries and respect for human rights. He added that the importance of legal migration should not be underestimated. Socialists also advised that measures to contain illegal migration should be accompanied by development projects in the countries of immigration. 

MEP Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (ALDE, Netherlands), said the French plans for a European Migration Pact were “all very charming”, but advised the Presidency to follow up on elements other than the Returns Directive, such as the ‘Blue card’ initiative or asylum policy, and make sure the initiatives “pass through”. 

A spokesperson for the Greens, Helmut Weixler, told EurActiv his group was opposed to the compromise, but they were also aware they cannot stop the decision from being adopted. Their main criticism concerns t
he 18-month long possibility for retention, the removing of children from EU territory and repatriation to the transit country. 

Next steps:

  • 5 June: Justice and Home Affairs Council, Luxembourg. 
  • 16 June: Vote in Parliament, Strasbourg. Commission Vice-President Barrot presents EU principles to better cooperate on migration policy. 
  • 15-16 October: European Council, Brussels.