Monday 11 May 2015

Can the UK opt-out of mandatory EU refugee quotas?


Steve Peers

In two days’ time (Wednesday May 13th), the EU Commission is due to present a communication on a new EU immigration and asylum agenda. I’ll look at this agenda in detail later, but one key issue calls for comment already: will the UK have an opt-out from mandatory refugee quotas?

Part of the Commission paper has been leaked, and it’s clear that at least on the issue of resettlement of refugees, the current draft of the paper is more ambitious than the conclusions of EU leaders, agreed a couple of weeks ago (see my comments on their conclusions here). In particular, the Commission plans to propose mandatory rules on ‘relocation’ of asylum-seekers and ‘resettlement’ of refugees. In EU jargon, ‘relocation’ refers to those already in the EU, while ‘resettlement’ applies to those currently in non-EU countries. The first group do not necessarily have valid asylum claims, while the latter group usually have their status as refugees positively assessed before they are admitted to the territory.

According to press stories in the Guardian and the Times (the latter is paywalled) there may be a conflict with the UK as regards refugee quotas, because of a doubt that the UK can opt out of these proposals. Let’s look at this from the legal and political point of view in turn.

Legal analysis

The draft Commission plan refers to the ‘legal base’ of the relocation proposals as being Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which provides that:

3. In the event of one or more Member States being confronted by an emergency situation characterised by a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may adopt provisional measures for the benefit of the Member State(s) concerned. It shall act after consulting the European Parliament.

Article 78(3) is part of the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) provisions of the Treaty. All of these provisions are found in Title V of Part Three of the TFEU. But the UK has an opt-out from these JHA provisions. In particular, Article 1 of Protocol 21 of the Treaties provides that (my emphasis):

Subject to Article 3, the United Kingdom and Ireland shall not take part in the adoption by the Council of proposed measures pursuant to Title V of Part Three of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Article 1 refers to Article 3 of the Protocol, which is the power for the UK and Ireland to opt in to proposals on a case-by-case basis if they want to. For the avoidance of doubt, Article 2 of the Protocol reiterates that (my emphasis):

In consequence of Article 1 and subject to Articles 3, 4 and 6, none of the provisions of Title V of Part Three of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, no measure adopted pursuant to that Title, no provision of any international agreement concluded by the Union pursuant to that Title, and no decision of the Court of Justice interpreting any such provision or measure shall be binding upon or applicable in the United Kingdom or Ireland; and no such provision, measure or decision shall in any way affect the competences, rights and obligations of those States; and no such provision, measure or decision shall in any way affect the Community or Union acquis nor form part of Union law as they apply to the United Kingdom or Ireland.

Article 2 refers to Articles 4 and 6: these rules give the UK power to opt into a JHA measure after it’s adopted (Article 4) and make clear that if the UK opts in to a JHA act, all the rules in the Treaty (ie the CJEU’s jurisdiction) apply (Article 6).

It’s beyond doubt that the opt-out Protocol applies to all JHA measures. This is confirmed because a specific clause (Article 9) does, by way of exception, state that one JHA rule (on anti-terrorist sanctions) applies to Ireland without any opt-out. There’s a similar sort of exception in a parallel Protocol which sets out JHA opt-outs for Denmark. So by a contrario reasoning, the UK can opt out of any JHA measures. If there were any exception for Article 78(3), it would obviously appear in the Protocol.

So it seems clear enough that the UK does not have to opt in to any refugee law measure, as long as it falls within a JHA legal base. The Commission paper does not contemplate the dubious strategy of trying to propose a refugee law measure on a non-JHA legal base, in order to circumvent the UK’s opt-out.

However, there is a specific rule which applies where an EU proposal would amend existing EU legislation which the UK is already bound by. In fact, the UK is not bound by most current EU asylum legislation, but it is bound by the Dublin Regulation, which determines which Member State is responsible for the application of an asylum-seeker who is on the territory (or in the territorial waters) of a Member State.  

There seems no reason to amend the Dublin Regulation as regards any resettlement proposal, since resettlement concerns recognised refugees currently in third countries, not asylum-seekers currently on the territory of the EU Member States. However, the relocation proposal probably would have to amend the Dublin Regulation, since it would necessarily alter the current rules on which Member State is responsible for an asylum application.

The special rule applying to the cases where a JHA proposal amends a JHA act which already binds the UK is set out in Article 4a of the Protocol:

1. The provisions of this Protocol apply for the United Kingdom and Ireland also to measures proposed or adopted pursuant to Title V of Part Three of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union amending an existing measure by which they are bound.

So the UK opt-out continues to apply in such cases. However, there’s a catch: if the UK opts out of such proposals, it’s possible for it to be turfed out of its participation in the existing law, ie the law which the proposal seeks to amend. In this case that would mean that the UK would be turfed out of its participation in the Dublin Regulation, which results in a net allocation of asylum-seekers from the UK to other Member States.

Article 4a sets out the details of how this would work. First of all, the Council (by a qualified majority vote of participating Member States, ie without the UK’s vote), on a proposal from the Commission, decides that the revised law would be ‘inoperable’ for other Member States or the UK, if the UK doesn’t participate. That decision in effect gives the UK an ultimatum to opt in to the amending law within two months. If the UK doesn’t opt in within that period, then the original measure (ie, the current Dublin Regulation) automatically ceases to apply to the UK.  

This ‘ultimatum’ clause dates from the Treaty of Lisbon, and has never been used. It would obviously cause considerable political friction if it were, given that the UK is attached to continuing its participation in the Dublin rules.

The new proposals might alternatively (or additionally) take the form of amendments to the current EU temporary protection Directive, which the UK also participates in. The same considerations about using the ultimatum clause would apply, except that there would not be so much political sensitivity: that Directive has never been used in practice, and the current UK government would probably not be upset about being expelled from it (this Directive dates back to 2001; the UK opted in under the previous Labour government). However, the proposals might also take the form of amendments to the EU’s Asylum and Migration Fund, which the UK participates in and would be reluctant to be expelled from (the previous coalition government opted in to it).

It should also be noted that there might be a legal argument about the use of Article 78(3), because the European Parliament (EP) would likely prefer another asylum ‘legal base’ to apply which would give it its usual power over EU legislation. But using a different asylum legal base would not alter the rules relating to the UK’s opt-out.

Political context

First and foremost, it has to be pointed out that the Commission’s proposals may not be accepted. Indeed, given the many previous failed attempts to agree EU rules on relocation and resettlement, and the obvious lack of willingness of EU leaders to commit themselves on these issues even in light of the recent migrant death toll, such proposals might well be dead on arrival. It’s clear from the wording of the Treaty that there has to be a qualified majority of Member States in the Council to approve such proposals, although the EP is only consulted.

Similarly, the UK could not be given an ultimatum as regards its participation in existing EU law unless the Commission proposes a Council decision to this end, and the Council agrees by qualified majority (without a UK vote). The EP has no role in that case. It’s far from certain that this would happen, even if the Council were enthusiastic about these Commission proposals.

In light of this, in combination with the election of a majority Conservative government committed to holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, is it really wise for the Commission to make these proposals and suggest that they might bind the UK despite its opt-out? Admittedly it’s not realistic to expect the Commission to avoid making any proposal which might cause the least offence to the UK for the many months up until the referendum date. But if it wants the UK to remain in the EU – as the Commission President says it does – it has to avoid making proposals which are liable to cause the most offence. That particularly applies to proposals relating to immigration, which is by far the most sensitive issue for the UK’s relations with the EU.

After all, if the UK leaves the EU, there would anyway be no prospect of relocating asylum-seekers here in any event. While it’s understandable that the Commission wants bold solutions to the EU’s migrant crisis, there are times when discretion is the better part of valour.


Barnard & Peers: chapter 26

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