Why EU institutions alone cannot reform the Common European Asylum System

Radu-Mihai Triculescu |

The aim of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is to harmonise asylum procedures across the European Union. As several crises have shown, however, this goal is far from being achieved, and a reform of Europe’s asylum policy is long overdue. Radu-Mihai Triculescu argues that such reform should also incorporate the perspective of street-level bureaucrats implementing the joint system in each EU member state. His original research suggests that the experience of these workers can offer the insights needed to make a generalised European asylum policy enforceable at the national level.

Armband of Frontex staff

The discretionary powers of street-level bureaucrats are quite wide when considering the common European asylum system as a whole. Here a staff member of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Photo: European Union 2015.

The current global health crisis has once again exposed the risks faced by asylum seekers in their attempts to secure a form of international protection. For those seeking refuge, undertaking such risks is nothing new. It was, after all, only five years ago when the world saw the threats that met asylum seekers on their perilous journey to Europe, as a result of EU policies that left little to no other alternative for those in need to find protection. Yet today, as in 2015, some actors have mobilised and attempted to stitch together a humanitarian response. NGOs in Germany have lobbied and raised funds for airlifting refugees out of Greek camps, and Doctors Without Borders has called for an evacuation of all asylum seekers from the ‘squalid’ conditions in which they were housed.

But as much as a coordinated effort across Europe might help in the short-term, ambiguous policy objectives and incomplete governance structures have created difficulties for enforcing adherence to the standards of a fair and humane asylum policy. And while it is EU institutions that often bear the brunt of criticism for inaction, reforming the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) cannot be done only in Brussels.

Generalised standards too simple

One of the main problems encountered when attempting to assess governance structures is that there are two different conversations: one emphasising institutional efficiency and performance, and another which values the specific contexts of states over generalised standards. Yet, it may be hard to narrow it down to only two conversations. There is no model of public administration research that can fit all national administrative contexts. Policymaking and reform in the EU, then, cannot focus on the similarities among the administrative structures of its member states. Instead, attention should be given to similarities between member states in formulating strategies, building national institutions, and reforming existing arrangements as a response to changing conditions.

The way asylum policy analysis in the EU has evolved, however, has shifted the attention away from some of the ‘big questions’ that should be asked. Through an overreliance on one-size-fits-all metrics of efficiency, such as acceptance rates of asylum applications, little room is left to assess the legitimacy of governance structures established at the EU level and put into force by member states. The specific national contexts that demand a diversification of public administration research also come to play when EU policies are adopted, interpreted, and implemented by member states.

The discretionary power of street-level bureaucrats

What does this mean for asylum reform? Simply put, we cannot forget that the EU policy machine reflects more than just one system of governance. When refugees are forced to live in overcrowded quarters, when life in camps is described as ‘hellish’ or ‘dire,’ and when asylum seekers report not having enough water and blankets or milk and diapers for children, it is not through more EU directives and regulations that reform will come.

The deficiencies that create these conditions must be addressed nationally, by paying attention to those public officials who work directly with asylum seekers. These street-level bureaucrats are crucial in any policy process: they are charged with translating legal texts into actions, while at the same time adapting their requirements to the shifting realities of the present. If we are to look for communalities in strategy formulation, in the construction of national institutions, or in adaptations to changing realities, the street-level bureaucrat is a good place to start.

These workers hold significant discretion in how they execute their job, especially when it is up to them to manage their workflow as well as the relations with those they interact with. As my doctoral research has shown, such discretion can manifest itself in different standards of proof used in asylum applications, usually depending on the asylum seeker’s country of origin, and without any specific institutional provisions regulating such systematic assessments.

The space within which such discretionary actions can be made becomes quite wide when we consider the entire system. The distribution of blankets, water, and food to asylum seekers, maintaining adequate housing conditions, granting access to medical care, and even ensuring fairness in the process of granting – or rejecting – refugee status is up to the street-level bureaucrat. This is particularly true given the incomplete governance structure and ambiguous policies that the EU is often criticised for creating. However, such vagueness is unavoidable when attempting to garner the support necessary for a European-level policy. The Common European Asylum System (CEAS) needs to be taken for what it is, namely a puzzle that is only complete once each member state adds its own final piece.

Keeping European politics outside national asylum offices

The role of the EU institutions in this puzzle should not be understated. It is up to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), for instance, to ensure that while specific national contexts are kept in mind, those implementing the CEAS have the knowledge and tools necessary to live up to Europe’s standards of human-rights protection. But as much as different EU institutions may be blamed for inaction in reforming the CEAS, it is unlikely that their initiatives alone will allow for the creation of a truly transparent and humane asylum policy.

How asylum seekers are welcomed, the amount of risks they face, and the fairness with which their case is assessed depend largely on national institutions, beginning with those workers on the front-line of policy implementation. A hierarchical command-and-control approach, whereby directives are expected to be passed down from one level of governance to the next, does not reflect the need for flexibility in the national implementation of EU policies.

A balance must be found between the ideals and standards defined at the European level and the needs and realities of bureaucrats working on the ground to implement the common system. Many of the violations and risks that asylum seekers in the EU are subjected to are often the result of political battles about the fair distribution of responsibility in processing asylum applications.

To keep such politics out of national asylum offices, the EU needs to ensure that any reform of the CEAS incorporates not only the point of view of high ranking officials in the Council, but also the perspective of those workers implementing these legal provisions. By listening to what those on the front-line of policy have to say about issues such as allocation of resources, and how this affects their ability to do their jobs, the problem of generalised standards may be reduced. The insights that street-level bureaucrats have gained from their experiences can offer some of the knowledge needed to make a generalised European asylum policy enforceable at the national level.