For years, the European Union has said it wants a common policy on asylum. So far, all attempts to create one have failed as a result of what members states see as their national interests.
The European Union has had the goal of achieving a common asylum policy for the last 13 years - ever since 1999, when its then 15 heads of government were confronted with the influx of refugees from the Yugoslav wars. Some countries, like Germany and Austria, were seriously affected, while others were scarcely troubled by the conflict.
Now it's Greece that has to receive the largest number of refugees, although Malta and Cyprus also complain that they have to bear too large a share of the burden. The distribution of refugees remains very uneven.
In 1999, the heads of government agreed that all the member states had a common responsibility for refugees. But a common asylum policy has still not been achieved - the latest deadline for doing so, December 2012, has come and gone.
Very uneven distribution
At the last attempt, in October 2012, the Swedish interior minister, Tobias Billström, said that the issue was very important for his country because of the large number of refugees it hosts.
"Today, nine out of 27 EU member states are receiving annually 90 percent of the refugees arriving in Europe," he said. "And I think this calls for a greater coherent approach."
Currently the so-called Dublin II regulations require countries to take responsibility for the asylum process for any refugees who arrive in Europe via their territory. Refugees who then go to another country can be sent back to the country they arrived in.
That's why the countries which are the first ports of call for refugees - like Greece - want to change Dublin II. Meanwhile, the German interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, doesn't want a change, since he fears that all the refugees would come to Germany.
Quotas a possible solution
Nadja Hirsch, a Free Democratic member of the European Parliament's Committee for Labor and Social Affairs, thinks the Dublin system doesn't make sense because "families are torn apart and individual countries have to take in far more people just because of their geographical location."
She told Deutsche Welle that "refugees should be distributed among the EU member states according to a quota."
She believes such a quota system wouldn't make much difference for Germany, since the country already takes in a large number of refugees. Sweden, she says, makes a particularly large contribution, while Hungary, the Czech Republic and Spain do far less than they could.
Those who work are no burden on the state
In most of the EU states, refugee policy is a very divisive issue. Refugees who can prove that they suffered political persecution in their home country are tolerated, at best, but usually not welcomed. And those who come from countries where they can't show that they've been persecuted - and according to the German junior interior minister, Ole Schröder, that includes Serbia and Macedonia - "have no right to asylum and should be sent back to their country as quickly as possible."
Hirsch, though, says that one problem in Germany is that refugees are not allowed to work, and so they are seen as a burden on the state. Sweden, she says, offers a much better example: "They have a much more liberal employment policy. People can get jobs as soon as they are able. That means they cost the state nothing, the people are integrated and they even contribute to economic growth with their work."
Malmström fights for greater openness
Hirsch has an ally in the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, who pleads for greater openness towards refugees in Europe. Malmström points out that the EU in any case has an obligation towards those requiring protection, and that the aging European societies have an interest in attracting immigrants - even those without refugee status. Most politicians disagree.
So what is Europe? A fortress which protects itself against any strangers, or an open continent? That's a question which has become particularly current in connection with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU last year. The human rights lobby group Amnesty International said that the EU wasn't worthy of the prize, on account of its refugee policy.
The USA takes in a higher proportion
But there are evident differences of opinion, even between Malmström and her spokesman, Michele Cercone.
Shortly before the Nobel Prize was awarded, Cercone said that Europe could be "proud" that it had given so many people "shelter" and "a new life." But Malmström took a less rosy view: in 2011, she pointed out, the EU took in under 10 percent of the world's migrants - 20 million people, or 4 percent of the EU population.
"But this has to be put in perspective," she said. "The US, for instance, hosts 20 percent of the world's migrants. That's 13 percent of its population."
So the difference of opinion runs right through the European Commission itself. And there's still no sign of a common asylum policy: the arguments just go on, more than 13 years since the idea was first formulated.
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