The seven sins of Stockholm

The seven sins of Stockholm

Opinion piece (E!Sharp)
01 March 2010

Last December, EU countries unveiled a new strategy for how its justice and home affairs policy should develop by 2015. The plan – negotiated by the Swedish presidency – outlined what the member states intend to do to tackle serious crime, manage migration and extend law-abiding citizens' freedom to travel and work.

But despite the fact that the so-called "Stockholm programme" covered dramatic topics like terrorism, organised crime and Europe's porous borders, the media could barely squeeze a story out of the 82-page text.

Why? The fault did not lie with the fabled laziness of hacks who dutifully combed the text after some clever teasing by Swedish press officers. For the most part, the programme was elegantly drafted, despite being bashed about in committees during months of negotiations. And some provisions did catch the eye: such as proposals for an EU internal security strategy, a new "anti-trafficking coordinator", an office to collect pan-European crime statistics and even an Erasmus-style exchange scheme for police and judges.

No, the Stockholm programme left the media – and independent analysts like myself – cold for one simple reason: it lacked any really strong ideas. Even the projects mentioned above highlight an all-too-familiar weakness: EU countries' tendency to offer up process as product when there is little of substance to say. After all, why was the strategy drawn up at all? Not primarily to respond to a pressing new set of policy challenges but simply because the timeline of its predecessor – the Hague programme – had expired.

The case of the Stockholm programme neatly illustrates some common failings that dog EU co-operation in justice and home affairs, an umbrella term covering immigration, asylum, border controls and crime. Some of these shortcomings are part and parcel of all EU (and much national) policymaking. Others reflect the fact that this area is currently undergoing a period of intense change. Member states and EU institutions are only beginning to adjust to the impact of the Lisbon Treaty, which radically shakes up how decisions on internal security and migration will be taken in future.

Nonetheless, if the EU wants to craft more effective and better-received policies in these areas, it needs to confront some uncomfortable truths: let's call them the seven sins of the Stockholm programme.

First, obscurity. The media struggles to show why these policies matter, even though they touch on some of rawest nerves of national sovereignty and civil liberties. This is because much of the terminology governments use to communicate what they are doing lacks transparency and is studiedly obscure: key committees in the EU Council often have Kafkaesque names such as the "multi-disciplinary group", for example. In his famous essay "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell pointed out the significance of the connections between the use of language and the preservation of liberty. Political debates serviced by clear, straightforward language tend to produce better laws and strengthened liberties. Debates mired in jargon and legalistic language provide fertile ground for double-speak. It is a little alarming, then, that no other area of EU policy is quite so linked to personal liberty nor quite so strewn with seemingly impenetrable jargon.

Second, verbosity. The Stockholm programme is 26,000 words long, five times the length of the original "Tampere programme" agreed in 1999. On top of this, EU and national officials working in this area are constantly producing wordy strategies, action plans, and feasibility studies, not to mention "communications", "action-orientated papers" and "roadmaps". That is not a bad thing in itself: the problem is that such documents often contain very little of substance. Some are merely exercises in achieving "agreed language" – admittedly difficult amongst 27 countries – on highly sensitive topics such as terrorism, refugees and court proceedings. Such verbosity tends to put off practitioners who assume that the proliferation of paper is just the posturing of politicians.

Third, pretentiousness. Government ministers, commissioners and MEPs are fond of repeating the mantra that citizens expect greater EU involvement in fighting terrorism, organised crime and illegal immigration. But do they? Such claims are based on surveys published by the EU's public opinion office that routinely find that citizens want the fight against organised crime, terrorism and drugs to be among the Union's top priorities, and want the member states to cooperate more to tackle these scourges. That amounts to a wafer-thin mandate for, say, a federal criminal system or a formal EU role in policing. In 2006, Charlemagne, the Brussels column in The Economist, argued: "The claim that public opinion will support 'more Europe' in this area is untested. Asked if they want the EU to do more in almost any area of public concern, people will tend to say yes. Asked if they want, say, their homes searched at the behest of a foreign judge, they will say no." To their credit, EU countries at least acknowledged in the Stockholm programme that the onus is on them. They need to give ordinary people concrete examples of how cooperation on justice and home affairs can make them both safer and freer.

Fourth, vagueness. By their nature, the main players in this area – interior ministries, prosecutors, judges, police and lawyers – are not in the habit of making generous disclosure of their activities. Yet officials missed a key opportunity in the Stockholm programme to explain what exactly EU countries are doing to face up to immediate challenges like how governments should best fight criminals and terrorists across borders, or how Europe should confront the tough questions thrown up by global migration. Instead, policymakers tend to stress vague concepts, which usually mean that governments are still only at the talking stage. On immigration policy, for example, the EU is working on a "global approach to migration" and promoting "integrated border management". On terrorism, crime and border controls, governments stress the importance of the "external dimension" of internal security policies. But there is often little real sense of what these things mean in practice. It is difficult therefore to pinpoint the EU's exact added value.

Fifth, poor delivery. As a non-state body, the EU's credibility stands or falls on the quality of the legislation it produces. Yet over the last five years the Union has produced some justice and home affairs-related laws that the member states were better off without. Two examples stand out. First, the EU's "Blue Card" or common working visa – intended to lure young, highly skilled workers to Europe. Under the scheme, recipients would get a two-year residency in any member state where they have a job offer. Europe desperately needs to attract highly skilled workers from abroad. But EU countries attached so many caveats to the Blue Card scheme as to render it worthless. One prominent migration expert quips that someone stupid enough to apply for a Blue Card can hardly claim to be a highly skilled worker. Similarly, EU interior ministries spent several years agreeing a "European evidence warrant" for the speedy transfer of evidence between member states in cross-border cases. But EU governments considered their own handiwork so lamentable that they have committed to replacing the stillborn law almost immediately.

Sixth, under-delivery. The EU has often simply failed to deliver on its rhetoric, and a good example is on asylum policy. Despite a commitment to the creation of a common EU asylum area by 2010, the reality is that the Union is many years away from such a goal. Wide variations exist between the treatment of refugees in different EU countries. And the European Commission – given the political sensitivity of the subject – has avoided taking laggard countries to court over poor implementation of asylum legislation. Meanwhile, the Commission's reputation for managing major security-related IT projects has been damaged by its failure to deliver a promised upgrade to the Schengen Information System, an important database which lists wanted persons in the EU's passport-free zone.

Seventh, unwieldiness: It is difficult for 27 ministers and their advisers to have a meaningful conversation about, say, the fine detail of cross-border criminal threats or the need for cleverer integration policies. So member states have tended to resort to smaller avant-garde groups, without involving the EU's institutions. For example, the so-called G6 (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain) meet twice yearly to discuss internal security cooperation and migration issues. Another group (the Benelux three, Austria, France, Germany and Spain) got together in 2005 to link their DNA and fingerprint databases. Ideas cooked up in such groups tend to get adopted by the whole EU, such as the "European migration pact", a strongly worded declaration on immigration adopted in 2008.

Such groups are not inherently bad. They can inject some creativity into policymaking. But their existence shows that the member states often despair of the EU as a place where they can do serious business on justice, security and immigration issues. Pioneer groups also tend to lose their virility over time: the G6, for example, has become almost invisible in recent years.

It would be unfair to list off the above weak points of EU policymaking in justice and home affairs without acknowledging two other realities. First, ambitious international agreements are horribly difficult to achieve when the subject matter is law and order or immigration. Second, despite this, EU countries can point to real breakthroughs over the decade. For example, ten years ago few observers would have guessed the EU would have de-politicised extradition in Europe via the European arrest warrant, or started to conclude major international agreements on immigration and visas on behalf of its member states. By 2015, we are likely to be similarly surprised.

Nonetheless, the embarrassing problems outlined above will become more obvious to the outside world as the EU begins to use its enhanced powers in justice, security and migration under the Lisbon Treaty. Governments could save themselves much heartache if they reflect on this checklist of past failures when formulating policy in future.