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1. Background

Immigration and asylum touch on sensitive areas such as employment levels, social cohesion and cultural diversity, as well as border controls, law enforcement, and national security. As a result, these issues have continued to be some of the most challenging and divisive among member states of the European Union. The EU is trying to tackle its shrinking demographic and the need for skilled labour whilst putting in place policies to deal fairly with asylum seekers and stem the growing tide of illegal immigration.

Seeking to develop unity in the management of migration and asylum, the EU established a common immigration policy in October 1999 at a European Council meeting in the Finnish city of Tampere. The meeting agreed that existing national legislation on immigration should be harmonised to regulate migration flows in line with the needs of the economy and the ability of the EU to absorb and integrate new immigrants.

In practice, the ambitious goals set at Tampere – promoting economic and social cohesion throughout the EU and integrating third-country nationals – remain a challenge in their implementation. This is partly due to reluctance on the part of most member states to cede too much power in the most sensitive immigration policy areas, which remain at the core of national sovereignty for the majority of EU members.

Immigration was placed under the supranational pillar in the Treaty of Amsterdam signed in May 1999. The treaty embodied a greater emphasis on citizenship and the rights of individuals, as well as the beginnings of a common foreign and security policy (CFSP).

But the significance of the supranational principle is reduced when the unanimous decision-making rule is applied. Member states often refuse to compromise and end up defending their own interests when it comes to issues related to immigration and asylum.

For example, Ireland and the United Kingdom – not part of the EU's common travel area, known as the Schengen area – have retained the right to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not they will accept EU legislation on immigration and asylum. France has been criticised for retaining anti-immigrant legislation, such as a 1994 law that criminalises those who assist an illegal immigrant (providing shelter, for example). The law was condemned by French NGOs, left-wing political parties and ethnic groups.

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