UPDATED: Three years after overseeing the award of a Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, Thorbjørn Jagland has been back in Norway this week in an effort to simply keep Europe together. As secretary general of the Council of Europe, Jagland says he’s trying to make sure member states including Norway live up to their humanitarian commitments and work together during very troubled times.
At a meeting with foreign correspondents in Oslo on Thursday, Jagland said Europe is “not taking its collective responsibility” for the refugee crisis, yet it must. He’s upset that various countries, including Norway, are trying to keep more refugees from gathering at their borders. As more countries in eastern and southern Europe close their borders to asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, Jagland claims they risk defying the European Convention on Human Rights, which all 47 members of the Council of Europe signed in order to join.
The convention is a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Jagland stressed before launching a round of meetings with top Norwegian officials that paramount among the treaty’s provisions is the right to seek asylum and have one’s case evaluated on an individual basis. He’s alarmed by new or proposed immigration and asylum laws, also in Norway, that are aimed at cutting the numbers of asylum seeker arrivals.
“If the objective is to reduce the number of people coming to a border, that is not in accordance with the convention,” Jagland said. “The convention is to protect people.” He objects to the prospect of mass returns of asylum seekers, arguing that every country, including Norway, “must look at the individual situations” of those arriving. “Everyone must have a chance to state their case,” he said.
“I will discuss this with the authorities (in Norway),” Jagland said. “I want to listen to how they argue, but having the most restrictive (immigration and asylum) policy in Europe is not in accordance with the convention.”
Packed program with Norway’s power structure
Jagland, himself a former prime minister and foreign minister in Norway in addition to leading the Norwegian Nobel Committee, had a busy two days ahead of him. At noon he was meeting the President of the Parliament Olemic Thommessen, a position Jagland also once held. Then it was on to a “working lunch” with Thommessen and the Norwegian Parliament’s delegation to the Council of Europe. From there he was meeting with the Parliament’s foreign policy and defense committee, followed by meetings with human rights organizations at the offie of Amnesty International in Oslo. Then he’d have a “working dinner” with Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende.
On Friday his day started with the Norwegian politician who’s been on the front line, and arguably most controversial, in dealing with the refugee crisis after 35,000 asylum seekers arrived in Norway last year. New Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug received Jagland for talks, and said after the meeting that she received “very good input” that she would consider, but there were no signs she’s backing down from a hard line on taking in more refugees.
Jagland claimed it was begredelig (literally, mournful, or deeply regrettable) that European countries and Norway itself almost seem to be competing with one another to claim the strictest asylum policies. He warned against acting in panic or too hastily, conceding only that Norway “is of course influenced by the other countries, so there’s a negative dynamic.”
Listhaug maintained Norway has no other choice but to quickly impose tougher rules for asylum. “There are some countries that are very attractive (to asylum seekers),” Listhaug told reporters. “Norway is one of them, so in order to avoid the same situation as last year (when more than 30,000 asylum seekers arrived in Norway), we must have very strict immigration policy.” She promised to take Jagland’s objections regarding stricter rules for family reunification into consideration before she presents the government’s final proposal for tougher asylum rules to Parliament later this spring.
Jagland then moved on to a meeting with her conservative colleague from the Progress Party, Justice Minister Anders Anundsen. After that there would be meetings with the parliamentary committee in charge of the municipalities that need to settle refugees, followed by an audience at the Royal Palace with King Harald and another “working lunch,” this time with Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
Stressing the power of the court in Strasbourg
Asked what clout the Council of Europe really has in dealing with the crisis, and getting member states to reopen borders, Jagland was quick to point to its “monitoring bodies” that assess whether member states are abiding by their commitments. And then the council has the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where alleged violations can be brought up for trial. When Turkey’s authoritarian government suddenly banned Twitter and Facebook, Jagland noted, it was the court that forced Turkey to reopen the social media services, ruling that the closure was unconstitutional. Recent moves by Turkey’s government to take over opposition newspapers “may also land” in the court, Jagland suggested. Council monitors are also busy in Poland and Hungary at present, Jagland said, as their governments also try to keep migrants from entering the country.
“All the countries are obliged to fulfill their membership commitments in good faith,” Jagland said. The sorts of “nationalistic” behavior now flaring up “is a breach of the meaning of Europe,” he argued. “It’s against the European will for solidarity. It’s the growing nationalism that has caused this problem.”
He repeated statements made earlier in the week that it was “too early” to assess the deal being worked out between the EU and Turkey, for mass returns of asylum seekers to Turkey, in return for the EU agreeing to take in quota refugees from Syria. “The fundamental principle is that you cannot return people on a collective basis,” he said, though.
He doesn’t at all seem to regret awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union in 2012. The problems now only show how “timely” the prize was, to remind people of how important solidarity is. “What is the EU?” Jagland asked rhetorically. “We (the Nobel Committee) saw threats to the ‘European Way.'” Now he’s looking for a way to keep Europe unified.