Open gates

The ruling of the European Union’s top court giving member-states the right to grant or deny asylum has come as welcome news for populist hardliners hostile to the surge of refugees desperate to escape the humanitarian catastrophe in West Asia. In a defining verdict this week on the immigration crisis, of a magnitude not seen since World War II, the final judgment of the European Court of Justice of the 28-nation bloc overturned the opinion of its prosecutor, which is rather unusual for the institution. Its prosecutor had said in February that governments should issue humanitarian visas to people at risk of torture and degrading treatment, consistent with their obligations under the European charter on human rights. In overruling that stance, the common judicial arbiter for the bloc held that member-states were not obliged to issue visas to people from third countries who had no prior links in Europe. Under the Common European Asylum System, as with similar international mechanisms, countries are expected to process asylum requests humanely once refugees arrive. A not inconceivable consequence of the verdict is that the mass of migrants who embarked upon those dangerous journeys on the high seas may find no realistic alternative in their attempt to flee conflict zones than continue to undertake those risky ventures. Tuesday’s development is also a shot in the arm for eurosceptic political parties that have remained steadfast in their opposition to the jurisdiction of the Luxembourg court over national governments.

This controversial case, concerning a Syrian family from Aleppo seeking asylum in Belgium, also brought into sharp focus the politically divisive and hateful campaign witnessed since the beginning of the migration crisis. While their plea was upheld by domestic courts on humanitarian grounds, the strength of right-wing opposition led to a senior legislator being fined for defying the order, culminating in the challenge in the European Court of Justice. Given the appeal of anti-immigration political parties in three of the founder-member states of the EU that go to general elections this year, the Netherlands, France and Germany, the setback for a more orderly and legal immigration system could not be greater. Mainstream liberal political forces across the bloc face the biggest challenge in decades to their conception of an open and humane society. This is their moment to stand up for the so-called European values the continent’s leaders have emphasised since Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House. A perception that western nations are turning their back on the rest of the world is the last thing mature democracies can afford at a juncture when the rules-based global order is under increasing attack. Action on the commitment given at the UN last year to put in place legal pathways for migrants and refugees would mark a beginning.