- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

LONDON (Agence France-Presse) British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged his fellow EU leaders yesterday to adopt a tough new approach toward illegal immigration by drawing up a common asylum policy and tightening national borders.

He said at a press conference ahead of the summit of the European Union in Seville, Spain, that not addressing the problem properly would play into the hands of extremists.

Mr. Blair said illegal immigration and asylum would be the focus of the summit today and tomorrow.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is hosting the event.

"We need to show at Seville that those of us around the council table are not only aware of the practical concerns that our citizens in Europe have over asylum and immigration, but we can agree on at least some common practical action to tackle them," he said.

"If we don't, then my fear is that we leave the field open to those who do not want to solve these problems but simply want to exploit them."

He said it was one thing to speak out against extremist parties in Europe "but speaking out is meaningless, frankly, if it is not backed up by practical steps to tackle the underlying issues that the extremists are exploiting."

Mr. Blair pushed for a three-point plan:

•A common immigration policy throughout the European Union to stop immigrants "asylum shopping" for the most amenable country.

•Closer cooperation to ensure tighter border controls, especially as the European Union expands eastward.

•A new approach to illegal immigrants' countries of origin. Europe should deepen relations with them in terms of trade and dialogue, "but we want these countries to work with us to resolve what is a common problem," he said.

"Most people in this country are tolerant and know it is right to offer a haven to those fleeing persecution," Mr. Blair said.

"It is not that people are anti-asylum seekers, but they are anti-disorder and anti a system that doesn't have proper rules."

He said the Dublin Convention, which regulates Europe's approach to refugees, was not working and needed to be replaced.

"The populists and extremists gain a purchase on the political system when the moderate politicians fail to deal with the issues properly," he said.

"If we don't get it on issues like asylum and street crime, then we create the space for the extremists to operate."

Mr. Blair said the Seville summit would mark "the start of the last leg" toward the planned enlargement of the European Union to 25 members by 2004.

He also said the summit would lead to reforms in the operation of the Council of Ministers, which groups the leaders of member states to set the policy agenda.

A streamlined council would allow shorter and more focused summits, he added.

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