von Johanna Günther, M.A.
As the influx of refugees towards European countries continues to increase due to violent regional conflicts and as a consequence of the Arab Spring as well as the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the question of how to handle matters, such as the accommodation, administration and placement of these people, becomes more and more pressing. These issues – while essentially being a sensitive area of individual nation-states’ sovereignty – have increasingly also become a European problem. Since the beginning of the 1990’s, European integration in the area of asylum policy has continuously advanced. The structure, norms and objectives of the so-called Common European Asylum System (CEAS) have continuously drawn criticism – not least, from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) which has undertaken numerous court proceedings regarding fundamental rights violations in this context.
One of these cases is M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece (MSS). The Court ruled in favour of the applicant, M.S.S., and concluded that two EU member states, Greece and Belgium, had violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The MSS Judgment can be categorised as a leading decision as it marks on the one hand a watershed in the jurisdiction of the ECtHR; on the other hand, it is a decision of great political influence among EU member states. The observation that the case-law of the ECtHR causes strong reactions – also policy-wise – among EU member states, even though they are not directly concerned as court factions, leads to the first thesis this paper considers: The admission and proceeding of certain cases by the ECtHR can catalyse political and societal discourses which – under certain conditions – trigger policy changes in individual states. The second and main thesis is derived from this assumption: By contributing to the evolution of protection standards regarding asylum-seekers’ rights and asylum procedures in the member states of the European Union, the ECtHR has become an agent of change in the area of asylum policy.