12 July 2012
ummer is the peak season for irregular migration, and that has in recent years translated into bad headlines for the EU about deaths at sea and harsh conditions on shore. Over time, if the new European Asylum Support Office (EASO) succeeds, there will be less cause for criticism of the reception of migrants. A counterpart to the EU’s border agency, Frontex, EASO is mandated to help member states improve their treatment of migrants and asylumseekers – as reflected in the creation of a special team to help Greece address persistent problems in its asylum centres. But the agency, which was established in 2010, is still only in its infancy. How it develops will depend heavily on its director, Robert Visser, a man who had the ear of Dutch prime ministers for three decades. Visser entered public service in diplomacy in the early 1980s, but he was soon drafted into ministers’ service, first as the assistant secretary for the Dutch Council of Ministers and then, in 1986, as a senior adviser to the then prime minister, Ruud Lubbers. Visser also impressed others with his strategic thinking and his finesse as an adviser: he remained as a senior counsellor to Lubber’s successors, Wim Kok and Jan Peter Balkenende – a period that stretches from 1986 to 2003 – on subjects that included constitutional affairs, legal affairs, immigration, European and international affairs. in 2003, he became deputy secretary-general in the prime minister’s office, with a portfolio so heavy that it was divided into three after he left: he was responsible for the immigration service and also coordinated the European and international affairs and the law departments at the justice ministry. That is testament to Visser’s capacity for hard work. Regarded as a calm and excellent manager, he is also praised for his ability to forge consensus and to inform policy. Close to politicians he may have been, but “Rob has always kept his political preference a secret,” says Loes Mulder, who succeeded him as directorgeneral for immigration. Visser sees himself as a behind-thescenes technocrat offering informationdriven advice – and staying out of the politics related to it. In this, and other ways, he is the embodiment of a civil servant. Though he has a sophisticated sense of humour, Visser is not a
charismatic or domineering figurehead; he can come across as academic or didactic, says one colleague, and can be shy, says another. For the Dutch, standards of governance on Europe’s periphery have been a concern for years, and when EASO was set up in 2010, the then Dutch minister of justice, Ernst Ballin, suggested Visser apply to be executive director. For EU officials, Visser was a natural choice for a sensitive post in an area that has been a political problem child: he had experience at every level of asylum policy, he was well known internationally in asylum and migration circles, and he had proven organisational skills. Visser was keen to take on the challenge, suggests the current head of the Dutch immigration service, Rob van Lint. “His selection was an exciting moment for Rob, which showed how much he wanted this step towards an international career.” What prompted him to apply for the job, Visser himself says, were the challenges of making a new beginning in a policy area in which he is passionately interested, and the prospect of creating an agency capable of making a difference to asylum policy. “His background is defined by humane and humanistic thinking,” says Lubbers, who has been a UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “In such a fierce debate, I am happy that there are people like him around.” Visser is also a European ‘believer’: he has written on European affairs, and has been involved in EUrelated initiatives by the Nexus Institute, a think-tank, and the European Movement in the Netherlands. There was no easy start for EASO: “I had no assistant, no phone, no office and no money,” Visser recalls with a smile. The agency is still in temporary offices and is still recruiting: its current 40-strong staff should double. Meanwhile, EASO has to make adjustments, because €3 million was cut from its projected budget this year. Visser is still acclimatising himself to the difficulties of filling positions, a process involving more bureaucracy than he encountered in The Hague. This is not the only adjustment required of him. A man used to dealing with prime ministers, he now answers to a management board made up of the heads of 27 national authorities, two representatives of the European
Visser, a man used to dealing with prime ministers, he now answers to a management board made up of the heads of 27 national authorities, two representatives of the European Commission and a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
CURRICULUM VITAE 1954: 1974-80:
Born, Franeker Master’s degree in law, Groningen University 1974-81: Master’s degree in history, Groningen University 1981: Graduate of the Diplomat School of the Netherlands 1981-83: Diplomat at the Dutch embassy in Madrid 1983-86: Assistant-secretary to the Dutch Council of Ministers 1986-2003: Senior adviser to the prime minister 1998-2003: Deputy secretary-general and senior adviser to the prime minister 2003-10: Director-general for legislation, international affairs and immigration at the justice ministry 2008: PhD in law, Leiden University 2010-: Executive director, European Asylum Support Office, Malta
Commission and a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As he puts it, “27 is a large number of countries, and a large number of people to influence”. But it is an adjustment for which Visser is well equipped. As well as having been a senior civil servant, he is a student of government: in 2008, he wrote a doctoral thesis on ministerial responsibility and parliamentary trust and published a book on the matter. His stated interests include the machinery of government, as well as history and travelling. EASO’s base, in Malta, is a considerable distance from the centre of policymaking, Brussels. So Visser spent much of his first year at EASO on a tour of European capitals, visiting decisionmakers, including members of national parliaments. The director of the UNHCR’s Europe bureau, Daniel Endres, is full of praise. “Rob has done a remarkable job in building up an EU institution in such a short time,” he says. Visser is known to have a very good rapport with the chairman of EASO’s board, Stéphane Fratacci, and maintains close ties to the office of Cecilia Malmström, the European commissioner for home affairs. For the time being, logistics dominates the agenda. But “one of my ambitions is that the agency can contribute to the policy debate with evidence-based input,” Visser says. “I hope I can bring the agency to a situation where it can show what works and what does not work.” This effort to turn EASO into a powerhouse of expertise acquired a public face in Brussels this month, when Visser presented the first ‘country of origin’ report, setting out the EASO’s advice for the treatment of Afghan asylum requests. The EASO is also developing an ‘early warning system’ about migration flows. But uncertainty lingers about EASO’s eventual place in the common European asylum system that the EU hopes to agree this year. Inevitably, EASO’s recommendations will not please all member states, and Visser has no power to make policy. What power he gains will be soft: it will rest with EASO’s management board and, essentially, the 27 member states, to back efforts to prevent humanrights violations in asylum-seekers’ reception centres. Given these obstacles, will Visser succeed in making his agency indispensable? Laurens Cerulus
The Brussels based weekly paper on EU affairs European Voice, edition of 12 July 2012, page 12.