Migration: Will the EU walk the talk?

From the financial crisis to COVID-19, EU governments and institutions have dedicated a significant amount of time scrambling to fix one mess or another. For the most part, even though it does not always look like it, these efforts have indeed paid off. Instruments that were created in response to the financial crisis proved to be useful in lessening the impact of the economic crisis triggered by COVID-19. There is however one crisis where EU action – which could have a tangible impact – has fallen dismally and disappointingly short: migration. In fact, over the past decade, EU action on migration has been more of a crisis management.

Unlike COVID-19, migration is one of those crises that are easier to ignore. Firstly, there is a disproportionate impact on those EU countries at the external border. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, it is an intensely political issue that provokes strong reactions from governments and citizens alike, irrespective of geographic location. And add to this, there’s always an election happening somewhere.

Looking back at the past few years, action on migration at an EU level has always been largely reactive. Scenes of devastating human tragedies peaking in 2015, made migration hard to ignore. Cue a series of high-level meetings, a 10-point plan, a deal with Turkey, and a legislative package aimed at reforming the EU’s Common European Asylum System (or the lack thereof).

Over the past decade, EU action on migration has been more of a crisis management.

All talk?

Migration was suddenly at the top of the EU agenda. Discussions on legislative proposals began in earnest, and successive Presidencies of the EU Council – including Malta’s -attempted to square the circle and bridge the divide between responsibility and solidarity: an ever-elusive balance. For those on the frontline, this would translate into an acknowledgement that migration is a European issue that requires a European solution, and therefore the burden of irregular arrivals should be shared among all EU countries through mandatory relocation. For others, this acknowledgement should come with the responsibility to ensure that the EU’s external borders are protected, and by virtue of this, the necessary checks and registrations are therefore carried out. For some, like Poland and Hungary, mandatory relocation is a no-go. What is the point of insisting that all countries relocate migrants when migrants don’t even want to go there in the first place, they argue.

Four years after the summer of 2015, the then-European Commissioner for Home Affairs declared the migration crisis over, with flows returning to levels seen before 2013. Progress on legislation was slow, and positions remained entrenched. Less flows, however, also meant less loss of life and a lot less images of human tragedy broadcast on screens. By proxy, this also meant less momentum for action at an EU level. As a testament to this, after being a standard item on the agenda for years, the last time that migration was discussed at a summit of EU leaders was back in October 2018. 

Plus ça change…

In her Political Guidelines, presented to the European Parliament in July 2019, President von der Leyen announced that a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, including the relaunch of the Dublin reform of asylum rules, would be proposed. The plan was to provide new impetus into the discussion towards breaking the deadlock on what exactly ensuring a ‘balance of responsibility and solidarity’ actually means.

Presented in September 2020, the New Pact did bring with it a few changes. Gone were the ‘Common European Asylum System’ and ‘Dublin’ monikers, buzzwords of the package presented by the Juncker Commission in 2016. Enter ‘effective solidarity’, the Asylum and Migration Management Regulation, the Crisis and Force Majeure Regulation and the Screening Regulation. Apart from being a mouthful, the Asylum and Migration Management Regulation is at the heart of the Pact and aims to revamp the so-called ‘effective solidarity’ mechanism by providing flexible options for contribution to the solidarity effort, other than just relocation.

Last week, Home Affairs Ministers met in Luxembourg for the first physical meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the Portuguese Presidency. One of the items on the agenda was a progress report on the new pact on migration and asylum. The 20-page document accompanying this point can be summarised, for the most part, as “the Slovenian Presidency will follow up on this.” The Pact has clearly not managed to shake up entrenched positions as much as President von der Leyen had hoped.

Turning Tides?

The progress report does however acknowledge that there is a strong support for developing and further enhancing action on the external dimension of migration. This has perhaps been one area of EU action on migration that has had a tangible impact (2016 EU-Turkey Statement of 2016; Malta Declaration of 2017), and the area where Member States see eye to eye the most. It is no surprise then, following years of absence from the European Council’s agenda, that EU leaders will address this aspect when they next meet this month, on the insistence of Italy, Malta, Spain, Cyprus and Greece.

The European Council is expected to discuss ways in which partnerships with key third countries, such as Libya, can be taken forward on the basis of a comprehensive, tailor-made and mutually beneficial approach.

What does this mean in practice? Working with these countries of origin and transit with the overarching goal of preventing loss of life on the journey towards the EU, for instance by investing and supporting capacity building. It is a formula that can work if the necessary resources are leveraged towards that end.

Will this replace the need for a long-lasting solution on the internal dimension? Clearly not, but it will provide some much-needed breathing space for the next Presidency to try and crack the code.

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