Migrant Influx: Can Europe Reach A Compromise?
29 October 2023
Europe is coming under increasing economic and social strain due to an ever-increasing migrant influx. EU member-states have been deliberating on a common migration and asylum policy to introduce stricter border control measures. However, conflicting interests among the 27 member-states has made consensus building extremely difficult.
The European Union (EU) has been grappling with a migrant crisis since the worsening of the Syrian conflict in 2015. On one end are migrants from Africa who brave dangerous conditions to travel through the Mediterranean Sea and reach the shores of Italy and Greece. Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency has been consistently engaging in joint operations to check migration in the Mediterranean region. Meanwhile, millions of refugees from Ukraine have flooded to Europe amid the ongoing war with Russia. The ever-growing influx of migrants has put substantial strain on Europe’s social and economic fabric.
EU leaders have been concertedly trying to institute a common migration and asylum policy based on which individuals from third-party countries can be admitted and integrated into Europe. However, it has been difficult to build consensus on the matter due to mismatches in member-states' priorities. While overburdened countries such as Italy have emphasised upon stricter monitoring and verification, Germany has advocated for prioritising humanitarian concerns. The inability to arrive at a common ground has rendered the negotiations gridlocked although the final adoption of a full package is expected by April 2024. This article explores the EU’s policy approaches towards migration and asylum and its quest for solutions.
Asylum and Migration Policy of the EU: The General Context
Migration to the EU is governed by its asylum policy, commonly referred to as the ‘A.’. It covers aspects including regulations on asylum and immigration law, the protection of the EU's external borders, questions of illegal migration and the integration of immigrants. The policy is closely linked to the free movement of people across Europe. However, the EU has so far not instituted a comprehensive European migration policy.
The Schengen Treaty which abolished control over movement of people across EU nations borders is an important starting point for the A. As a part of implementing compensatory measures, the member states involved agreed on initial steps to harmonise national asylum and visa policies and to monitor the common external borders. The responsibility for handling large parts of immigration policy was transferred to the EU community through the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999).
Meanwhile, the sub-components of the A. have been developed differently. For instance, the EU member-states have agreed upon common criteria to determine an individual’s eligibility to be granted asylum. However, the A. does not have a uniform scope, especially as exemptions have been granted for Ireland, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. Further, individual member-states are free to follow their own visa policies enacted as per the EU’s guidelines. Moreover, EU-level regulations are almost non-existent with respect to legal immigration, an area which is entirely subjected to national control.
The EU activities on the A. are pre-structured through five-year programs; the Tampere program (1999–2004) was followed by the Hague (2005–09) and Stockholm (2010–14) programs. In May 2015, the EU Commission presented a “European Migration Agenda”. The so-called refugee crisis that began in the same year presented the EU and its member states with very big challenges and made clear the need for reform of the existing regulations on asylum and migration policy.
Asylum Policy: Challenges to finding Common Ground
The European Commission proposed a comprehensive common European framework for migration and asylum management in 2016 and again in 2020 with the new migration and asylum package, which contains several legislative proposals. Among other things, the proposed reforms seek to institute strict measures to check individuals from countries that are considered relatively safe.
In the future, after crossing the border, they will be taken to strictly controlled reception centers under prison-like conditions. There, normally within twelve weeks, it would be checked whether the applicant has a chance of being granted asylum. If not, they should be sent back immediately. Initial results are already available, but negotiations on many of the proposals are still ongoing. The final adoption of the full package is expected to take place by April 2024. However, the EU states have been struggling to find a common ground in asylum policy.
A majority among EU interior ministers voted in favour of stricter regulation in a meeting held in January 2023. However, implementing the same cannot be done without backing from the European Parliament. Further delays can be expected since the European Parliament is set for re-election in June 2024. Crisis regulation has been a major bone of contention. The crisis ordinance allows member-states to compromise or adjust certain rules such as lowering the standards for healthcare and accommodation.
Interim Measures to Ease Burden
The voluntary solidarity mechanism was created in 22 June 2022 by 18 EU member-states to relieve the burden on states bordering the Mediterranean, such as Italy. Member-states who have not signed on to the mechanism can contribute through finances or border management personnel.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently announced a ten-point plan to ease the burden on Lampedusa, the Italian island where thousands of migrants arrive via sea. Among others, the plan has suggested for bolstering maritime and aerial surveillance. The EU Migration Agency has further been directed to assist Italy with the registration of immigrants. However, details regarding how or when this plan will be implemented are unclear at this stage.
Meanwhile, the EU has also announced an agreement with Tunisia, a main transit country for migrants coming from Africa. As per the terms of the agreement, the EU will provide 900 million Euros of financial aid to Tunisia, of which 105 million Euros have been assigned for fighting illegal immigration alone. The financial aid is also intended for Tunisia’s economic recovery and for setting up digital and renewable energy infrastructure in the country.
Can Europe Act United?
Europe is looking at the state of emergency on Lampedusa - as it did in previous months at boat accidents off the west coast of the Peloponnese or off the coast of Calabria. Disputes and conflicting interests of the 27 member states have made it hard for the EU to build a comprehensive refugee policy. When some progress is made, it has subsequently taken two steps back. Meanwhile, Brussels has resorted to mechanisms such as the agreement with Tunisia to address the challenge. The question remains whether the EU will continue to use such agreements as a blueprint to deal with its migrant crisis. However, their efficiency in addressing the challenge in a humane way has been questioned.
Due to the lack of alternatives, many hopes are now pinned on the pact, the future of which looks bleak. And yet it remains to be hoped that the 27 EU member-states and the European Parliament will be able to agree on a comprehensive policy ahead of the upcoming European elections. The migration pact would certainly not be the solution for everything - but at least it would finally be a well-founded signal indicating that Europe has a common stance and acts united. It would be time.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Tobias is the resident European Affairs Fellow for Trivium Think Tank's StraTechos website. He holds a dual masters (M.A./M.Sc.) in European Studies from the Universities of Münster (Germany) and Twente (Netherlands). He has previously worked as an Assistant Lecturer at the Manipal Center for European Studies, MAHE, Manipal, India.
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