Judy Asks: Why the Delay on an EU Migration Policy?

A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

Source: Getty Images

Erik Brattberg | Director of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

It is a positive step that the Franco-German-Italian-Spanish quartet is talking with their African counterparts. This reflects an acknowledgement that Europe’s migration challenges are intimately tied to the social, economic, political, and environmental situations in countries of origin or transit states where the EU has not done enough to project stability to date. Some progress has been made on beefing up external border security though — with initiatives such as the enhanced European Border and Coast Guard Agency, European Border Guard Teams, and Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean.

However, when it comes to internal migration policy, more unity and cohesion is clearly called for. The EU’s institutional and legal structures in this area are inadequate with some — such as the Dublin Regulation, the emergency relocation and resettlement schemes, and infringement procedures — being either outdated or not universally accepted. There is also a lack of political will in certain member states to relocate even a small number of refugees. As a result, the burden of incoming migrants still falls unevenly on a handful of countries, with Italy currently bearing the brunt.

With Europe’s 2017 super election season soon behind us, the EU has an opportunity to make progress on a common migration policy. A failure to do so will only amplify existing divisions between member states and grow populist sentiments.

Jørgen Carling | Research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo

A coordinated EU migration policy would be clearly sensible, but there are at least three reasons why forging one is extremely difficult.

First, there are conflicts of interest between member states that are difficult to overcome. Countries in Southern Europe face large numbers of unauthorized arrivals and have everything to gain from a joint European approach. Meanwhile, countries in Northern Europe benefit from a more national approach because they are sheltered by intra-European borders that have regained some of their past significance as barriers to migration.

There are also remarkable contrasts between more welcoming attitudes toward immigrants in Western Europe and more hostile attitudes in Eastern Europe. These differences make a common policy elusive.

The second reason is that it is easier for each European country to minimize its own share of Europe’s migration challenges than to contribute to solutions for the continent as a whole. The pressure of domestic politics can make leaders sacrifice European solidarity.

Third, there is a troublesome tension between ideals and pragmatism in EU migration policy. Most importantly, Europe wants the Refugee Convention — but not the refugees. This paradox has created a fragile policy of trying to have it both ways and European governments are wary of rocking the boat.

Elizabeth Collett | Director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe

State-to-state diplomacy on migration has typically been more effective than the EU’s multilateral approach. Individual European governments can draw on longstanding relationships and a broader range of mutual interests; they can offer more, and often more discreetly. For many partner countries, the EU remains simply a (strong) source of funding, while the real politics lie elsewhere.

The EU is not entirely absent. Mixed delegations of EU and member state officials have been shuttling back and forth between key partners over the past year, and the EU remains an important source of support from a development and humanitarian perspective. But experience is key. The EU’s external relations capacity is still developing, while France and Spain, for example, have longtime experience negotiating migration-related deals with North and Sub-Saharan African countries. Indeed, the EU’s revamped Migration Partnership Framework explicitly recognizes the need for parallel member state diplomacy.

But this week’s summit in Paris also reflects frustration with the slow pace of dialogue under the aegis of the European External Action Service, fueled by electoral pressures in Germany and Italy. Some governments are now searching for a “quick fix” that is rarely possible through EU dialogue and may deviate from the union’s oft-repeated values. The question is whether a more hardline, transactional approach to partnership is sustainable, and what the unintended consequences of prioritizing migration concerns over serious regional stability challenges will be in the long term for countries, migrants, and refugees.

Marta Dassù | Senior director for Europe at the Aspen Institute and editor in chief of Aspenia

“Delay” is too bland a term: Judy might have asked why there has been an utter failure of EU migration policy. It is hard to define the collapse of the relocation scheme proposed by the Commission in 2015 any differently, with an outright refusal by Central and Eastern European member states to take in asylum seekers under the plan.

Things are now changing. The main EU countries are trying to “externalize” the management of migration flows: first, with the agreement with Turkey; and now, with the proposed deal with Libya (or what’s left of the country), plus Niger and Chad. This trajectory indicates that any EU migration policy is harder to pursue in its internal dimension — where migration has become an explosive political divide across the continent — than as a foreign policy compact.

Externalizing the burden, however, will be neither easy nor sufficient: for an ageing Europe bordering a demographically booming Africa, migration flows are a structural phenomenon, not a temporary crisis. A change of perspective is a needed: the key condition to address past failures is on the internal side, starting with the revision of the Dublin Regulation. Should Angela Merkel, following the German election, decide that the time for delay is over, a working EU migration policy could then start to emerge.

Arjan Hehenkamp | General director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Holland

While it is encouraging to see that the complete absence of a coherent migration policy throughout Europe in recent years is now being highlighted, MSF’s concern is that Europe’s crude deterrence policies are being confused for that of responsible migration.

In reality, European policy is helping to trap thousands of men, women, and children in Libya in appalling conditions. With no rule of law in Libya, the detention system is unregulated. New detention centers emerge overnight and shut down just as suddenly, with the fate of people detained there unknown. People are transferred between different centers, moved to undisclosed locations, or disappear overnight. Detainees do not know if and when their detention will end and have virtually no access to the outside world. The EU now relies on this system to stop these people from reaching European shores.

Worse still, no one seems to know exactly what happens to people who are returned by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard and disembarked in Libya. It is impossible to track whether these people are brought to detention centers and, if they are, to which ones. There doesn’t seem to be a registration system or any judicial oversight and therefore there is no accountability.

Europe has serious questions to answer on its harmful and unrealistic deterrence policies that do nothing to genuinely respond to migration and trap thousands of people inside Libya indefinitely.

Miriam Lexmann | Member of the advisory board, COMPASS project on capacity-building and governance at the University of Kent

That the EU is failing to deliver in this most appalling humanitarian crisis symbolizes a magnifying mirror that shows all the imperfections of our community. Beyond the focus on the (in)sufficiency of development aid and technical policy details, it highlights more fundamentally that the EU cannot reflect solidarity if its populace does not cherish this virtue and if political leaders opt for popularity instead of leadership. The Visegrád Four’s dispute over migrant quotas displays a deep lack of democratic procedure, while the EU as a community lacks sufficient communication methods with its own demos, who are often hijacked by populist rhetoric.

This crisis also sheds light on the impact of homegrown and foreign “disinformation” on political discourse in Europe. Instead of finding solutions based on informed debate, we see hateful, frequently misinformative exchanges between “pro-refugee groups” and “radical anti-immigration groups” across the EU, while the majority of the population — who have legitimate questions and concerns — is often sidelined. At the same time, mainstream media have been unable to find the right approach to covering migration issues because a culture of political correctness prevents them from properly informing the public, as happened in Cologne.

Until it is recognized that the truth, however inconvenient, can never be politically incorrect, the EU will not be able to address its failure to act humanely and according to its own values.

Denis MacShane | Former UK Minister of Europe and council member of the Institue de Prospectives du Monde Méditerranéen (IPEMED)

The disaster of Libya belongs entirely in the laps of Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, who thought they could cover themselves in PR glory by supporting the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi — just as Tony Blair thought that removing Saddam Hussein would be like removing Slobodan Milošević.

You cannot destroy the entire structures of two states (plus much of Syria) and not expect mass flight from warlords, no jobs, no schools, no health care, and no utilities. Angela Merkel made a unilateral decision to invite asylum seekers to Germany without any consultation with her EU partners. Brexit was won, in part, by whipping up fears against refugees queues arriving in the UK.

Yet Germany insists — especially ahead of next month’s election — that EU member states must bow to Merkel’s wishes. Berlin needs to lower the tone and admit that Merkel’s original emotional decision was poorly judged. The problem will not go away until the people of North Africa and those further south feel they will have a safe future living in their own country.

The EU woefully lacks a Southern Mediterranean/North African policy approach that mixes firmness, political education, and investment within its wider neighborhood policy. In the end, the buck stops on Merkel’s desk. After her reelection next month, Berlin should move from moralism to politics.

Marc Pierini | Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Hearing politicians and reading analyses about this week’s migration summit in Paris, one is struck by the permanent “rediscovery” of the issue across the Mediterranean. Yet, the same patterns have been repeating themselves for about forty years.

Traffickers — the main drivers of migration flows — work infinitely faster than governments. If surveillance becomes stricter on one route, smugglers will find an alternative. Big wooden boats are too visible at sea, so rubber dinghies are imported to Libya from Tunisia instead. Traffickers use social media to “market” their services.

At the EU level, there is another disconcerting observation. While an enormous amount of energy and effort has been put in by the European Commission and European Council to forge an asylum policy, reaching an agreement has become nearly impossible due to a total deadlock among member states, especially those from Central Europe. In addition, with France now taking the lead on the “Libyan track,” as Germany did on the “Aegean track,” both Paris and Berlin are effectively circumventing the EU institutional setup. One reason for this is the above-mentioned political deadlock. Another, alas, is the bad habit of France and Germany, who think they are better equipped than the institutional framework of the Lisbon Treaty to forge a consensus at European level. This is a wrong assumption.

Gianni Riotta | Member of the Council on Foreign Relations

Europeans stubbornly refuse to accept that migration is not an “emergency” but a Biblical passage of people. Millions from Africa will cross the Mediterranean Sea or brave the Balkans route to settle in Europe over the next few years.

Since day one, Italy has been left to face the human waves alone. The government has been scolded for failing to save people from drowning at sea and has been disparaged for letting asylum seekers slip across borders into Austria, France, and Germany. Eastern European countries posture a “build a wall” attitude à la Trump, forgetting how recently Poles and Romanians were taunted with racist slurs in Berlin and Rome.

Do not expect clear-cut decisions to be made before next month’s German election — just plenty of statements, tactfully drafted à la Juncker, to keep everyone pleased (or, at least, not displeased.) The next awful shipwreck off of Sicily will be saluted with somber headlines proclaiming, “Never again!” Then, the farce will start all over again.

After the vote in Germany, Merkel may try to lead Macron and Gentiloni, her counterparts in France and Italy, toward a coordinated EU migration plan that includes conducting security checks and providing work permits. But first she needs a solid win at home.

Nathalie Tocci | Director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs

To answer this question, one first needs to clarify what is meant by an EU migration policy. Migration is the policy area in which the so-called “internal-external nexus” is most tangible. Migration includes three dimensions: an external dimension featuring relations with countries of origin and transit, a border management dimension, and an internal dimension that includes labor migration and asylum.

The delay on the EU’s migration policy is not due to the first two dimensions. From the EU-Turkey agreement to the implementation of migration partnerships with African countries to Operation Sophia to the establishment of a European Border and Coast Guard Agency, the EU has been moving at (relative) lightning speed over the last three years. This is not to say the EU has been entirely effective, but its response has not been slow.

The delay — rather, the total deadlock — persists over internal issues. The securitization of migration is blocking progressive labor migration policies. Coupled with deep divisions over the revision of the Dublin Regulation and the implementation of asylum resettlement and relocation schemes, the union is immobilized. So long as common internal policies stall, the EU will fail on migration, no matter how active its external or border actions are.

Matteo Villa | Research Fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan

There are three reasons for the delay.

First, it has been clear for some time that EU member states share a wide range of views on how to manage migration flows to Europe. The “fear circle” involving politicians, the media, and public opinion does not help to mend these differences.

A second problem can be traced back to the chaotic and unsynchronized national electoral cycle of EU countries. Most analysists point at Germany, but Poland is an even better example. In early 2015, Warsaw was among the first EU capitals to commit to the emergency relocation mechanism aiding Italy and Greece. But after the Poland’s parliamentary election in October the same year, the governing Law and Justice Party soon fell back in line with its Visegrád allies. With the EU electoral cycle still in full swing, it is not easy for national governments to invest the necessary political capital in Brussels to deliver a proper EU migration policy — even less so as it would require treaty change.

Finally, irregular migration flows have been shifting. The migrants who reached Greece in 2015 are different from those that have been landing on Italian shores over the last four years. More than 60 percent those applying for international protection in Italy will see their application rejected. This provides EU countries with the convenient argument that these people are “economic” migrants, which is the responsibility of first countries of arrival only. Thus, it’s argued, if anything should be done at all, it is to negotiate with origin and transit countries to contain the flow — not manage it.

Pierre Vimont | Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe

Since the migration crisis started, the European Union has been stuck between a rock and a hard place. The EU faces a contradictory situation in which its legal duties and the human rights values it epitomizes call for openness and tolerance on the one hand, while European citizens push for greater migration restrictions — if not full border closures — on the other.

Out of this impossible choice, EU leaders have defined an uncertain path, managing to close the Central Balkans route with the support of Turkey, but reaching less successful results stemming Mediterranean Sea crossings with Libya, and now faces new pressures along the Spanish border.

Today, the EU is at pains to grasp the reality of African migration and with it the need to combine short-term measures to control current inflows with long-term action to tackle the roots of the phenomenon. The sheer complexity of the task, combined with the growing pressure of a reluctant public opinion, will only further delay quick and positive results.

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The article was originally published on the Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe blog.