EU migration policy: (how) can the next European Commission do better?

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2019 will be an important year of change for the European Union. A new European Commission will take office and succeed Juncker’s 2015-2019 Commission, which he referred to in October 2014 as the ‘last chance Commission’.  Juncker, who had stated the ambition of leading a ‘political Commission’, has since vigorously pursued the ten priorities he had set out in his  2014 Political Guidelines.

When it comes to migration policy, the Commission has definitely acted politically. In the last four years, discussions about migration have mobilised EU citizens, profiled new politicians while forcing others to leave, influenced one member state’s decision to leave the Union, made and unmade alliances between states and institutions, introduced discussions on whether solidarity should be mandatory or differentiated, and had a deep impact on relations with third countries. As the end of the Juncker Commission approaches, it is time to draw a first balance of its work on migration and to look at the three contradictions that made it stumble.

What was on Juncker´s agenda on migration in 2014?

In 2014, Juncker affirmed that his priority actions on migration policy were to address five interconnected areas. To begin, the Common Asylum System should be implemented while exploring an extension of the European Asylum Support Office mandate to provide assistance to member states and third countries. He furthermore planned to extend legal opportunities for skilled migration, including through a reform of the EU-wide work permit ‘Blue Card’. He further prioritised strengthening efforts against irregular migration and to conclude readmission agreements with third countries. He moreover intended to step up efforts to secure the external borders and to extend the capacities of Frontex. Finally, human traffickers would be penalised. Realising these five points, Juncker emphasised, required that all member states “work closely together in a spirit of solidarity to ensure that situations such as the one in Lampedusa never arise again”.

Where do we stand at the end of 2018?

Both progress and setbacks in delivering Juncker´s agenda have been strongly influenced by the 2015 increase in migrants’ arrivals. The high number of policy tools and proposals presented under the Juncker Commission, as well as the strong prominence of the topic in European Council meetings, testifies to the high political priority of migration policy.

The negotiations were particularly difficult with regard to the internal dimension of EU migration policy. Member states´ reluctance to give up their national competencies and to share burdens and responsibilities has hindered progress on a reform of the Dublin Regulation and on the Asylum Procedure Regulation. On 4 December 2018, the Commission acknowledged the impossibility of having the whole package approved. It instead proposed decoupling these two Regulations from five further regulations respectively dealing with harmonising asylum recognition rates and reception conditions, an EU Agency for Asylum with an extended mandate, an EU resettlement framework, and an expansion of the Eurodac database. The likely last-minute and partial adoption of Commission Proposals aiming at fulfilling basic points of Juncker´s agenda is telling.

More visible results were achieved in relation to the external dimension of EU migration policy. In 2015 and 2016, the swift adoption of policy tools such as the European Agenda on Migration, the Valletta Action Plan and the Migration Partnership Framework intended to extend cooperation with countries of origin and transit of migrants, particularly in Africa. In addition to their stated objectives, these tools aimed at decreasing pressure on the internal dimension and marked the consolidation of an approach intended to address security and border control issues through development cooperation. In 2017 and 2018, however,division between member states began to affect these external actions too. The Commission tried to resolve these divisions through an EU endorsement of national approaches. It has furthermore worked to preserve the Schengen acquis by stepping up efforts on the external borders. Significantly, border management expenses in the Commission proposal for the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework account for more than double that of the planned Asylum and Migration Fund. At the same time, the Commission has tried to promote a stronger role of EU institutions in promoting national interests, for instance through the mandate extension for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency it proposed in September 2018. In the last two years, the Commission has furthermore reacted to member states reluctance to provide additional funding by strengthening the role of the private sector, in particular through the External Investment Plan and the ‘job and growth compacts’ linked to the proposed Africa Alliance.

Three contradictions in EU migration policy the new Commission will need to deal with

At various points during the Juncker Commission, three contradictions emerged that hindered the adoption of its comprehensive and coherent EU migration policy. The next Commission will need to address these in order to safeguard the Schengen area and free movement, a key pillar of the single market and thus of the European project itself. They are the following:

  1. Competition between national and transnational approaches to migration. The maintenance of national competency on migration and asylum is increasingly clashing with the need for transnational governance structures. During the Juncker Commission, this competition hindered progress towards identifying an EU regional migration and asylum policy able to complement the Schengen area of free movement effectively. It has moreover had an impact on the negotiation of transregional responsibility-sharing mechanisms (such as in the context of the Valletta Action Plan) and of global policy declarations (such as the Global Compact on Migration). In this context, the 2017-2018 Commission approach of pursuing national interests such as border security with increased EU competencies has proven unable to deliver long-term and sustainable solutions to conflicting national-EU competencies. What is needed instead is a renewed commitment of member states in the EU project and clearer rules on how responsibilities are to be shared.
  2. Contradiction between the increasing selectivity of legal migration and the EU’s aim to curb irregular migration through enhancing legal migration. The Commission aims at offering alternatives to irregular migration through two kinds of legal migration channels: humanitarian resettlement for ‘genuine refugees’ (cf. Annex to the 4 December Communication) and opportunities for(highly) skilled migrants. However, this approach neglects that most people engaging in irregular migration do so because they don’t have access to legal migration channels. The increasing selectivity of legal migration is therefore likely to increase irregular migration, rather than curb it. This increase would have negative consequences for national administrations and for low skilled European workers, who may suffer from wage dumping due to competition with illegal work.Such negative consequences may in turn strengthen nationalist and Eurosceptic feelings.
  3. Contradiction between the mainstreaming of security aims in EU development cooperation and transnational development as advocated by the 2030 Agenda. The 2030 Agenda recognises that challenges such as migration are transnational and need to be addressed as such. In contrast, the EU approach to development cooperation increasingly aims at following national goals through transnational structures, and neglects adequate consultation of third countries when preparing new proposals. This is true both for the use of aid as an incentive for cooperation on migration management, and for efforts directed at tackling migration ‘root causes’. In both cases, migration is conceptualised as a threat based on a national point of view, and not recognizing its possible contribution to transnational development. This risks backfiring in two ways: through a negative impact on development in the EU and in regions of origin such as Africa, and through a loss of importance of the EU´s participation in transnational commercial and political structures.

What is at stake?

A holistic and coherent migration and asylum system is a prerequisite for the maintenance of the Schengen area of free movement. Policy processes under the Juncker Commission showed that the migration policy area is essential for broader EU integration and in view of discussions on the future of Europe linked to the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty. If the next Commission is to be more successful in this vital policy area, it should consider adopting one of Juncker’s many slogans, namely ‘doing less more efficiently’.

Authors: Irene Schöfberger and Niels Keijzer

Image courtesy of Eoghan OLionnain via Flickr.

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