Talking of Values & Migration Policy

In their new NoVaMigra Research Paper “Talking of Values: Understanding the Normative Discourse of EU Migration Policy”, Angeliki Dimitriadi and Harris Malamidis explore the normative discourse of the EU institutions and identify which values were the most prominent in the discourse on EU migration policy from 2014-2017. They find that values are both useful and instrumental to the EU institutions – and highlight the exclusionary potential references to shared values can have as regards migrants*.

Angeliki Dimitriadi, The Hellenic Foundation of European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)


Ιn the recent United Nation’s General Assembly , the President of the European Council, Mr Donald Tusk, noted that “if you want to follow the principles of international solidarity, you always have to help the weaker […]”. The call to solidarity has been repeatedly echoed in the EU and by the EU in recent years, usually in response to crises; financial crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit.  Despite the many calls for it, solidarity remains an ambiguous term, perhaps even more so within the EU than at the global stage. Yet, it has been critical, along with other norms and values, in the discourse of EU institutions throughout the refugee crisis (2015) and its aftermath.

What role have values played and continue to play in migration policy? It is a difficult question to answer, since it is impossible to know what leaders and institutional representatives think of values and how the latter truly affect policy. In our NoVaMigra research paper “Talking of Values: Understanding the Normative Discourse of EU Migration Policy”, we instead propose to look at how institutions talk of values. By focusing on the narrative around norms and migration, it is possible to see the extent to which values and norms are acknowledged, what policies they frame and draw preliminary conclusions on whether values have a role to play in migration policy.

Tracing Values in EU Institutions: A Discourse-Analytical Approach

Since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, the representatives of EU institutions made references in their speeches, press releases and minutes of meetings to normative concepts and rights, such as solidarity, responsibility, saving lives at sea and the right to free movement in the Schengen area. These normative references often stood in contrast to the reality on the ground. The policies could often be interpreted as contradictory to the value framework one can reconstruct from the institutional discourse.

Our research looked at the official discourse of selected EU institutions that were both active in the setting of policies on migration and in the discussion on the way forward (European Commission, European Parliament-LIBE Committee, Justice and Home Affairs Council and European Council). By looking at the official releases, press memos, communications, reports and minutes of meetings a picture of the story formulated and narrated by the different institutions emerges as regards values and migration.

We argue that values are not only useful but also critical to the institutions. They provide the limits within which both institutional narratives and policy proposals are set. They are part of the story of the European Union; i.e. a union of states brought together by shared values. And finally, they are useful, in that the EU tends to project these very same norms and values to the third countries it seeks to do business with as regards migration management. Thus, talking of values serves multiple purposes.

Values and norms are both inclusive and exclusive; at times they encompass the migrants, with perhaps the most prominent example that of the responsibility to save lives at sea. At other times, the ‘European’ value framework appears exclusive to the migrants, with the protection of free movement within Schengen being the main priority. In the latter case, the right of the EU citizen supersedes the normative responsibilities to migrants and asylum seekers.

Values’ Exclusionary Potential: The EU-Turkey Statement

The EU-Turkey Statement is an example of how values are employed to exclude migrants.  As a model of cooperation, the Statement was triggered and is maintained by numbers and to be more precise, fear of numbers. This is evident in the various documents of the JHA Council and the European Council that precede the Statement. Thus, it is not an agreement based on shared norms and values. In fact, the Statement strips away the usual normative frame (e.g. saving lives at sea, ending dangerous journeys) and focuses on ways of ensuring secondary and transitory movement from Greece ceases, as well as ending border crossings from Turkey. Its normative basis is primarily exclusionary; in order to guarantee freedom of movement in the Schengen area, irregular border crossings must stop. The right of EU citizens within Schengen is protected by limiting entry to the EU and, where possible, isolating arrivals to the Greek islands.

Put into practice, the Statement created a dynamic which tied the until recently uncontested right to asylum to one’s nationality. The Statement, in line with European and International refugee law, prescribed individual assessment of all asylum applications. Thus, return applied only to those whose application was deemed inadmissible (applicable only for Syrians) and/or unfounded, or who opted out of the asylum process. For the Greek Asylum Service to fast track decisions, one had to first be registered. In response, the Reception and Identification Service registered arrivals by nationality rather than date of arrival. Syrians were prioritized by virtue of country of origin, while other nationalities, including Afghans, waited for months to be registered. The immediate effect – for Non-Syrians having arrived in 2015 and 2016 – was that their asylum applications took at least two years to be processed.

Are values then instrumentalized to serve specific political agendas and policies? To an extent an argument could be made that this has always been the case. However, this does not reduce the importance of values and norms that do serve as effective constraints. Expulsions without due process and cause cannot take place; boats should not be pushed back at sea; access to asylum is a right guaranteed by the 1951 Convention irrespective of one’s nationality, religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs. By incorporating in the national and European legislations these norms, Member States and the EU place limits on how far they can go. These limits can and have been exceeded in the past and this is where the role of the European Parliament and the European Court on Human rights is critical. The latter has already indicated through various judgements (most prominent the case of M.S.S. versus Belgium and Greece) that the policies in place fall short of the norms they are grounded on. The previous European Parliament has also been critical of the implementation of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and urged reform based on solidarity and balancing humanitarian needs with protection of external borders. This has yet to be achieved, with the proposed revisions of CEAS tipping the balance towards deterrence and return.

This in turn poses a practical challenge – is there a way for the normative discourse to translate fully into practice? It is unlikely this can be fully achieved. As crucial as the institutional narrative is in structuring policy, national politics and discourse determine how receptive the former will be at a national level.  It requires political will and above all a common understanding of what the different norms and values stand for. To put it simply, unless the Member States reach an agreement of what constitutes solidarity and what should be its main characteristics – saving lives at sea, disembarkation and responsibility-sharing etc. – divisions will spill over to the policies proposed and impact first and foremost those seeking refuge.

*migrants in the research include irregular migrants & asylum seekers.


Dr. Angeliki Dimitriadi is a Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Migration Program at The Hellenic Foundation of European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). She can be contacted at

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