The New Pact on Migration and Asylum. A Critical ‘First Look’ Analysis

To build an overarching compromise, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum drafted by the European Commission takes as its point of departure the radical demands formulated by the most nationalist governments in Europe. In doing so, it sacrifices migrants’ rights on the altar of a cohesive and integrated European migration policy.

Martin Deleixhe, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Where does it come from?

The New Migration Pact was built on the ashes of the mandatory relocation scheme that the Commission tried to push in 2016. And the least that one can say, is that it shows! The whole migration plan has been decisively shaped by this initial failure. Though the Pact has some merits, the very fact that it takes as its starting point the radical demands made by the most nationalist governments in Europe leads to sacrificing migrants’ rights on the altar of a cohesive and integrated European migration policy.

Back in 2016, the vigorous manoeuvring of the Commission to find a way out of the European asylum dead-end resulted in a bittersweet victory for the European institution. Though the Commission was able to find a qualified majority of member states willing to support a fair distribution of the asylum seekers among member states through a relocation scheme, this new regulation remained dead letter. Several eastern European states flatly refused to implement the plan, other member states seized this opportunity to defect on their obligations and the whole migration policy quickly unravelled. Since then, Europe is left with a dysfunctional Dublin agreement exacerbating the tensions between member states and 27 loosely connected national asylum regimes. On the latter point, at least, there is a consensus. Everyone agrees that the EU’s migration regime is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.

Obviously, the Commission was not keen to go through a new round of political humiliation. Having been accused of “bureaucratic hubris” the first time around, the commissioners Schinas and Johansson decided not to repeat the same mistake. They toured the European capitals and listened to every side of the entrenched migration debate before drafting their Migration Pact. The intention is in the right place and it reflects the complexity of having to accommodate 27 distinct democratic debates in one single political space. Nevertheless, if one peers a bit more extensively through the content of the New Plan, it is complicated not to get the feelings that the Visegrad countries are currently the key players shaping the European migration and asylum policies. After all, their staunch opposition to a collective reception scheme sparked the political process and provided the starting point to the general discussion. As a result, it is no surprise that the New Pact tilts firmly towards an ever more restrictive approach to migration, beefs up the coercive powers of both member states and European agencies and raises many concerns with regards to the respect of the migrants’ fundamental rights.

What is in this New Pact on Migration and Asylum?

Does the Pact concede too much ground to the demands of the most xenophobic European governments? To answer that question, let us go back to the bizarre metaphor used by the commissioner Schinas. During his press conference, he insisted on comparing the New Pact on Migration and Asylum to a house built on solid foundations (i.e. the lengthy and inclusive consultation process) and made of 3 floors: first, some renewed partnerships with the sending and transit states, second, some more effective border procedures, and third, a revamped mandatory – but flexible ! – solidarity scheme. It is tempting to carry on with the metaphor and to say that this house may appear comfortable from the inside but that it remains tightly shut to anyone knocking on its door from the outside. For, a careful examination reveals that each of the three “floors” (policy packages, actually) lays the emphasis on a repressive approach to migration aimed at deterring would-be asylum seekers from attempting to reach the European shores.

The “new partnerships” with sending and transit countries, a “change in paradigm”?

Let us add that there is little that is actually “new” in this New Migration Pact. For instance, the first policy package, that is, the suggestion that the EU should renew its partnerships with sending and transit countries is, as a matter of fact, an old tune in the Brussels bubble. The Commission may boast that it marks a “change of paradigm”, one fails to see how this would be any different from the previous European diplomatic efforts. Since migration and asylum are increasingly considered as toxic topics (for, they would be the main factors behind the rise of nationalism and its corollary, Euroscepticism), the European Union is willing to externalize this issue, seemingly at all costs. The results, however, have been mixed in the past. To the Commission’s own admission, only a third of the migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected are effectively returned. Besides the facts that returns are costly, extremely coercive, and administratively complicated to organize, the main reason for this low rate of successful returns is that sending countries refuse to cooperate in the readmission procedures. Neighbouring countries have excellent reasons not to respond positively to the Union’s demands. For some, remittances sent by their diaspora are an economic lifeline. Others just do not want to appear complicit of repressive European practices on their domestic political scene. Furthermore, many African countries are growing discontent with the forceful way the European Union uses its asymmetrical relation of power in bilateral negotiations to dictate to those sovereign states the migration policies they should adopt, making for instance its development aid conditional on the implementation of stricter border controls. The Commission may rhetorically claim to foster “mutually beneficial” international relation with its neighbouring countries, the emphasis on the externalization of migration control in the EU’s diplomatic agenda nevertheless bears some of the hallmarks of neo-colonialism. As such, it is a source of deep resentment in sending and transit states. It would therefore be a grave mistake for the EU to overlook the fact that some short-term gains in terms of migration management may result in long-term losses with regards to Europe’s image across the world.

Furthermore, considering the current political situation, one should not primarily be worried about the failed partnerships with neighbouring countries, it is rather the successful ones that ought to give us pause and raise concerns. For, based on the existing evidence, the EU will sign a deal with any state as long as it effectively restrains and contains migration flows towards the European shores. Being an authoritarian state with a documented history of human right violations (Turkey) or an embattled government fighting a civil war (Lybia) does not disqualify you as a partner of the European Union in its effort to manage migration flows. It is not only morally debatable for the EU to delegate its asylum responsibilities to unreliable third countries, it is also doubtful that an increase in diplomatic pressure on neighbouring countries will bring major political results. It will further damage the perception of the EU in neighbouring countries without bringing significant restriction to migration flows.

Streamlining border procedures? Or eroding migrants’ rights?

The second policy package is no more inviting. It tackles the issue of the migrants who, in spite of those partnerships and the hurdles thrown their way by sending and transit countries, would nevertheless reach Europe irregularly. On this issue, the Commission faced the daunting task of having to square a political circle, since it had to find some common ground in a debate bitterly divided between conflicting worldviews (roughly, between liberal and nationalist perspectives on the individual freedom of movement) and competing interests (between overburdened Mediterranean member states and Eastern member states adamant that asylum seekers would endanger their national cohesion). The Commission thus looked for the lowest common denominator in terms of migration management preferences amongst the distinct member states. The result is a two-tier border procedure aiming to fast-track and streamline the processing of asylum claims, allowing for more expeditious returns of irregular migrants. The goal is to prevent any bottleneck in the processing of the claims and to avoid the (currently near constant) overcrowding of reception facilities in the frontline states. Once again, there is little that is actually new in this proposal. It amounts to a generalization of the process currently in place in the infamous hotspots scattered on the Greek isles. According to the Pact, screening procedures would be carried out in reception centres created across Europe. A far cry from the slogan “no more Moria” since one may legitimately suspect that those reception centres will, at the first hiccup in the procedure, turn into tomorrow’s asylum camps.

According to this procedure, newly arrived migrants would be submitted within 5 days to a pre-screening procedure and subsequently triaged into two categories. Migrants with a low chance of seeing their asylum claim recognized (because they would come from a country with a low recognition rate or a country belonging to the list of the safe third countries, for instance) would be redirected towards an accelerated procedure. The end goal would be to return them, if applicable, within twelve weeks. The other migrants would be subjected to the standard assessment of their asylum claim. It goes without saying that this proposal has been swiftly and unanimously condemned by all human rights organizations. It does not take a specialized lawyer to see that this two-tiered procedure could have devastating consequences for the “fast-tracked” asylum seekers left with no legal recourse against the initial decision to submit them to this sped up procedure (rather than the standard one) as well as reduced opportunities to defend their asylum claim or, if need be, to contest their return. No matter how often the Commission repeats that it will preserve all the legal safeguards required to protect migrants’ rights, it remains wildly unconvincing. Furthermore, the Pact may confuse speed and haste. The schedule is tight on paper (five days for the pre-screening, twelve weeks for the assessment of the asylum claim), it may well prove unrealistic to meet those deadlines in real-life conditions. The Commission also overlooks the fact that accelerated procedures tend to be sloppy, thus leading to juridical appeals and further legal wrangling and eventually amounting to processes far longer than expected.

Integrating the returns, not the reception

The Commission talked up the new Pact as being “balanced” and “humane”. Since the two first policy packages focus, first, on preventing would-be migrants from leaving their countries and, second, on facilitating and accelerating their returns, one would expect the third policy package to move away from the restriction of movement and to complement those measures with a reception plan tailored to the needs of refugees. And here comes the major disappointment with the New Pact and, perhaps, the clearest indication that the Pact is first and foremost designed to please the migration hardliners. It does include a solidarity scheme meant to alleviate the burden of frontline countries, to distribute more fairly the responsibilities amongst member states and to ensure that refugees are properly hosted. But this solidarity scheme is far from being robust enough to deliver on those promises. Let us unpack it briefly to understand why it is likely to fail. The solidarity scheme is mandatory. All member states will be under the obligation to take part. But there is a catch! Member states’ contribution to this collective effort can take many shapes and forms and it will be up to the member states to decide how they want to participate. They get to choose whether they want to relocate some refugees on their national soil, to provide some financial and/or logistical assistance, or to “sponsor” (it is the actual term used by the Commission) some returns.

No one expected the Commission to reintroduce a compulsory relocation scheme in its Pact. Eastern European countries had drawn an obvious red line and it would have been either naïve or foolish to taunt them with that kind of policy proposal. But this so-called “flexible mandatory solidarity” relies on such a watered-down understanding of the solidarity principle that it results in a weak and misguided political instrument unsuited to solve the problem at hand. First, the flexible solidarity mechanism is too indeterminate to prove efficient. According to the current proposal, member states would have to shoulder a fair share of the reception burden (calculated on their respective population and GDP) but would be left to decide for themselves which form this contribution would take. The obvious flaw with the policy proposal is that, if all member states decline to relocate some refugees (which is a plausible scenario), Mediterranean states would still be left alone when it comes to dealing with the most immediate consequences of migration flows. They would receive much more financial, operational, and logistical support than it currently is the case – but they would be managing on their own the overcrowded reception centres. The Commission suggests that it would oversee the national pledges in terms of relocation and that it would impose some corrections if the collective pledges fall short of a predefined target. But it remains to be seen whether the Commission will have the political clout to impose some relocations to member states refusing them. One could not be blamed for being highly sceptical.

Second, it is noteworthy that the Commission fails to integrate the reception of refugees since member states are de facto granted an opt-out on hosting refugees. What is integrated is rather the return policy, once more a repressive instrument. And it is the member states with the worst record in terms of migrants’ rights violations that are the most likely to be tasked with the delicate mission of returning them home. As a commentator was quipping on Twitter, it would be like asking a bully to walk his victim home (what could possibly go wrong?). The attempt to build an intra-European consensus is obviously pursued at the expense of the refugees. The incentive structure built into the flexible solidarity scheme offers an excellent illustration of this. If a member state declines to relocate any refugee and offers instead to ‘sponsor’ some returns, it has to honour that pledge within a limited period of time (the Pact suggests a six month timeframe). If it fails to do so, it becomes responsible for the relocation and the return of those migrants, leading to a situation in which some migrants may end up in a country where they do not want to be and that does not want them to be there. Hardly an optimal outcome…

Conclusion

The Pact represents a genuine attempt to design a multi-faceted and comprehensive migration policy, covering most aspects of a complex issue. The dysfunctions of the Schengen area and the question of the legal pathways to Europe have been relegated to a later discussion and one may wonder whether they should not have been included in the Pact to balance out its restrictive inclination. And, in all fairness, the Pact does throw a few bones to the more cosmopolitan-minded European citizens. For instance, it reminds the member states that maritime search and rescue operations are legal and should not be impeded, or it shortens (from five to three years) the waiting period for refugees to benefit from the freedom of movement. But those few welcome additions are vastly outweighed by the fact that migration hardliners dominated the agenda-setting in the early stage of the policy-making exercise and have thus been able to frame decisively the political discussion. The end result is a policy package leaning heavily towards some repressive instruments and particularly careless when it comes to safeguarding migrants’ rights.

The New Pact was first drafted on the ashes of the mandatory relocation scheme. Back then, the Commission publicly made amends and revised its approach to the issue. Sadly, the New Pact was presented to the European public when the ashes of the Moria camp were still lukewarm. One can only hope that the member states will learn from that mistake too.

Martin Deleixhe is a post-doc researcher in Political Theory with a focus on migration and borders at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. He can be contacted via https://univ-paris1.academia.edu/MartinDeleixhe.

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