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Will the EU Come to Grips with Immigration?

The massive arrival of refugees and migrants in 2015 and 2016 stretched the capacities of the EU’s structural and legal framework in the field of asylum and migration to its limits, laying bare the deficiencies of supranational decision making. Faced with a large number of people crossing the EU borders the EU institutions and Member States decision makers struggled to find viable solutions. The issue of migration has become an explosive political feature, propelling debates on sovereignty and fuelling populist narrative over the loss of national identity.

Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2010 the so called pillar structure has been abolished, empowering the EU with the prerogatives in the area of migration and asylum. As a result the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) has been designed with the objective to delegate the responsibility of asylum and migration management to the EU, and EU agencies that have been set up for this purpose. Based on the assumption of low levels of asylum applications (which was the case in most Member States over the years) the EU architecture was unprepared to cope with a massive and sudden increase of border crossings. The countries situated at the external boundaries of the EU couldn’t comply with the EU and international criteria regarding identification, processing and sheltering of thousands of people that kept on crossing the external EU borders. Faced with the so called refugee crisis the EU began to realise the extent of the structural deficiencies in its asylum and refugee policies. The institutional setup and the pace of EU decision making largely based on consensus and sometimes protracted procedures couldn’t provide a timely and efficient response to such a considerable influx of immigrants. It brought to the surface the underlying disconnection between the EU competences in the realm of Home Affairs and its foreign Common and Security Policy. With the growing securitisation of the migration issue, the value-based, human rights anchored foreign policy was put to a serious test. Increasingly politicised, the refugee crisis became the bread and butter of sprawling populist parties across the European Union. As a result the rifts between EU Member States laid bare the differences in interpreting the EU law and policies which were traditionally based on consensus and solidarity. The rationale of the Merkel government’s Willkomenskultur rested on the premises of burden sharing and solidarity among all countries, underpinned by the EU Commission’s plan on relocation and resettlement of refugees and migrants. But this approach failed due to the resistance of several countries, especially those on the eastern flank of the EU, which refused to comply with the quotas designed on the basis of demography and economic situation of each country. Matched with the migrants’ preference for wealthier states, it only exacerbated growing tensions among EU members. Few options remained available when the trust in the EU project reached its lowest point. Faced with the possibility of its own demise the EU had no other options but to physically stop migrant flows.

It is from this perspective that the EU Turkey migration action plan and the recently devised approach towards Libya ─ however imperfect or ill-conceived ─ need to be regarded.  While in the past the EU’s incremental integration was forged through a step by step dynamic, responding to the agreed necessity of common policy, the migration pressure of the last few years marked the shift towards a policy guided by political imperatives and priorities of national politics in its Member States. The EU-Turkey agreement is a case in point. Conceived against the background of a growing sense of urgency, the EU has been forced to sign an agreement to halt the endless flow of migrants and asylum seekers stemming from the conflict ridden Syria and other war torn countries in the Middle East. If the agreement was rightly criticised for its highly questionable premises regarding Turkey adherence to international human rights standards in the area of detention and protection, Greece has seen a 97% lower number of arrivals ever since. It also helped breaking the smuggler’s/traffickers’ business model which has prospered on the back of those who were prepared to lose all their savings and put at risk their own lives. True, Turkey’s law and practices’ compliance with the international human rights standards can hardly be considered satisfactory, let alone its geographic limitation to the ratification of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. In addition, the agreement came with a price, i.e. making the EU vulnerable to the whims of the increasingly authoritarian Turkish government, which shies away from promoting democratic principles of governance.

If the Turkey-EU deal deserves criticism the recently initiated EU-Libya negotiations aimed at stemming the flow of migration crossing the Mediterranean is even more problematic.  Whereas refugee and migrants stopped coming through the Balkan route, the Mediterranean Sea has witnessed a significant spark of migrant boat crossings. Over the last few years Libya has become the major launching pad for as many as 180.000 migrants who came to Italy in 2016. Six years after the end of Gaddafi’s four-decade-old-rule, the country has descended into anarchy with three competing governments and a number of local militias trying to exert power over its territory. Fears over a new wave of spring arrivals prompted the EU to start negotiating a plan with the UN backed Government of National Accord –having only partial control of a large stretch of its land and sea borders. The aim is to stem migration flows, and not only help rescuing migrants who risk their lives in rickety boats and rubber dinghies. The EU is clearly trying to pre-empt a new crisis which would have a potential of influencing the results of the upcoming elections in key EU states.

Capacity building and training of Libyan authorities to acquire control of its maritime borders combined with better cooperation and assistance is hoped to prevent smugglers to embark migrants on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. But for this to work the EU would need, in close cooperation with UNHCR and IOM improve the appalling conditions in Libyan reception and detention centres where exploration, human trafficking and sexual abuse of children are frequently reported by the international and human rights organisations.

Chaotic EU management of migration over the past few years has shown the limits of quick solutions and policy making dictated by political urgency. Lessons drawn following a massive influx of refugees and migrants should be able to give impetus for a renewed cooperation model of partnership with countries in the EU Neighbourhood. The September 2016 Commission proposal for a Partnership Framework on Migration provides a step in the right direction. Based on a tailored approach with a limited number of priority third countries of origin and transit, the initiative seeks to increase coherence between migration, development and trade policies. If accompanied by a common and better coordinated action between all EU actors and Member States it can mark a shift towards less volatile and more predictable policies in the future.

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