Egmont Institute logo

EU Migration Policy: another Groundhog Day?

Post thumbnail print


It might seem paradoxical to publish a commentary on the way in which the European Council approached immigration policy at its meeting on 29 and 30 June, since a quick reading of the conclusions reveals that not a single line is devoted to it! 


EU Migration Policy: another groundhog day?

It might seem paradoxical to publish a commentary on the way in which the European Council approached immigration policy at its meeting on 29 and 30 June, since a quick reading of the conclusions reveals that not a single line is devoted to it! 

And yet the shadow of the subject hung over the meeting, occupying much of the time of the Heads of State and Government, and bypassing in the media most of the other items on the agenda. Much ado about nothing? This left a bitter taste and a lot of questions about the future. 

The sequence is well known: after the adoption by the European Parliament in April of its positions on the proposals for a regulation on asylum and migration management, for a regulation addressing situations of crisis in the field of migration and asylum, and introducing a screening of third-country nationals at the external borders, it was up to the Council to take up the challenge. This was done on 8 June in Luxembourg, after arduous negotiations and a return to institutional orthodoxy, namely qualified majority voting. 

A wind of optimism began to blow as the first preparatory contacts for the trialogues got underway. It was reflected in the very upbeat letter from the President of the Commission to the members of the European Council: the stated determination to continue work on the pact was complemented by a plea for a collective and operational response, inspired by the Team Europe approach to relations with third countries, illustrated by the many initiatives underway or planned, and accompanied by a reference to a willingness to engage in out-of-the-box thinking. Some were already hoping that a breakthrough on this irritating issue would finally allow the emergence of a truly holistic approach to the phenomenon of migration. 

And that was until a predictable scenario materialized, namely a strong reaction at the European Council of the Hungarian Prime Minister and his Polish counterpart. The argument was to be expected: not only had Hungary and Poland voted against the Luxembourg deal, but the latter had also been reached by violating a repeated agreement within the European Council to no longer discuss these sensitive issues except by consensus. Others have recounted the trials and tribulations of a fierce negotiation, which saw certain players endorsing an unexpected role, but the result is there: the banal text on migration initially envisaged was evacuated in “President’s conclusions” supplemented by a paragraph explaining the position of the two rebels. 

However, it would be wrong to claim that the conclusions are devoid of any reference to migration. Actually, two of them can be found, both equally interesting. The first one reaffirms solidarity in the reception of Ukrainians under temporary protection “including through adequate and flexible financial assistance to the Member States who carry the largest burden”; the other praises the merits of the balanced partnership being developed with Tunisia, a partnership based on five pillars, including migration. To this could be added a confirmation of the awareness of the scale of the demographic transition through an invitation to the Commission to “present a toolbox to address demographic challenges and notably their impact on Europe’s competitive edge”. 

Nevertheless, this raises the question of the scope of this blockage. 

Some will say that this was to be expected and that there is nothing to prevent the institutions from continuing their work: “business as usual”. And there is work to be done: the points of divergence between the Council and the European Parliament are not insignificant, even if the prospect of arriving at the June 2024 elections with such a file still open will encourage many to be flexible. In addition, the Council is still struggling to adopt its position on a proposal for a regulation addressing situations of crisis in the field of migration and asylum, hybridized with elements borrowed from the previous proposal on instrumentalization and brought into line with the survivor directive on temporary protection. And dealing with situations of instrumentalization is a “conditio sine qua non” for some and a red flag for others. In short, the trialogues will be anything but a “walk in the park”.  And all this against the backdrop of general elections in three key players in the negotiations, namely Spain, Poland, and the Netherlands.

In any event, if the process were to be completed before the end of the legislature, it would result in a framework that is already complex and will no doubt be made even less clear and operational by the new compromises to be reached. The challenge of implementation will therefore be no small one, and it is to be expected that a good number of legal landmines will explode under the feet of those in charge. 

But above all, what would be the value of such a mechanism if two Member States (for the time being at least) refuse outright to accept the terms of the solidarity thus institutionalized, however flexible it may be, for example by boycotting the work of the EU Migration Forum set up for this purpose. Legal remedies and financial sanctions can always be invoked, but they do nothing to make the mechanism effective, and the limits of the principle of loyal cooperation enshrined in Article 4 of the TEU would be crossed by far. Should therefore an opt-out be envisaged in due form, and what would its components be? 

It would be presumptuous to draw any definitive conclusions. Clearly, the migration issue remains the “black spot” in the balance sheet of a European Union that has successfully overcome several crises over the last decade. Unfortunately, this blockage is particularly visible to public opinion and can therefore be exploited by national political players. More fundamentally, one might wonder whether the “incident” at the June European Council is not indicative of the fact that we are reaching the limits of a model whose cracks have until now been concealed by the unity displayed in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine and its consequences. 

On the eve of fundamental debates on the future of the Union, from the adaptation of a new security architecture to the definition of a new macro-economic governance framework, from the search for ways to adequately finance the European project to the inevitable redefinition of an outdated enlargement model, the very fact that this question can be asked is worrying. 


This article was also published on the TEPSA website.


(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)