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Migration Policy On Autopilot

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After a prolonged absence since 2019, except for specific references to the instrumentalization by Belarus and above all the arrival of people displaced from Ukraine who benefited from temporary protection, migration was back on the agenda


Migration Policy On Autopilot: Looking back at the 9 February European Council conclusions

After a prolonged absence since 2019, except for specific references to the instrumentalization by Belarus and above all the arrival of people displaced from Ukraine who benefited from temporary protection, migration was back on the agenda of the European Council on 9 February at the express request of some of its members. For the better? It is to be feared that no.

On a divisive subject par excellence, faced with polarized positions reflecting tense national debates, and at the end of apparently long and difficult deliberations, the conclusions adopted seem to have been drafted to avoid the worst. They deserve a nuanced reading.

Firstly, it is positive that the European Council is expressing itself for the first time on the Pact on Migration and Asylum, almost two and a half years after its presentation by the Commission, inviting co-legislators to continue their work in accordance with a common roadmap leading to the end of the mandate of the European Parliament and the Commission in the first half of 2024. But no guidance is given on how to build on the progress made in 2022. At least a modest tribute is paid to the message conveyed both by the Commission in its initial contribution and by the European Parliament in its deliberations that the only real structural solution to Europe’s migration challenge lies in the adoption of this Pact.

For the rest, it is difficult to detach oneself from a critical stance.

Secondly, the European Council’s conclusions aim to consolidate policies that have so far hardly proven their effectiveness. The repetition of the classic language of the Union’s thesaurus bears witness to this. Thus, the “global approach to migration”, the need to “avoid loss of human lives” and to “tackle the root causes of migration”, as well as the use of “all EU policies, instruments and tools to ensure effective returns” are reiterated in a text that is drawn out, like most of the conclusions, breaking with the discipline of brevity that the European Council has happily imposed on itself in recent years.

Whether it is a question of strengthening cooperation on return and re-admission or external border control, the conclusions are above all an invitation to continue to intensify initiatives that have been on the European Council’s agenda since 2018/2019, even though the sharp increase in irregular entries and asylum applications recorded in 2022, both rising by around 50%, testify to their inadequacy in the face of what remains more than ever a European challenge requiring a European response. Only the encouragement to develop instruments for a common assessment of the situation appears here to be a rare and interesting innovation. But sooner or later the question will have to be asked about the relevance of investing ever greater financial, human and political resources in these policies.

The paragraph dedicated to the strengthening of external action inspires the same feeling of “déjà lu” but it also risks having damaging consequences for the geopolitical position of the European Union and particularly regarding its relations with partners in the South.  Amplified by the highly publicised debate on the construction of “walls” subsidised by the Community budget, the general message sent by the EU-27 to the countries of origin and transit risks being counterproductive in relation to the objective pursued and is at odds with the challenges facing the European Union today.

Struggling to develop a coherent internal policy, the EU appears to have little legitimacy in imposing its demands on third countries described as “partners”, or even in convincing them, through the virtuous “Brussels effect”, to adopt standards that have proved their worth within the EU. But, more fundamentally, when it comes to migratory flows, the Union and the Member States appear to be marked by the conviction that they will succeed in imposing their “global approach” through the skillful use of all the levers, i.e., the subordination of a good number of external policy instruments to the sole purpose of controlling these flows.

Such an illusion is impressive at a time when the occurrence of repeated shocks and the aggravation of global threats are making the Union aware of its dependencies (an indispensable first step in the pursuit of an “open strategic autonomy”), at a time when the EU must understand the ongoing redefinition of geopolitical balances in order to adopt the lines of conduct that will enable it not to be reduced to the rank of periphery.

This challenge was perfectly identified by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, in his speech at the recent Munich conference last February: noting, like President Macron, the strong resentment shown in many countries of the South, he stressed that the Union will only be able to maintain its position as a global player if it understands the reasons for this resentment, over and above the classic argument of propaganda and disinformation, and if it reassures its partners of the firmness of its commitment alongside them in the face of the economic, social and climate challenges.

It is difficult to find any trace of such a vision in the conclusions of the February European Council. No doubt prepared too quickly under the pressure of the security emergencies felt on the migratory routes of the Mediterranean and the Western Balkans, these conclusions are worrying in that, reading like many similar texts adopted by the Ministers of the Interior, they testify to a loss of the ability to synthesize and provide strategic guidance that one might normally expect from the Heads of State and Government. Is this an accident to be forgotten as soon as possible? The European Council has once again committed itself to returning regularly to this issue.

In October 2020, we expressed our support for the initiative of the Pact on Migration and Asylum designed by the Commission after extensive consultations with all Member States. Despite its obvious limitations, the aim was to break the deadlock created by the Dublin regulation, by organizing on new bases the reciprocity of the commitments made by the countries of first entry as part of their responsibility and by the countries in the second line as part of their solidarity, which in fact receive most first-time immigrants. In November 2021, we expressed our doubts about the chances of a successful outcome, as the political energy to achieve this seemed to be lacking. The conclusions of the European Council of 9 February are not reassuring, despite the undeniable progress made under the French and Czech presidencies implementing a more effective “gradual” approach.

The hope remains that the negotiations on the Pact will be concluded before the end of the legislature, even if doubts are justified as regards both the respect of the timetable and the substance of the hoped-for agreements. If the pessimistic scenario were to prevail, it would inevitably be up to the European Council to take up the issue of migration and mobility in order to redefine its parameters in a new way. There will be no need to rush and the deliberations will have to be prepared by in-depth consultations at the highest level, bearing in mind that it was originally at the Tampere (Finland) European Summit in 1999 that this same European Council laid the foundations for a truly comprehensive European policy linking free movement and asylum, the management of legal migration, border security, and the external relations of the European Union.


This article was also published in French by Institut Jacques Delors.


(Photo credit: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)