Whose European Agenda on Migration?

In the context of a wide-ranging debate following the deaths of asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean, the European Commission has published its long-awaited European Agenda on Migration. The Agenda sets out specific actions to respond to the situation in the Mediterranean, offers general recommendations to reduce irregular immigration, save lives at sea and secure border controls, and further develop common asylum and legal migration policies.

The Commission aims to convey a message about a ‘common’ and ‘comprehensive’ Agenda, but is this an accurate characterisation? For those who have observed EU migration policies since their inception, this is hard to believe, especially if we consider some of the EU states’ criticisms of this Agenda, or the security-driven rationale of certain initiatives focused on fighting the smuggling of migrants. Both issues call into question the commonality and comprehensiveness of the Agenda in profound ways.

Some member state governments do not claim this Agenda as their own. The 25-26 June 2015 European Council meeting will offer them an opportunity to express their feelings on the matter. Topics of discussion will no doubt include their positions on the Agenda’s proposal for a ‘distribution key’ implementing a mandatory EU quota-based relocation system to distribute asylum-seekers, which is about to start with a temporary emergency response mechanism to assist Italy and Greece, with 40,000 persons to be relocated from these two countries to other EU member states. And the EU-wide resettlement scheme offering 20,000 places per annum to refugees from outside the Union.

Member states’ reactions so far cast a shadow of doubt over the feasibility of these proposals. Controversy was not unexpected, however. A resettlement scheme, based on states’ capacities such as population size, GDP or unemployment rates would change the working logic of the EU’s Dublin system, which establishes that the state through which an asylum-seeker first enters the EU is the one that is responsible for examining his or her asylum application.

The Dublin system does not work in practice, however. The fact that some EU states have no appetite for sharing the responsibility of asylum is no longer a sustainable option: the rules of the game must change. The Commission and the European External Action Service should team up with the European Parliament to generate the political capital to move beyond the current Dublin system towards a new EU asylum model, run by a Common European Asylum Service. In addition to an objective and evidence-based assessment of individual member state capacities, this model should take into account the preferences of individual asylum-seekers. This would help correct the current deficiencies of the Dublin system. In the absence of unanimity among EU states, enhanced cooperation should be carefully explored.

The Agenda does not set the right priorities either. Too much focus is placed on combating networks of smugglers and working with third countries to contain immigration. Not enough emphasis is placed on opening up legal paths to Europe. EU Commissioner for Migration Avramopoulos has declared that “Europe is at war with smugglers”. A New EU Action plan against migrant smuggling 2015-2020 has been just released, but the effectiveness of this emphasis on smuggling can be contested. The most efficient way to tackle smugglers’ activities is to provide safer, more flexible and cheaper ways for people to travel.

Disproportionate focus on smuggling and third-country cooperation may also undermine the legitimacy of EU policies abroad. One would have hoped to see the EEAS’ involvement move beyond ‘securitarian’ policy priorities to broader human rights and an examination of root causes, which so far has not been the case. A CSDP military operation, EUNAVFOR Med, sends out the wrong message about the EU’s priority to use military force when addressing migration challenges, under dubious rule-of-law frameworks.

This military operation is awaiting the green light from the UN. It is doubtful whether an EU naval force destroying smugglers’ vessels in Libyan territory, not exclusively covering search and rescue (SAR) and falling outside the FRONTEX mandate, is the best way forward. How will international law and extra-territorial human rights obligations be duly guaranteed?

2015 marks 30 years of Schengen cooperation, which is a milestone for the EU. It is now time to re-evaluate what is important: human rights, the rule of law and legal paths of access to Europe should be given priority in the next generation of the EU’s migration and asylum policies. This still constitutes a work in progress for the EU.

Senior Research Fellow and Head of Justice and Home Affairs Unit