In response to the crisis situation regarding immigration along the Mediterranean, the European Commission outlined four policy areas to prioritize in working towards a solution. These included “reducing incentives for irregular migration,” “saving lives and securing external borders,” “maintaining a strong common asylum policy,” and developing a new policy on legal migration. Over two years since the beginning of the migrant crisis, the EU has had mixed success in implementing these policies.
As it quickly became clear that levels of immigration were vastly skewed towards certain member states over others, Greece and Italy being especially affected, the European Council responded by focusing initial attention on its third policy objective: strong common asylum policy. In September 2015, the EU interior ministers approved an ambitious plan to distribute 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece across European Union member states within the following two years. With four countries voting against the plan, the initial lack of unity already spelled trouble for its future.
As of December of last year, more than halfway to the plan’s goal date of completion, only about 5 percent of the 160,000 person goal quota have been resettled. Many states have proven uncooperative, balking at the idea of mandatory quotas of migrants they must take in. Hungary and Poland have refused to accept any migrants at all, while the Czech Republic has been inactive in taking in migrants for the past year. After they voted against the plan, lack of cooperation from Hungary and the Czech Republic is unsurprising. Some other member states have been cooperating slowly; Austria only recently pledged to take in some migrants from Italy, having previously refused any cooperation. This reluctant cooperation, in addition to instances of outright refusal, has stalled the plan’s success and left Italy and Greece shouldering huge burdens without effective assistance. While the European Council can put forth plans and articulate grand ideas, without the ability to enforce their rulings, they have no way to ensure the success of these plans.
Recently, in light of internal disunity and lack of cooperation, the EU has focused on matters it has more control over, devoting attention to the first two objectives: reducing incentives for irregular migration as well as saving lives and securing external borders. In March of last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spearheaded negotiations with Turkey for a “one in one out” deal under which Turkey would agree to take back all migrants arriving by sea to Greece in exchange for the EU’s acceptance of an equal number of migrants already in Turkey. In addition, Turkey would receive monetary compensation and expedited consideration for EU membership. This would not only stem the flow of migrants to Greece, but would also disrupt the activities of human smugglers along the sea route.
Since the deal’s approval, however, Turkey has been disappointed by the scale of the operation, the EU having taken in only 2,761 refugees from Turkey (of the twelve thousand hoped for) and delivered less than one third of the monetary compensation promised by the end of 2017. In addition, the freezing of Turkey’s EU accession talks sparked major frustration from Ankara.
In October of last year, in a display of unity among member states and another pivot towards external migration management, the EU launched the European Border and Coast Guard Agency with the goal of monitoring the EU’s external borders. Even more recently, in February of this year, the European Council announced the Malta Declaration, an agreement to further cooperation with the Libyan government aimed at stemming the flow of migrants and disrupting smuggler activity. In focusing more attention on those objectives that deal with security and international cooperation, the EU has found a bumpy, yet less discouraging, path towards crisis management than that of attempting to dictate individual member state policy.
Within its borders, the EU still faces great problems relating to the refugee crisis. In February of this year, the EU again recommended prolonging internal border controls in five countries. Lack of security along open borders has threatened the functioning of the Schengen zone and contributed to the mounting disunity among EU member states. In focusing on agreements with external governments and securing external borders, the EU is able to attain real results without the obstacle of internal dissent. However, if the reallocation plan of 2015 or something similar is not successful eventually, internal issues among EU member states will only continue to mount as migrant populations remain unequally distributed, placing enormous strain on the resources of countries like Greece and Italy. With the commencement of Brexit negotiations and the rising threat of nationalist parties throughout Europe such as France’s National Front, the danger of such internal dissent is all too clear.
Looking forward, the fourth objective, developing a new policy on legal migration, will be crucial to diminishing the divisiveness of this kind of crisis. The European Commission launched, in 2016, a “fitness check on legal migration,” a review of the “Relevance, Coherence, Effectiveness, Efficiency and EU added value” of current immigration policies expected to reach its conclusion phase in 2018. A lofty goal, a new policy maximizing these positive qualities will hopefully help to build unity and commitment to the common policy among member states. In addition to improving general immigration policy, the commission hopes to promote “common approaches” to integration of migrants into host country cultures, a prospect that may prove challenging as many member states already have their own specific requirements for integration which they may not be willing to change for the sake of unity. Mediating these kinds of differences and implementing the the various elements of this fourth objective will be crucial tests of the EU’s ability to prepare itself for future crises and maintain unity.
Indeed, this new push to unify for the future seems to be a response to the fragmented immigration and integration policies among EU member states which created issues in the effort to respond to the crisis. Ultimately, the European Commission has been forced, throughout their attempts to respond to the migrant crisis, to focus new efforts primarily on international alliances and external border protection rather than on internal management. However, in an announcement made just May 16th, the European Commission announced it will decide in June whether to bring formal charges against Hungary and Poland for refusing fulfil their duty as member states to take part in the relocation plan and share the weight of the immigration crisis. This move hints at a new, more aggressive course of action for the European Commission in ensuring internal cooperation and more effective policy implementation. Such a stance may run the risk of adding more fuel to the fire of populist movements throughout Europe.
However, in order for the fourth objective, the development of a new, unified migration policy, to be realized, EU member states must be able to cooperate. Without a show of authority by the European Commission, the EU runs the greater risk of remaining stagnant and unable to effectively address crisis situations internally. In the wake of the Brexit decision and amidst a rising tide of populism, the world will certainly be watching in June as the European Commission decides whether to make this stand and assert its will to fight for a united EU.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.