The package to show Europe is in control of irregular arrivals is a triumph of performance over policy.
Since 2015, Europe has been haunted by the possibility of a new ‘refugee crisis’. Then, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, uttered the famous words Wir schaffen das (‘We can manage this’). But, immediately afterwards, official Europe effectively said: ‘Enough.’ Ever since, it has been obsessed with making sure such an episode—the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev even called it Europe’s ‘9/11’—does not happen again.
Despite this fear, the European Union took eight years to conclude the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, on which the Council of the EU and the European Parliament agreed last month, following a 2020 proposal from the European Commission. The aim is twofold: to seal Europe’s border and distribute responsibility more equitably among the member states. But is there really agreement?
Most of all, there is hurry. At the European level, there is no desire to be faced with the elections to the parliament in June without having shown unity and determination on migration. Not achieving this would give wings to the Eurosceptic and far-right narrative on the purported inability of European governments to respond.
Nobody wanted this to be left after the elections to the council presidency of Hungary, which alongside Poland had blocked agreement for years. At the national level, amid increasing arrivals and requests for asylum, governments such as in Germany and Italy urgently need to calm tensions—in Germany the shadow of the far right looms again.
There is a rush but there is also some agreement, especially on certain matters. The commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas, responsible for ‘promoting our European way of life’, has described the pact as akin to a three-storey house: one floor is concerned with relations with third countries, a second with management of external borders and a third with distributing responsibility among member states.
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Agreement exists mainly on the first two floors. The third remains home to hubbub. In all three, though, the main contradictions continue unresolved.
On the first floor, there is agreement that third countries are essential to help contain irregular arrivals. Yet as no regime readily accepts the forced return of its citizens, deportation rates from the EU continue to be very low. Agreements with these countries are controversial from a human-rights perspective and, as in the case of Tunisia, not always easy to conclude.
Moreover, this is the flip side of the ‘instrumentalisation of migration’ of which EU leaders have complained, for instance vis-à-vis Belarus and Morocco. While the union has subordinated international relations to control of migration, third countries have done the reverse, conditioning their collaboration on migration control (even on pain of fostering irregular migration) to their foreign-policy goals.
On the second floor, that of the external border, the pact allows delays in registration of asylum-seekers at the border, introduction of second-rate asylum procedures and longer detention. In short, it means lower standards and legalising what, hitherto, was unequivocally illegal. With its scope for derogation, the crisis regulation, recalling 2015 and the last part of the package to be approved by the member states, only aggravates matters.
The result will be liminal and exceptional spaces—liminal because whether a border has been crossed will be in doubt and exceptional because, in this no-man’s land, certain laws (and hence rights) will no longer apply. This was pressed by Italy’s far-right leader, Giorgia Meloni. At the same time, the delays and concentration of procedures at Europe’s southern border will only consolidate the role of Italy, Greece and Spain as its chief guardians.
The third floor still requires caution. The pact has forsaken the original intention (and persistent stumbling-block to agreement) of a fairer distribution of asylum-seekers among the member states. There will be no mandatory relocation quotas. ‘Solidarity’ has now become a matter instead of fines—€20,000 per asylum-seeker for countries that refuse to take them in. Even this minimal agreement Hungary said it considered unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the principles of the Dublin regulation—which stipulates that asylum should be sought in the member state of arrival and which Merkel said in 2015 was not working—remain in force and will even be strengthened. For example, the period during which an asylum-seeker who has entered through Spain can be returned from Germany will be increased from 12 to 20 months. Once again, the burden is on the countries of first entry.
Is there agreement then? Final formal approval by the parliament is expected by April, followed by an implementation plan and definition of the financial framework—although a victory by xenophobic forces in the European elections could put everything at risk.
If not, and the pact starts to be implemented two years after its approval (in spring 2026), all depends on how it operates in practice. Its complex system of solidarité à la carte may entail increased bureaucracy, new disagreements among EU partners and higher economic costs. There is nothing to suggest that the pact will work better than the dysfunctional Dublin system.
But, indeed, the message is that there is agreement and this is what counts. The final purpose is to manifest political consensus and show things are under control. Yet the consensus is very fragile—the Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán, even spoke of a ‘legal rape’—and things are far from under control.
The pact will hardly (or hardly more than now) seal European borders and, if it does, it will be at the severe expense of fundamental rights. It will not assure either a more equitable distribution of responsibility among the member states. In short, it fails to address the main goals from which it stemmed.
Will it succeed in its main political purpose—to calm unrest around irregular arrivals in the run-up to the European elections? It is too early to say.
But we do know that more draconian border controls do not necessarily reduce the movement of those pushed by domestic plights, in the absence of safe, legal routes: Meloni’s Italy is the best example. And we know that the normalisation of xenophobic discourses is not detrimental to far-right political parties but rather validates them: the victory of Geert Wilders in the Dutch national elections is too recent to forget.
So yes, there is agreement. But above all it is a political gesture which does not address the main policy challenges and unfortunately may exacerbate the political malaise.
Blanca Garcés is a senior research fellow in the area of migration and research co-ordinator at CIDOB (the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). For more than 15 years she has studied immigration and asylum policies from a comparative perspective.