By Philipp Frank.
On 1st January 2021, Portugal took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union from Germany, running under the motto “time to deliver a fair, green, and digital recovery.” The change went rather unnoticed at a time with many events that drew far more media attention: the ongoing ravaging of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first launches of vaccine campaigns to end it, the U.S. Capitol raid. Within the E.U. alone, further political events have made the start of the Portuguese presidency harder than it had already been: by the time I am writing this article, three European governments are in a major crisis. The Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas has resigned over allegations of corruption, the Italian government coalition of Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte has collapsed and lost its majority, and the whole Dutch government under Prime Minister Mark Rutte has resigned over a welfare fraud scandal, all within three days.
Yet, the Portuguese presidency could potentially have a tremendous impact on the future of the E.U., and depending on its success, it could become very noticeable. Among its goals is the adoption of the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” which was introduced by the E.U. Commission under Ursula von der Leyen on 23rd September 2020, and which still waits for its passing by the Council of Ministers and the E.U. Parliament. Portugal inherited the task of negotiating the pact of Germany, which tried to strike a deal during its own presidency but failed to do so before Portugal took over. After all, migration and asylum policy have been at the centre of European politics for at least the latter half of the previous decade when the European migrant crisis of 2015/16 sent an enormous, unparalleled wave of migrants and refugees to European shores. Their arrival along with the governments’ reactions polarised the political and public debate about what ought to be done. The political and social aftermath of the crisis is still felt throughout Europe today.
In 2015, the main problem facing the E.U. and its member states was the sheer dimension of the migration wave, and many European governments failed to find common ground on the fair and equal distribution of the migrants and refugees. A major reason for this failure was the Dublin Regulation, the E.U.’s treaty for asylum policy, which determines that asylum applications have to be examined in the applicants’ country of first arrival. When the European migrant crisis unfolded, the southern member states were disproportionately affected and overburdened. Meanwhile, asylum seekers risked decent shelter, fair examination of their asylum applications, and the possibility of being sent back to their home countries. It became clear that the E.U.’s modus operandi simply does not work in crises. In order to tackle this problem and prevent the chaotic situation from the European migrant crisis from repeating itself, the Commission introduced the new pact with the goal of “striking a new balance between responsibility and solidarity.”
First, it must be noted that the countries of first arrival keep the core responsibility of accommodating migrants and examining asylum applications. However, in order to make application procedures faster, more effective, and more trustworthy, the Commission has introduced pre-entry screenings in which migrants are registered, their identity verified, and a health & security check is made. The data comes to the E.U. Eurodac database and determines the correct asylum procedure out of two possibilities; one for those where a negative decision is likely (border asylum procedure), and the other for those where a positive decision is likely (normal asylum procedure). As a general rule, asylum seekers from a country with an acceptance rate lower than 20% will be redirected to the 12-week border asylum procedure while vulnerable groups like children or families will be redirected to the normal asylum procedure, even though the E.U. emphasizes its focus on individual cases. The whole process is coordinated by a new E.U. Agency for Asylum, reinforced by improved digital infrastructure, and guaranteed to protect the fundamental rights of asylum seekers.
As far as distribution of asylum seekers, another heated aspect of asylum policy is that the Commission has proposed a new “solidarity mechanism” to come into action when an assessment by the Commission concludes that a migratory crisis is unfolding. It requires member states to show “solidarity” with the frontline states, meaning that they can either take in asylum seekers themselves or offer operational support to frontline states. More importantly, member states can offer “return sponsorships” whereby they have to organise the E.U.-wide return of asylum seekers to a certain home country within eight months. Finally, the Commission aims to combat the long-term factors for massive migration waves by combatting human trafficking and expanding diplomatic and economic cooperation with home and transit countries.
The pact has been criticised particularly for the return sponsorships as a form of “cynical solidarity” since it allows countries to effectively ‘buy’ themselves out of the responsibility of accepting asylum seekers and could even provide the same governments with a political weapon to exploit in their national electoral campaigns. However, the pact explicitly includes all E.U. member states in some way, making migration a European, not merely a Greek or Italian, problem. Moreover, it defines a clear strategy in the event of a crisis through a compromise which might not make the system perfect, but at least provides a strategy and improves the procedures. Finally, it is more or less without alternative. Migration has been debated for so long and so extensively within the E.U. to the point where everyone knows each others’ positions anyway, and no one wants the E.U. to break over another migratory crisis either.
What further speaks for the adoption of the pact is the fact that time is running out: fuelled by the grave effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on public health and the economic and social living conditions of millions of people around the world, particularly in countries in southern Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan, and Levantine countries, mass migration to Europe is likely to continue (or increase) in the coming decade. According to a publication from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in November 2020, an estimated additional 130 million people will be living in extreme poverty due to the pandemic’s effects. A more recent study by the World Bank in January 2021 estimated that the COVID-19-induced increase in global poverty would include between 119 and 124 million people, causing the first global overall increase in poverty since 1999. The same study also estimated output in the MENA region to have contracted by 5% in 2020, and blamed COVID-19 for leaving “lasting scars” on productivity and growth. Moreover, security has not improved either. Civil War remains the scourge of Syria, Libya, Ethiopia, and Yemen, while its unstable aftermath still occupies Sudan and South Sudan. Diplomatic tensions and armament between Iran, Israel, and the Arab Gulf States continue to rise, and Islamic terrorism remains a powerful destabilizing force in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Tchad, Niger, and Nigeria. Finally, the picture of wealthy, mostly Western countries gaining access to the COVID-19 vaccines first and keeping them solely for themselves will probably increase Europe’s attractiveness as a migration destination, too.
It is obvious that migration will continue to affect Europe and the E.U. in the future. All member states are aware of this, and the urgent need for a common European answer grows with every passing day as the catastrophic humanitarian conditions in the MENA region and beyond continue. Notably, there have been no rigorous rejections of the new pact by any member state yet; therefore, in the interest of all, Europe needs to consolidate itself.
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