27 Jan 2020

The medium-term aftermath of European elections and the migration question

Emina Osmandzikovic
In the wake of heavier parliamentary restrictions on migration, the total number of arrivals into Europe as of November 2019 has been the lowest in five years. This marks a substantive change from the peak days of the European refugee crisis in 2015 when more than one million arrivals were recorded. In the first three months of 2019, just over 10,200 refugees were registered by the United Nations for resettlement to 17 EU member states. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) latest brief, this is almost one third of the total submissions made in 2018, and 60 percent of the average rate of 16,960 submissions per year during the last 10 years (please see table 1 below). In 2019, six EU countries - Germany, Sweden, France, Norway, the UK and the Netherlands - received 81 percent  of all resettlement submissions. Of the 17 EU countries to which resettlement submissions were made in 2019, nine predominantly resettled Syrian refugees. Only Sweden, France, Norway, the UK and the Netherlands have resettled substantial numbers of other nationalities of refugees, including those coming from Sudan, Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea. Table 1 (source: UNHCR, January - March 2019) Despite a steadily decreasing number of refugee arrivals into Europe and a substantial difference in the immigration and asylum status quo between 2015 and 2019, many European governments have been deadlocked for more than a year on the planned revision of the EU-wide immigration and asylum policy. This revision also includes amendments to the refugee relocation quotas. In early March 2019,  the EU interior ministers failed to conclude an overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, thus postponing the issue of migration within Europe to be dealt with after the European parliamentary elections. There are multiple factors underlying the widespread fear of immigration and related security risks:
  • Collective failure of joint action resulting in the absence of a unified migration policy;
  • Deeper structural problems within the EU and absence of political will to address such issues, including (irregular) migration;
  • Occurrence of EU-wide political change; namely the Parliamentary elections, when political stability and consensus were strongly needed;
  • Sufficiently substantive unity of right-wing and anti-EU parties across the spectrum, a majority of whom actively advocate for more restrictive migration policies.
In a  European Commission press release, ahead of the European Council meeting in March 2019, the Council’s First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans stated that, while the EU is no longer experiencing the 2015 migration crisis, there are structural problems within its asylum and immigration policies that ought to be urgently addressed. As one of the most urgent issues to be discussed on an EU-wide level, migration remained at the core leading up to the European parliamentary elections that took place in May 2019. The results of the election, while leaning to the right, have been far from clear-cut. However, there have been four years of persistent failures to catalyze political consistency among the governing left-wing parties across the EU, pointing to a striking and long-term absence of consensus. Questioning EU’s efforts in tackling migration The EU has failed to develop a coherent system enabling its member states to share responsibility for managing (irregular) migration flows. Simultaneously, the European Commission has pushed for reforms that would increase the role of safe third countries hosting migrants, thus relegating the EU’s responsibility without addressing its root drivers. Despite the crisis management efforts of the 2015 European Agenda for Migration, many of its postulates of urgent importance failed to fructify:
  • Response to the disasters of the Mediterranean, envisioned under the “Saving Lives at Sea” program and implemented by Frontex Joint Operations: Triton (Italy) and Poseidon (Greece);
  • Targeting smuggling and human trafficking networks under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) Operation in order to systematically identify, capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers into Europe;
  • Responding to high volume of arrivals via relocation;
  • Developing a common approach to granting protection for displaced persons, as guided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) via resettlement;
  • Working in partnership with third countries to tackle migration upstream through various Regional Development and Protection Programs (RDDPs);
  • Using the tools of the EU to help frontline member states in tackling the large number of refugees via emergency funds, a principle that especially applies to Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain.
Given that the weight of the above-mentioned points had been ambiguous from the very beginning of the refugee crisis, the two that overshadowed all other efforts were partnerships with third countries. This essentially implied exporting the crisis, and using the EU’s tools to help member states on external borders of the EU prevent people from coming, especially north Africa and Turkey. This meant bolstering their detention capabilities above all else. Most of these measures have been accomplished by using emergency funding. In addition, Frontex or the European Border and Coast Guard Agency will soon be reinforced with a standing corps of 10,000 border guards and will be able to acquire its own equipment, including vessels, planes and vehicles, “ready to be used whenever and wherever needed.” While migrant arrivals in Europe have declined in recent years, especially since 2018, cooperation and responsibility-sharing among EU member states has declined as well. The widespread reluctance to take sustained responsibility for search and rescue (SAR) operations has exacerbated voters’ sense that the EU has lost control of the migration question. Simultaneously, EU institutions have indicated a preference for more informal initiatives on migration governance with reduced transparency and ambiguous accountability, especially those that refer to joint projects with third countries. The situation in Europe today requires bold leadership in telling the story of migration as a normal and necessary phenomenon, and in promoting inclusive and sustainable policies among EU member states and third countries. There are many indicators, however, that the new European Parliamentary elections hindered this step. There is no system through which EU member states can share the responsibility today. Despite more than 152 countries signing and ratifying the Global Compact on Migration in December 2018, and 14 EU member states signing up to the solidarity mechanism for migrant burden sharing in July 2019, little has been done to ameliorate the situation on the ground. This has resulted in a protracted impasse across the EU. [metaslider id=1452] In contrast, most of Europe’s voters do not consider migration to be a top concern. For them, domestic issues such as corruption, living standards, housing, unemployment and health, surpass migration, according to a recent YouGov survey. Despite anti-immigration efforts to frame the European Parliamentary elections as a referendum on migration, voters in Italy, Poland, Romania and Spain were more concerned about people leaving their countries rather than about those coming in. Further, there has been a long-running series of marches across Italy giving voice to thousands of migrants who have gone missing across the Mediterranean Sea – desaparecidos (the disappeared). The death toll among migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea topped 1,000 for the sixth year in a row. Since 2014, some 19,000 people are documented to have died or are missing-presumed-drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost 12,000 bodies have never been recovered, while the majority of remains have never been identified. While the number of migrants attempting the Mediterranean route has dropped significantly, especially after the somewhat questionable bilateral agreement signed between Italy and Libya in 2017, the death rate at sea has risen, tripling in 2018. Under the agreement, Libya was to intercept migrants trying to cross in exchange for coast guard training, vessels and funds. In yet another attempt at the ad hoc measures, Italy, Malta, Germany and France agreed to a plan at the end of September 2019 to share responsibility for hosting asylum-seekers and migrants rescued in central Mediterranean. The agreement was signed in Malta, shortly after Italy’s new left-leaning coalition government agreed to open one of its ports to a second NGO boat carrying 182 people on board. The new phase of temporary emergency mechanisms marks progress from the period of ship-by-ship arrangement that had a detrimental effect on migrants. Congruently, more than 2,300 asylum-seekers have been arrested and forcibly returned to Libyan detention camps since the beginning of 2019, with that are NGOs rescuing them being subsequently criminalized and fined on a regular basis. Overall, Europe’s failure to match its moral rhetoric with action had led to less formality and transparency of procedures, fewer countries involved in the solution, and more room for discriminatory action against migrants. Moreover, the EU seems to be favoring cooperation with third countries in an attempt to export the problem, as seen in its disembarkation arrangements, the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement, the 2019 Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, and the 2018 Spain-Morocco co-operation on curbing irregular migration and the Italy-Libya bilateral agreement. There is also little publicly available information on the workings of the European solidarity mechanism, including its arrangements for disembarkation of sea vessels with migrants. This makes the provision of asylum in Europe more about goodwill by individual member states than an international obligation under humanitarian law. In addition, the shift in European legislation has not followed changes on the ground. To that extent, the EU draft plan on its resettlement framework follows an incentives logic with several conditions superseding the resettlement quotas:
  • Mechanism for demonstrating a fall in irregular migrant departures;
  • Stepping up returns through readmission agreements;
  • Establishing conditions for the return of asylum-seekers based on a functioning asylum system.
EU Parliamentary elections – a catalyst of negative change Announced on May 27, the results of the 2019 European parliamentary elections indicated a massive shift in EU’s political arena. For the first time in more than 40 years, previously dominant center-right and center-left blocs no longer held a majority in the EU parliament. Centrist parties lost ground across all member states, especially in the EU power houses, such as Germany and France, that have traditionally been more centrist leaning. Migration has been propelled by various political parties across the EU as the defining question of Europe’s identity with the Parliamentary elections being described as a tool to define the gatekeepers of that identity, despite conflicting data of voter preferences gathered prior to the elections (YouGov survey). The election results revealed a somewhat clear trend of right-wing parties winning across Europe, including large countries like the UK, France, and Italy. The UK ‘Brexit party’ polled 31.7 percent of the British vote, while in France the far-right National Rally - formerly known as the Front National -won with 23.2 percent. Italy’s North League, led by Matteo Salvini, won 33.43 percent of the vote, up from a mere 6.2 percent in the 2014 EP election, showing the gains the far-right has made.  Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party won 52 percent of its country’s vote, vowing to further tighten the country’s already conservative stance on migration. Graph 1 (source: Euractiv.com / European Parliament in collaboration with Kantar, May 2019) Although irregular arrivals in Europe have been at their lowest in the past five years, especially since the 2015 European refugee crisis, migration and refugee-related issues remained one of the top priorities for European political parties across the spectrum, indicating a gap between official agendas and voters’ concerns. This incongruence has shifted the focus on reducing (irregular) migration and tightening border control with de facto measures and emergency funding. In turn, Europe saw a fall in EU-level collaboration and a rise in non-transplant measures against migrants, in addition to exporting the problem to third countries. Table 2 (source: Euractiv.com / European Parliament in collaboration with Kantar, May 2019) In the coming years, the far-right’s ascendance risks worsening the circumstances for migrants trying to enter Europe. While the policy-level hostility to migrants is often associated with far-right movements, even mainstream European leaders have engaged in fear-mongering against migrants and imposed inhumane regulations to limit and dissuade migration both before and after the elections. Prominent European leaders such as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, are among the few who have welcomed a large number of refugees and have acknowledged that some of Europe’s migration policies are problematic. Despite the acknowledgement, the EU-level political will on changing the status quo is at its lowest. The new prominence of anti-immigrant parties managed to sway EU leaders to uphold tougher policies toward migrants, without addressing the problems of the EU migration system that needs urgent revision. The ways of addressing immigration within the EU have been scattered from burden-sharing proposals to more funding for Frontex and outsourcing the problem with third country solutions, thus indicating a lack of consensus on the topic and the potential problems lying ahead in future debates on the revision of EU and national-level policies on migration (table 3 below). The overall situation has oscillated in a binary wherein safe passage provision, human rights and greater cooperation are promoted and, while tighter border controls, more funding for Frontex and sharing entry conditions are boosted as the way forward. In the in-between space, some parties also focus on exporting the issues relating to immigration via third country solutions. This essentially implies that the core of the EU immigration system is to be left untouched, but rather shifted elsewhere while Europe deals with more pertinent domestic issues. These clear incompatibilities in policies across the European political spectrum indicate that there is still plenty of discussion to be held on the issue of migration. A window of opportunity Given the larger context and the current political climate across the EU today, the 2019 elections for the European Parliament have the potential to lead to a further enforcement of inhumane refugee and asylum seeker policies. This is evident in the far-right, anti-immigrant parties making gains at the expense of more traditional centrist coalitions that have led the parliament for 40 years. The convoluted migration knot in Europe have become more complex with protracted stalemate on unified legislation on migration and harsher national-level legislation in key asylum countries. The EU parliamentary elections might have shifted the EU political tides toward a tighter grip on migration and sharpened focus on European borders in the next five years. The most pressing issues that require further work, however, include addressing (i) the Western Mediterranean route and support for Morocco, (ii) the Central Mediterranean route and support for improving the conditions in Libya, (iii) the Eastern Mediterranean route and migration management in Greece, and (iv) the temporary arrangements for disembarkation, which implies further developing the ad hoc solutions that have been made over the summer of 2018 and in January 2019. It has become imperative to adopt a comprehensive approach on the issue. The situation demands a continuous set of coordinated actions along each of the four pillars of the Agenda on Migration in the next five years:
  1. Reducing the incentives for irregular migration via (i) addressing the root causes of irregular and forced displacement in third countries, (ii) fighting against traffickers and smugglers, and (iii) addressing (safe) return;
  2. Stronger Border Management – saving lives and securing external borders – by (i) strengthening Frontex’s role and capacity, (ii) providing an EU-wide standard for border management, (iii) strengthening EU coordination of coast guard functions, (iv) revising the proposal on smart borders, and (v) strengthening the capacity of third countries to manage their borders;
  3. Europe’s duty to protect – a strong common asylum policy through a (i) coherent implementation of the Common European Asylum System, (ii) further implementation of the Dublin system, which implies a greater responsibility sharing across Member States, and (iii) strengthening Safe Country of Origin provisions of the Asylum Procedure Directive to support the swift processing of asylum applicants from countries designated as safe;
  4. A new policy on legal migration via a (i) well-managed regular migration and visa policy, (ii) effective integration, (iii) maximizing the development benefits of countries of origin, and (iv) establishing a platform for dialogue with social partners on economic migration.
The route ahead, however, is far from straightforward given the core differences in approaches to migration between key winner parties of the European parliamentary elections. Overall, in the absence of a unified movement and enough political will to discuss the core differences in approaches to migration that have manifested themselves in the immediate period leading up to the elections, EU’s migration policy will remain in dire need of change or even worsen, especially if right-wing parties also have success in future national elections. The tools for optimally addressing the issue of migration exist within the EU and all the essential elements have been covered, as the European Agenda on Migration demonstrates. The problematic aspect of the upcoming times and the next five years is the potential lack of political will to advance optimal solution, given the prominent rise of right-wing parties across the spectrum in Europe and the abundance of differing approaches to addressing the core of immigration. Ultimately, while migration arrivals have declined, so have cooperation and responsibility-sharing within the EU. Reactive EU efforts to shift responsibility to others increases the risk of further deaths and decreases the probability of solving the protracted impasse within the EU in the near future.

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