Greek Business File, January-February-March 2020, No 124

By Ira Bliatka


Awaiting the New EU Migration Pact: Geopolitical Conundrums, Humanitarian Deficits


A new EU migration agreement is underway, promising a systematic approach rather than the crisis-management model of 2015-2016.

Migration, a complex global issue, lies beyond what any one country alone can handle. Yet, EU member-states have been quarrelling for the best part of a decade over how to handle incoming migrants and asylum seekers, even as thousands were perishing in the Mediterranean. Visegrad countries refused refugee quotas, ignoring even the European Court of Justice rulings. Former Commission President Juncker gave up trying to revise the Dublin Regulation – the outdated piece of EU asylum law which forces asylum seekers to lodge claims in the first country of arrival. Pushing for fairer distribution, Italy created a crisis over the summer by prohibiting migrant rescue ships from docking, putting human lives on the line. Nevertheless, new Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, has pledged to even out differences within the block, and a new EU migration agreement is underway, promising a systematic approach rather than the crisis-management model of 2015-2016.

A new holistic approach

In a recent briefing to the Greek Parliament, Margaritis Schinas, Head of EU Μigration and Asylum affairs, offered fragments of an answer. Acknowledging that Europe “failed” to manage migration fairly in the recent past, disproportionately burdening southern frontier states like Italy and Greece, Schinas pledged  that a new holistic approach will create a more efficient, humane, and equitable system. Expected in draft form in March 2020, and conclusively by the end of the year during Germany’s EU presidency, the new pact revolves around three dimensions: (1) supporting countries of origin and transit, to stem migration flows at their source (2) reinforcing external borders and boosting the Frontex agency, to ensure that internal freedom of movement under Schengen rules can continue (3) creating a ‘convincing’ returns programme, to remove those not entitled to remain on European soil.

If such statements signal a fresh commitment to implement joint European responses, the specifics of the plan are not new. They follow the priorities of the 2015 European Agenda on Migration, and political directions laid out a decade earlier. The challenge will be to make these provisions work, both individually and as a coherent whole, while respecting the rule of law, and avoiding further EU divisions.

European Solidarity

With the new plan, Dublin may be considered “permanently dead”, Schinas noted, “If there is a pact, we should call it a Lesvos or Lampedusa pact. There will need to be a first sorting at the border. Between those who can claim asylum, and those who definitely cannot. In this way, first reception countries will not shoulder all of the burden”.

This was a cryptic comment, which stayed silent on migrant redistribution, while still suggesting Greece and Italy as the main locations for managing the EU’s migration problem. Further commenting on the topic of solidarity, Mr Schinas referred to the creation of ‘baskets’ to which all EU states will be obliged to contribute but noted that the support could take different forms than actually receiving persons – such as equipment or personnel. If the agreement materialises along those lines, frontier states can expect relief only to the extent a net reduction in the numbers of asylum claimants takes place.

Migration Partnerships

Financially supporting and cooperating with countries of origin and transit is a strategy of ‘border-externalisation’ with a two-fold rationale: to disincentivise potential migrants by creating opportunities for them ‘at home’, and to enhance local border enforcement in their regions. Targeting Africa, the EU finances migration projects in at least 26 countries, holds regional ‘migration dialogues’, and cooperates closely with five priority countries (Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Ethiopia and Niger) under the EU’s Partnership Framework on Migration. While well-conceived in theory, this externalisation strategy has not worked, not only because it wrongly assumes economic opportunities to be the primary motivation of these migrating populations, but also because funding allocation has largely favoured border enforcement over investment in these local economies.

Monitoring and reporting such funding should be a priority for those drafting the new EU migration plan. Migration funding streams are notoriously elusive; overlapping, underreported, and linked to different ministries, departments, and international organisations. It is currently practically impossible to put together a clear picture of how much money is being spent on migration, what projects it goes towards, and how efficiently it is used. For example, the European Trust Fund in Africa (EUTF), established in 2015, spent €4.6bn on migration projects in Africa in the course of three years, but did so under special conditions, circumventing public procurement processes, and removing effective oversight on who can win a government contract.

Frontex 2

Frontex has been on an expansion path since its establishment in 2004, as indicated by its tenfold budget growth between 2006 and 2011. With its relaunching as a European Border and Coast Guard in late 2015, it was on track to becoming one of the most powerful Union bodies. For 2020, Frontex’s budget is 420 million, while a new legal basis adopted in November 2019 provides for even greater operational capacities and autonomy. A standing corps, which will number 10,000 guards by 2027, will be the closest thing the EU has to an army; the first service to work in EU uniform, carry arms and backed for the first time by its own heavy equipment, ships and helicopters.

It would be misleading to read the migration crisis as the sole driving force of this expansion. By enlarging and arming Frontex, the EU is not simply cracking down on irregular migration, but also making gains in one of the most sensitive areas of integration – sovereignty at state borders and ‘hard power’. Moreover, the acquisition of new hi-tech assets, biometrics, drones, and surveillance, remains a particularly profitable development for Europe’s defence industry.

What is already problematic and should be addressed in the EU’s future plans for the Agency is the question of transparency and accountability. For example, the European Parliament is largely absent from the new Frontex ecosystem, while many international human rights watchdogs report that the agency is failing to uphold humane standards during its operations, and that its internal monitoring mechanisms cannot be considered reliable.

Returning the Rejected

On average around half of the asylum applications lodged EU-wide end up being rejected, but less than half of those who receive an expulsion order eventually depart.  Removing rejected asylum seekers runs into many problems, including situations of stateless and undocumented persons, and non-cooperating administrations in the recipient country. While not providing details on how the new EU plan would create a functional returns system, Mr Schinas indicated a possible inspiration when noting that “we need to admit that the EU-Turkey agreement produced tangible results, with the neighbouring country hosting the majority of refugees.”

It is difficult to see how further agreements of this kind could lead to sustainable solutions, without damaging international protection norms. The EU-Turkey Agreement of March 2016 has been challenged in court for violating the principle of non-refoulement and the prohibition of collective expulsion, and has contributed to limbo situations for thousands of migrants, who are stranded in squalid conditions in the Greek island camps[1] Moreover, such quid-pro-quo agreements are inherently fragile, putting too much leverage into the hands of foreign governments, who can destabilise Europe at will. This has indeed been the case with Turkey, who has weaponized migrants in its wider geopolitical manoeuvres with the EU, and unilaterally suspended the deal in July 2019, enabling over 70,000 to cross into Greece by the end of the year.