The topic of migration dominated the agenda of last weekend’s EU Summit in Brussels. After intense talks, European leaders reached a joint-agreement on preventing irregular migrant flows, creating processing centres in North Africa and controlled centres in the EU, and on a shared responsibility but voluntary acceptance of asylum seekers within the EU. The leaders agreed on 2 key issues: easing the burden of frontline states and voluntarily relocating those migrants that qualify for asylum – thus rejecting quotas. However, the wording of the document is rather vague and important questions regarding implementation remain to be answered.
In the joint-statement, Member States agreed on a number of points to control the number of crossings across the Mediterranean: to fully implement the EU-Turkey deal, disrupt people-smuggling primarily from Libya and enforce applicable laws on border crossing, to cooperate with countries of origin and transit states, and to support the Libyan Coast Guard. Leaders also agreed to create processing centres in North Africa and provide €500 million to the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.
However, the complexity of the migration challenge facing the EU should not be downplayed. One of the biggest problems facing member states is the fact that it involves operations outside the EU, which makes it particularly difficult to implement and monitor. This is particularly true when it comes to monitoring the living conditions and treatment of migrants in countries of origin and transit countries outside the EU. It thus remains questionable what steps should be taken to ensure the safety of deported migrants or groups which have been relocated to new African processing centres. Then there are the questionable practices of the Libyan Coast Guard, which quite often add another layer of problems to the country’s already precarious political and security situation.
EU leaders also agreed to set up controlled centres to process migrants more rapidly and securely. As this is to happen on a voluntary basis, the location of the centres remains unclear. It is nevertheless anticipated that first-arrival countries – i.e. Greece and Italy – will host most of the new facilities. However, both countries have already built up hotspots for the identification and registration of migrants to the EU, which makes the future of both kinds of facilities blurry.
The hotspot approach was first introduced by the European Commission in 2015 to speed up the registration, processing and redistribution of eligible migrants according to the planned quota system. 5 each of these facilities have been set up in Italy and 5 in Greece. And while the quota system has never been implemented, 12 690 individuals have been relocated from Italy under the Emergency Relocation Mechanism, and 21 999 from Greece. However, many migrants have effectively become stuck in these hotspots and detention centres. Many are overcrowded and have drawn criticisms for their inhuman living conditions and degrading treatment of inhabitants.
Worryingly, the extent to which the new controlled centres will be different from the hotspots, as well as the future of the latter, are not covered by the final document. It’s also not clear whether the hotspots will be transformed into controlled centres or closed altogether. Moreover, very little is known at this stage about what these centres will look like in practice. It also remains to be seen whether member states took lessons learned from the hotspot approach and applied them to the new centres.
“No” to Quotas
Another important point of the agreement concerns the acceptance of migrants that qualify for asylum. Following processing at the controlled centres, “irregular migrants” will be returned while those needing international protection will be relocated and resettled within the EU on a voluntary basis. The compulsory quota system is off the table for now. The rejection of quotas is seen as a huge success among the Visegrad countries which have refused to work with this system over the past three years.
Questions remain over where migrants in need will be relocated. The most likely destinations are Germany and France – countries that have already taken in significant numbers of migrants. However, given Germany’s current political situation, the country is unlikely to relieve the migration pressure on other states as it has done in the past. The good news is that the influx of migrants has gradually been decreasing, from more than a million in 2015 to around 172 000 in 2017. So unless something unexpected happens, the EU should not experience the migration shockwaves of the previous years.
Besides the abovementioned points, further internal and systemic challenges were also on the summit agenda and remain causes of concern. Germany, for example, is worried about “secondary movement”, where previously registered migrants leave their first EU point of arrival for another member state. This prompted Germany and Austria to reinstate border controls in 2015, a move which put the Schengen system in jeopardy. To avoid similar complications, extra measures are needed to prevent a secondary movement and send migrants back to the country of their first arrival if necessary.
While the document welcomes the efforts of previous presidencies to reform the current systems through the Dublin Regulation and the Common European Asylum System, the next European Council President will have to come with details of a better-working system and a way to enforce implementation. This task will fall to Austria.
The Dublin Regulation, which requires the country of arrival to register, process and manage migrants, has been violated on numerous occasions since 2015. However, it’s fair to say that both systems are very complex and require complex solutions and lengthy negotiations. The systemic challenges cannot be resolved over the course of one summit and will, therefore, remain a bone of contention for the foreseeable future.
That said, the fact that the EU Summit resulted in a joint-statement should be considered a positive and welcome development. Member states arrived in Brussels with competing agendas, making it highly unlikely that they would reach an agreement on such a complex topic. However, it remains to be seen whether the deal they brokered will be a success. While some priorities are now clearer, the agreement lacks details and a clear strategy for implementation. The jury’s still out regarding this initiative’s ability to solve the EU’s migration conundrum.