Harmonising asylum policies among member states and addressing the dramatic human rights situation of refugees and asylum seekers are central objectives of the new European Asylum Agency set up in 2021 and of the European Commission’s 2020 Pact on Migration and Asylum. The latter details initiatives to strengthen border management and ensure coherence between internal and external migration policies.
Written by Prof. Sarah Wolff, Professor in European Politics and International Relations and Director of the Centre for European Research.
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What is the situation now?
Harmonising asylum policies among member states and addressing the dramatic human rights situation of refugees and asylum seekers are central objectivesof the new European Asylum Agency set up in 2021 and of the European Commission’s 2020 Pact on Migration and Asylum. The latter details initiatives to strengthen border management and ensure coherence between internal and external migration policies.
European Ministries of the Interior, however, continue to play a gatekeeping role by organising their own bilateral relations with third countries. Disagreement over responsibility-sharing still prevails amongst EU member states, and fundamental rights challenges have still to be adequately addressed.
The tendency to treat asylum as a police and criminal issue, rather than a humanitarian matter, is reflected in European Commission plans to widen the scope of searches in the Eurodac database that gathers fingerprints of asylum seekers. The Renewed EU Action Plan Against Migrant Smuggling (2021-25) criminalises family members and communities who provide basic services in transit as ‘migrant smugglers’.
The impact of Covid-19 on the governance of the Schengen area, and hence free movement of people within the EU, has also been significant. With 17 member states unilaterally closing their borders in March 2020, the first wave of lockdown significantly curtailed freedom of movement. The European Commission prioritised ‘green lanes’ for the circulation of goods, medical equipment and essential workers, following the traditional logic of prioritising economics. It remains to be seen if this remains part of Schengen rules as proposed by the European Commission in December 2021.
Security in the Schengen area is nonetheless still a priority, with the development of an EU Police Cooperation Code, the acceleration of interoperability of EU databases, including the revision of the Prüm framework to allow exchange of DNA profiles, fingerprints, and vehicle registration.
How have we got here?
Since the 2000s, most EU action has been aimed at strengthening the EU’s external borders, a compensatory measure for the removal of internal borders and the deepening of mobility within the Schengen area. Conflicts at the external borders and instability in the neighbourhood have led to greater use of biometrics, a common external visa policy for Schengen member states as well as the criminalisation of irregular migration in most EU member states. The growing influx of migrants since the 2010s has continued to push the EU towards a more restrictive external border regime. The decision by Germany in 2015 to welcome refugees illustrated that whenever systems are more welcoming towards migrants and refugees, this is often motivated by economic needs - the German economy was short of skilled labour that Syrian refugees have provided.
However, the effectiveness of these policies is questionable. Conflicts, authoritarianism, climate change, and the hope for a better life have normalised migration across and within regions. And yet, even though the pandemichas led to a decrease in boat crossings, people continue to drown in the Mediterranean Sea and the English Channel. Similarly, in spite of reforms to strengthen European Parliament oversight over the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, legal and ethical challenges have not been adequately addressed by EU institutions and EU courts. Accusations of push-backs (measures to force migrants back over a border) committed by Frontex are currently under investigation by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
Migration policy at EU and member-state level is also shaped by domestic politics. The Commission created a portfolio for ‘Protecting the European wayof life’ following populist gains in the 2019 European elections. The 2022French presidential electoral campaign was heavily shaped by the extreme-right: witness Marine Le Pen’s ambition to give ‘national preference’ to French citizens over foreigners for employment and the anti-Islam programme of Eric Zemmour. Against this backdrop, Emmanuel Macron has overseen the systematic dismantlement of migrant camps around Calais and proposes to increase deportations for those refused entry to the EU.
In contrast, little has been done to facilitate legal migration. The Blue Card Directive, modelled on the US green card, has yielded disappointing results, not least because competing national schemes have served to underline how difficult it is to coordinate migration policy in the absence of a single labour market.
Where is the EU likely to head in this?
The war in Ukraine has led to a major shift when it comes to EU migration and refugee protection. The EU has opted for a more liberal approach, for the first time activating the Temporary Protection Directive which provides immediate group protection for a mass influx of displaced persons from non-EU countries who are unable to return to their country of origin. Ukrainians thus have the right to residence, access to the labour market, housing, medical assistance, and education.
This solidarity is primarily pragmatic (alleviating pressure on national asylum systems) but there are also geopolitical motivations, namely a unified EU response to Russian aggression. And external tensions at the EU’s borders are multiplying and becoming more serious. An extension of the conflict
to Transnistria and Moldova could further destabilise the region and triggerthe displacement of populations. There could also be renewed episodes of instrumentalization of migratory flows by illiberal states: in the summer of 2021, Belarusian President Lukashenko organised the crossing of Middle Eastern migrants into Poland.
The big question is whether the approach towards displaced Ukrainians willalter the debate over the revision of the Common European Asylum System. The conflict will necessitate measures to support Ukrainians in Europe. That Eastern European countries, in particular Poland, are now on the frontline could also lead to a new debate on solidarity within the Dublin system, since these countries were never eager to ‘share’ refugees before. The position of Hungary which has opened its doors but continues to be ambiguous vis-à-vis Russia as illustrated by the exemption it gained on the EU’s Russian oil embargo in May 2022.
Many have questioned whether this new approach should also apply to refugees from Africa or Asia fleeing their countries for the same reasons as Ukrainians. Europe finds itself at a crossroads, confronted by the liberal paradox of how simultaneously to maintain openness in order to be competitive worldwide,
to deliver on the liberal promise to protect citizens’ and denizens’ rights, and to control borders to maintain the functioning of the social contract with the existing population.