Making a deal on migrations stick

European leaders discussing EU migration policy at this week's European Council do not have an easy task, but high-level conversation is good news

ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow
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European leaders discussing EU migration policy at this week's European Council do not have an easy task. Migration is an issue with a very powerful domestic impact and for leaders like Renzi, Cameron, Hollande and the Nordic Prime Ministers, they struggle to escape perceptions at home of an “invasion” of displaced peoples.

The good news is that European leaders are slowly realizing that dealing with migrations from only a “Home Office/Ministry of the Interior” perspective does not work. A solution that is both humane and workable must necessarily include foreign policy and a better distribution of the burden among the 28 member states. Whatever the results, the fact that there is now an open conversation on migrations at the highest level of the EU should be welcomed as good news.

Whatever the results, the fact that there is now an open conversation on migrations at the highest level of the EU should be welcomed as good news

The efficacy of the decisions taken at the Council will be tested against four elements. First, thought a mandatory quota system seems not to be on the cards, an effective burden-sharing mechanism will have to be put into place so that not all refugees end up in Sweden, Germany, Italy or France. The lack of solidarity towards these four large recipients of asylum-seekers in devising a solution has been quite remarkable.

A second criteria is whether the current Dublin system on asylum is overturned so that identification and submission of applications is not done in the first port of arrival. This, at the moment, means that most asylum-seekers would have to be identified and to apply in either Italy or Greece which is neither in the interest of the migrants nor of these two countries. Some compromise will eventually have to be found between identification of the asylum seeker in their first European port of arrival and the possibility for them to apply for asylum in a different country. The alternative is what happens now: people who land in Italy or Greece immediately “disappear” and then reappear in the countries where they intend to apply, creating huge opportunities for smuggling and illegality.

The most realistic alternative to illegal migration is to create safe and legal channels of access to Europe

Third, the most realistic alternative to illegal migration is to create safe and legal channels of access to Europe. The proposal to create camps and “reception centres” in Niger or Tunisia could either become a way to move further from Europe the policy of push-backs or a way to allow those who have the right to asylum in Europe to apply for it without having to risk their lives in the Sahara and on the Mediterranean. It is an extremely complicated balancing act and we will probably see a lot of trial and error. Yet, there is a clear relationship between the elimination of legal ways to access Europe and the rise of human smuggling. Ultimately, the only way this system can be credible is if it runs in parallel with realistic efforts to counter the smuggling of human beings..

Fourth, we’ll have to look out for fatal mistakes induced by hysteria about a supposed “invasion”. Europe, a bloc of more than 500 million inhabitants, seems terrifed by the arrival of 100,000 people while Lebanon with four million inhabitants has accepted a million Syrians. The European hysteria has lead to ill-advised and – luckily – now abandoned ideas such as “bombing the boats” of smugglers. Yet, other ineffective ideas could come on the table such as giving money to contain migration to the Eritrean regime from which thousands of people are now fleeing. Generally, outsourcing can yield only limited results in a situation where states have either collapsed or, as in Eritrea, implement policies which are the main drivers of migrations – including shooting those who try to flee the country.

A different approach is possible and many of its elements are already present in the Commission’s Migration Agenda. More open channels, as mentioned above, are one element, provided European leaders are courageous enough to explain to their public opinion that this is the most realistic way to have less crime and more legal workers who do not undercut European workers. Europeans should also engage with local actors to repress criminal behavior and narrow the pipelines of illegal smuggling. Secondly, in tackling the smuggling networks Europe could learn something from the private sector. Oil companies have been successful in securing the path from oil fields to ports by patient work on local relations that goes far beyond the unfair characterisation of “bribing the criminals”. Thirdly, an element often overlooked of the EU Commission’s Migration Agenda could actually yield very good results: building up investigative capacities in the origin and transit countries in order to better tackle criminal networks. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow