Migration and the Mediterranean

The EU's latest moves on migration still do not make clear that it is ready for the fundamental decisions that are necessary.

In any emergency situation, the first duty is to help those that find themselves in danger. This moral code is part of the fabric of society, but is also enshrined in international norms, where the obligation to rescue persons at sea takes precedence over other juridical considerations.

In this regard, it is worth recognising some positive elements in the conclusions of the European Council of 23rd April. Firstly, the mention of the obvious duty of preventing deaths at sea, the tripling of funding for the Triton and Poseidon operations coordinated by Italy and Greece, and a reinforced presence at sea which as the Council points out, will lead to an increase in the EU’s ability to act – despite not being the primary objective – in search and rescue missions.

Secondly, it is worth highlighting the action taken to tackle people smuggling, which foresees the use of all the capacities (and even beyond) of European agencies dealing with asylum and border management (EASO and FRONTEX) and cooperation mechanisms in the field of justice and security (EUROPOL and EUROJUST). There is also the “possible” action under the Common Security and Defence Policy, which will be prepared by the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission, which has as its objective to stop people smuggling and bring those responsible to justice.

Beyond this much-needed response – whether it will suffice is debatable – the European Council declaration of April focussed on how the EU (or more precisely the coordinated efforts of member states) can take action when faced with this new crisis in the Mediterranean. In essence this is about how to articulate so-called “internal solidarity”, which is the name given to the stalemate between those member states demanding more support at the border and those that respond by saying that their efforts in accepting asylum seekers and refugees is substantially greater. Both camps have a point, but such discussions will not take us very far.

The number of people taking the risk of crossing the Mediterranean to Europe – as well as the number that die trying – has increased.

In the meantime, the number of people taking the risk of crossing the Mediterranean to Europe – as well as the number that die trying – has increased. These persons are displaced because of violence and war, and their numbers have now reached seven digits. This is staggering compared to the paltry figures we heard from Council President Donald Tusk, that the combined resettlement quotas of Member States is only a four figure number.

With these glaring internal problems there for all to see, the Council called for cooperation between states in the region in order to “prevent illegal immigration flows”, which has already been a long-term goal that forms part of the solution – but only a part. Deepening cooperation with neighbouring countries is essential, but it is difficult to do so when the dialogue is centred on the adjective “illegal” and ignores the noun “migration”. The dialogue should be broader, as it will only be acceptable to Europe’s neighbours if it addresses all migration and mobility policy, and not exclusively its dysfunctions. In order to function properly, irregular migration policy must be part of an implemented broader migration policy, and a common asylum policy.

Today we do not have a European migration policy: we have 28, as the President of the European Parliament said, in reference to the member states. One can also make this assertion with regard to asylum policy, new results notwithstanding. It is possible to rebut these claims, highlighting the common conditions for entry and residence in certain sectors and certain categories of persons, and regarding the reception procedures and conditions for asylum seekers. These steps forward towards a European policy – and that is what they are – still leave us far from creating a coherent common framework for the governance and management of migration and asylum.

Today we do not have a European migration policy: we have 28.

Likewise, the progress made in the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility on cooperation with EU neighbouring countries (the signing of Mobility Partnerships with Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia) and with those principal countries of origin does not hide the fact we are not close to creating a general framework for common action.

International migration governance in the sphere of the EU requires a migration and mobility model accepted by all, one that encompasses all the fields that it impacts upon, including the external dimension.

In the Mediterranean, the EU must maintain regional dialogue and cooperation, including in this framework short, medium and long-term goals to better manage mobility and migration flows, starting from a broad approach that encompasses security, economic and trade relations, the social impact of emigration and immigration for both origin and reception countries, and its impact on development. It must also take into account the fact that Mediterranean countries are now not only countries of origin but also transit and destination countries, some of which play a substantial role in the reception of persons in need of international protection.

The European public debate on migration today takes place in terms that are far removed from the reality of governance, shackled by short-termism and national agendas, some of which are dominated by an imaginary enemy which is normally immigration and/or the European Union. The results are obvious, and should lead member state governments to responsibly address debates that they have been avoiding for years (more than three decades, to be exact), and to tackle the issues as they arise in practice, as attempted (yet again) in the modest Commission proposal of May 13th. In the days to come we will see whether the Council accepts such a debate, including the so-called ‘legal migration’ chapter.

Governing international migration is an obtainable objective, but thinking that migration can be avoided is a fantasy that will only bring major suffering to real human beings.

Migration and mobility of persons has always been a reality and is an integral part of the globalised world we live in today. Governing international migration is an obtainable objective, but thinking that migration can be avoided is a fantasy that will only bring (as has happened with so many other unattainable goals) major suffering to real human beings – a suffering in which we all participate in, one way or another. A European migration and asylum policy which the EU can project through its external policies, and dialogue and cooperation between neighbouring countries (and beyond) within existing regional frameworks, are fundamental elements in order to successfully tackle this challenge.


Anna Terrón Cusí is an ECFR council member. She was formerly Spanish Secretary of State for Immigration and Emigration. The views expressed in this article are made in a personal capacity and are the sole responsibility of author.

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


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