Uncertain solidarity: Why Europe’s new migration pact could fall apart

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum risks shifting responsibility for hosting refugees from the geographically disadvantaged to the economically disadvantaged

European Union, 2020 ©

Recent fires in the Moria refugee camp have prompted the usual calls for international cooperation and an improved migration strategy from across Europe, including that in European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s recent State of the Union address. Fortunately, this round of rallying cries has more substance than most.

Last week, the European Commission published its New Pact on Migration and Asylum, a long-awaited revamp of the European Union’s migration policies. Hailed by the French and German governments as a strong springboard for action, the proposal is comprehensive. It introduces new screening regulations and border procedures, makes changes to the asylum application system, provides extra support for border protection agencies, and creates new crisis management tools.

Most importantly, it proposes a flexible contribution system in which member states can choose between relocating refugees, sponsoring their return, or providing operational support. This aligns with a proposal made by Susi Dennison and Josef Janning in 2016. They argued for a greater emphasis on the value of alternatives to relocation, such as humanitarian and foreign policy interventions, to create a more inclusive EU-wide response. The pact’s “solidarity mechanism” addresses the contentious quota system by allowing states greater autonomy in building their migration policies. But the strong emphasis on cooperation highlights just how much success depends on member states’ voluntary participation. And, for now, it is unclear whether such solidarity exists.

The pact has several structural weaknesses that may hinder its implementation, particularly in the likely event that member states reject some of the EU’s policy suggestions. Firstly, neither financial support nor sponsorship of migrant returns is a substitute for relocation. One can expect that, given their governments’ current apathy towards these issues, many member states will favour operational support that does not require them to host migrants. This could lead to increased incarceration rates as pro-deportation countries gain more agency. From a humanitarian perspective, allowing anti-migration governments to oversee deportation also does not bode well for the respectful treatment of their charges.

Although it does not replace the Dublin Regulation, the pact reduces pressure on frontline states such as Greece and Italy.

To ensure that member states host a sufficient number of migrants, the pact includes a failsafe that activates if relocation pledges fall more than 30 per cent short of the total need. If this occurs, the EU will ask member states to revise their pledges to cover the remainder. While this is an important mechanism, it is unclear what will happen if pledges pass the 30 per cent threshold but do not offer enough places for all migrants. This could leave a large number of refugees – up to 29 per cent of them – unplaced.

The difference between countries’ perspectives on the desirability of migration complicates matters further. The pact has ambiguous legal implications for states that offer to deport migrants from host countries that want these people to stay in Europe. For instance, if Germany rejected Hungary’s offer to deport asylum seekers from Berlin back to their countries of origin, how would the EU quantify Hungary’s contribution? And what would the EU expect Hungary to do instead?

Secondly, flexibility of choice could shift the burden of hosting to poorer member states. Depending on how each contribution is weighted, countries with larger wallets could buy themselves out of the duty to host refugees, pushing this duty onto those who cannot afford alternative action. The proposal accounts for this problem by prorating member states’ expected contributions according to GDP and population. But the decision to value each factor equally may not compensate for structural differences in response capacity between countries such as Sweden and Portugal or Denmark and Finland, which have populations of a similar size but very different spending power. If richer EU states do not act with the solidarity on which the pact relies, this flexibility will create a prisoner’s dilemma that shifts responsibility for hosting migrants from the geographically disadvantaged to the economically disadvantaged.

Of course, the plan also proposes several important improvements to the current system. Although it does not replace the Dublin Regulation, the pact reduces pressure on frontline states such as Greece and Italy – allowing for a more equitable distribution of responsibility among member states. Expanding EURODAC (a database for identifying claimants) and changing procedures to count individual applicants rather than applications allows for more oversight of migrant movements, reduces countries’ efforts to shift responsibility, and prevents applicants from falling through cracks in the system.

Although the usual states have already expressed discontent with the pact, strengthening and updating border protection mechanisms is bound to be popular even among the plan’s detractors. According to EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, the pact is not designed to satisfy any one state entirely, but to build compromise between very different approaches, hopefully presenting an opportunity for real coordination between all EU countries.

So, while a consensus between member states may not be necessary, collaboration is. As the overcrowded Moria camp shows, an individualised strategy has so far failed to address this crisis effectively. One can only hope that, as new lodgings are built in nearby Kara Tepe, a new wave of united action will supersede the old – and that there is indeed enough solidarity in Europe to tackle the issue once and for all.

Emma Kollek is a former ECFR research intern. She worked at the Moria camp in 2019. 

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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