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Is the EU on the way to real cooperation on migration?

Human migration has been a defining feature of Europe for centuries, and the region has played a crucial role in the shaping of global migration systems. In the last few decades, the flow of people touching this area of the continent has undergone a significant change in direction, from a marked outflow of European citizens to a net inflow of people from regions outside the borders of Europe. This new migratory trend has highlighted the need for intergovernmental maneuvers in order to manage the situation. Over the years, the European Union has indeed implemented several measures to regulate migration, ranging from bilateral agreements with third countries to the institution of specialized agencies such as Frontex. Yet, such initiatives have been widely criticized for focusing disproportionately on border control and externalization rather than on the internal management of migration, especially in the wake of the migration crisis of recent years. Last week, however, the European Parliament amended a new policy package that seems to bring the need for internal cooperation back to the forefront. This article attempts to provide the necessary context for understanding the new asylum and migration policies that may come into effect soon and is intended to serve as a starting point for considerations on how cooperative their nature actually is.


Recent history of migration in the European region

For centuries, Europe has been a hub of human migration and a critical actor in global migration systems. The region has contributed to the establishment and shaping of these systems, especially through its mercantilist and colonial expansions. European states are also responsible for jointly setting down the formulation of rules and norms that govern human mobility in the region. Historically, migration flows within Europe and out were prevalent until the end of World War II. In particular, Europe experienced significant emigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This resulted in a continent with a significant net outflow of people, particularly through the Transatlantic route established during colonial expansion and the slave trade. Since the mid-20th century, however, Europe has become a region of net immigration, experiencing a steady inflow of people. In the two decades following World War II, the continent did indeed witness increasing intra-regional movements of refugees and displaced persons affected by the war. At the same time, significant flows of workers from Southern Europe and Ireland to Western and Central Europe were facilitated by bilateral agreements. In addition, the process of decolonization also led to immigration from North and Central Africa, and South and Southeast Asia to those countries which were once the colonial powers (i.e., Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the UK). Finally, guest-worker programs implemented by Austria, Germany, and Switzerland served as a driving force for immigration from North Africa and Turkey (Santamaria et al., 2021).


Migration flows in Europe
Figure 1. "Migrants to Europe, within Europe and from Europe between 1990 and 2015" (UN DESA, 2015).

A second massive wave of intra-regional displacement occurred between the 1970s and the 1990s as a result of the political instability within the Russian Federation, with refugees fleeing from the countries of the Balkan region helped by the new freedom of movement established by the Schengen Agreement. With the migration issue looming, the European Union implemented several measures to face it, from the emanation of directives and regulations on asylum to the establishment of various agencies with a specific mandate to regulate migration, such as the Common European Asylum System (founded in 2010) and Frontex, established in 2004 as the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders. However, in 2015, which has come to be known as the year of the European refugee crisis, another major shock shook the European states. That year, nearly one million refugees arrived in the European region fleeing war mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq (Spindler, 2015). This massive influx of people called for new urgent measures to handle it, and the EU responded by restricting the admission of migrants and reinforcing the mandate of border agencies. From 2015 onward, the policies implemented by European lawmakers have leaned more toward border control and externalization, partly in response to negative public sentiment on immigration and under the influence of rising right-wing parties (Frelick et al., 2016). Today, in 2023, not much has changed: public opinion is still hostile to the issue of immigrants, especially in the European border states; the right-wing parties of these countries demand more involvement from the EU and are reluctant to accept refugees. And the immigration crisis continues to be a topic of discussion. In fact, it is just in the last few weeks that the Italian government has declared a state of emergency regarding migrants, following the disproportionate increase of landings on the southern coasts of the country.


Frontex
Figure 2. Frontex Agents at Sea (Foundation iFRAP, nd).

New policies on migration and asylum management


On April 20, 2023, the European Parliament adopted its position in the first reading (the second step of the ordinary legislative procedure, the most common process in European lawmaking) on the Commission’s proposal to reform asylum and migration. This was another major leap ahead of a four-year-long negotiation on the policies encompassed in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum put forward in 2020. The policy files amended by the Parliament included four crucial points: the screening system of third-country nationals, asylum and migration management, the crisis situation regulation, and changes to the long-term resident directive (Tedesko & Duch Guillot, 2023). The first three points discussed are widely demanded by European leaders, especially those on the borders, for whom the migration issue is more pressing because of the influx of refugees from Ukraine and from the Mediterranean routes. This reform package thus includes faster asylum procedures and new rules for the screening of irregular migrants, in order to speed up the process while guaranteeing the respect of fundamental rights. But the real novelty introduced by these regulations would be the binding solidarity mechanism, which would come into force when a member state, especially under migratory pressure, calls for cooperation in managing migrant influxes (Castermans, 2021). This mechanism would therefore “ensure a fair sharing of responsibility and a balance of effort between Member States” (Tobé, 2020), with a mandatory relocation system that member states cannot oppose.


It, therefore, seems like the new set of reforms amended by the Parliament is finally shaping a new, more cooperative trend on migration management in the EU. In the words of MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar, “Solidarity may have a chance, this is the precise point of this regulation” (Genovese, 2023). However, fears have arisen among refugee rights advocates that these new measures could be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the new pre-screening procedures may allow national governments to implement detention more easily, other than being quite resonant with the hotspot approach introduced in 2015. On the other hand, the solidarity mechanism can take many forms: it can involve the reception of refugees by other Member States, but it can also consist of assistance in decisions on their repatriation. This may lead to cases where member states disproportionately opt for the return of asylum-seekers to their country of origin, thus increasing the number of pushbacks (Castermans, 2021). But this discussion is still very much open, and the package of new measures will have to be approved by the Council or, in case of new amendments, further negotiated within the Parliament.


Figure 3. Hungarian MEP, Balázs Hidvéghi, speaking during a debate on migration (European Parliament, 2023).

Conclusions

As we have seen, the issue of immigration in Europe is quite controversial – as it is in the rest of the world. In its short existence, the European Union has already experienced several migration crises to which it has responded with various emergency measures. The legal and political context surrounding the issue is vast, multifaceted, and above all, subject to constant change. Undoubtedly, changes in migration flows will be even greater in the years to come, given the new challenge the EU is already facing. For one, the war in Ukraine has led to a significant increase in refugee flows, with many Ukrainians seeking asylum in neighboring countries. This has put pressure on these countries, which are already struggling to cope with the influx of refugees. The conflict in Ukraine has also had wider implications for the EU, with tensions between Russia and the West exacerbating the migration crisis.


Climate change is also contributing to greater migration flows, as people are forced to flee their homes due to environmental disasters such as droughts and floods. This is particularly evident in countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are already facing political instability and economic hardship. As climate change continues to worsen, it is likely that migration flows will increase, putting further strain on the EU's capacity to manage migration. In response to these challenges, the EU has implemented various measures to manage migration, including the establishment of the Common European Asylum System and Frontex. However, the EU's response has been criticized for being overly focused on border control and externalization, rather than addressing the root causes of migration. Overall, the EU faces significant challenges on the migration issue, and it is essential to address the root causes of migration rather than simply focusing on border control. The EU must work to provide support to countries affected by conflict and climate change and to ensure that its policies are grounded in human rights and respect for international law.




Bibliographical references


Appave, G. & Sinha, N. [ed.]. (2017). "Implementation of the migration, environment and climate change-related commitments of the 2030 agenda". Migration in the 2030 Agenda. International Organization for Migration, pp. 23-37. Retrieved April 20, 2023. URL: https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/migration_in_the_2030_agenda.pdf.


Castermans, R. (2021). "The New Pact on Migration: Some answers, more questions". [Audio podcast episode]. EPC Podcast – European Policy Center. URL: https://soundcloud.com/epc_eu/the-new-pact-on-migration-more-questions-than-answers?utm_source=www.epc.eu&utm_campaign=wtshare&utm_medium=widget&utm_content=https%253A%252F%252Fsoundcloud.com%252Fepc_eu%252Fthe-new-pact-on-migration-more-questions-than-answers.


Frelick, B., Kysel, I. M., & Podkul, J. (2016). "The Impact of Externalization of Migration Controls on the Rights of Asylum Seekers and Other Migrants". Journal on Migration and Human Security. Human Rights Watch Nonprofit's Website. Retrieved April 19, 2023. URL: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/06/impact-externalization-migration-controls-rights-asylum-seekers-and-other-migrants


Genovese, V. (2023). "European Parliament calls for more solidarity on migration as negotiations on issue approach". Euronews Website. Retrieved April 20, 2023. URL: https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2023/04/20/european-parliament-calls-for-more-solidarity-on-migration-as-negotiations-on-issue-approa


Publications Office of the European Union. (2023). "State of Play: New Pact on Migration and Asylum" [Factsheet]. European Commission Website. Retrieved April 20, 2023. URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/fs_23_1850.


Santamaria, C., Tintori, G., Vespe, M. et al. (2021). "Migration data in Europe" [Thematic Page]. Migration Data Portal Website. Retrieved April 20, 2023. URL: https://www.migrationdataportal.org/regional-data-overview/europe.


Spindler, W. (2015). "2015: The year of Europe’s refugee crisis". UNHCR - The UN Refugee Agency, News Website unhcr.org. Retrieved April 18, 2023. URL: https://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2015-year-europes-refugee-crisis.


Tedesko, P., & Duch Guillot, J. [Press Services of the European Parliament]. (2023). "Asylum and migration: Parliament confirms key reform mandates" [Press release]. European Parlament News Website. Retrieved April 20, 2023. URL: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20230419IPR80906/asylum-and-migration-parliament-confirms-key-reform-mandates.


Tobé, T. [Rapporteur]. (2020). "REPORT on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on asylum and migration management and amending Council Directive (EC) 2003/109 and the proposed Regulation (EU) XXX/XXX [Asylum and Migration Fund]". Report A9-0152/2023. European Parliament News Website. Retrieved April 18, 2023. URL: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0152_EN.html.

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Chiara Mamini

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