A New Impetus or a Dead End? EU migration policy after the European Council summit

Copyright BKA/Dragan Tatic

In their struggle to find a common strategy for how to deal with migration flows into the European Union, member states need to strike a balance between demonstrating their capacity to act and avoiding irresponsible quick fixes, writes Josefin Graef.

Debates surrounding the management of migration policy in the European Union have intensified significantly over the past few weeks. This is mainly due to unresolved questions concerning the reception of and provision for asylum seekers in the EU in combination with recent changes in government in a number of key countries—in particular Germany, Austria, and Italy.

The migration ‘mini summit’ on 24 June in Brussels instigated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and attended by 16 of the 28 EU heads of state and government, did not yield any concrete results, though participants emphasised their good will to resolve the migration issue. The new Italian government led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, however, made clear that it was unwilling to have the EU asylum agenda dictated by Germany’s focus on cross-border migration within the EU. Instead, its 10-point European Multilevel Strategy for Migration insists that regulating ‘primary flows’ into the EU needs to take priority, especially since they say only 7 percent of migrants arriving in the EU are refugees with a legitimate claim to asylum—an assertion that reflects the new government’s tougher stance on migration under Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

Political Crisis in Germany

Merkel requested the 24 June meeting after the German Interior Minister and her counterpart in Germany’s governing coalition, Horst Seehofer, gave her a de facto ultimatum connected to his ‘Masterplan Migration’: unless she was able to negotiate bilateral agreements regulating the return of asylum seekers previously registered elsewhere in the EU as well as those who had been barred from entering as the result of a previous failed asylum claim, he would issue a unilateral decree to reject these migrants at the German border. This would likely lead to a domino effect in other countries along the Western Balkan Route.

Returning from the mini summit empty handed, Merkel managed to delay a decision on national measures until after the European Council Summit on 28-29 June. Contrary to expectations, the meeting ended with the adoption of several ‘conclusions’ on migration and other issues. These include a strengthening of the EU-Turkey Statement, an exploration of the concept of ‘regional disembarkation platforms’ in North Africa for migrants saved in Search and Rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and the setup of ‘controlled centres’ in EU member states on a voluntary basis.

The successful implementation of these measures, however, is questionable given that for instance Morocco and other North African countries have already signaled that they are unwilling to host said platforms and function as the EU’s ‘gatekeeper’.

The domestic political crisis in Germany heated up further when Seehofer declared on 1 July that he did not consider the measures agreed at the summit to be equivalent to an immediate rejection of asylum seekers at the German border. A collapse of the German coalition, which has been in office for less than 4 months, was thwarted at the last minute following a crisis meeting on 2 July in which Merkel and Seehofer agreed to establish ‘transit centres’ at the German-Austrian border for returning asylum seekers to their countries of first registration.

It is unclear, however, if the third coalition partner, the Social Democrats, will agree to this new border regime, while Austria, as expected, has announced that in return it would implement tougher controls at its southern border.

Austria’s Council Presidency

These developments coincide with Austria’s recently formed national-conservative coalition government between the People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) taking over the rotating 6-month presidency of the Council of the EU. This concludes the 18-month programme jointly prepared by Estonia, Bulgaria, and Austria for the period July 2017-December 2018.

Migration as a management challenge figures prominently in this presidency cycle. Two of the six chapters of the trio’s programme—‘A Union of Freedom, Security and Justice’ and ‘The Union as a Strong Global Actors’—define migration as a priority area, primarily in relation to limiting ‘irregular access to the EU’ and its implications for border control, return policies and long-term cooperation between EU member states and countries of origin and transit.

Correspondingly, the 70-page handbook outlining Austria’s programme for the second half of 2018 builds on the motto ‘A Europe that protects’, including in the area of ‘security and migration’ in order to respond to ‘EU citizens’ expectations’. The document identifies irregular migration flows as one of the ‘crises that have shaken citizens’ confidence in the European Union as a Union that guarantees peace and security’.

To regain their trust, the EU would need to demonstrate a capacity to efficiently protect the EU’s external borders, mainly by extending the capabilities and mandate of the European Border and Coast Agency FRONTEX, strengthening electronic information systems such as EURODAC, and a reform of the Common European Asylum System, which the Estonian and Bulgarian presidencies had failed to achieve. It would also need to return migrants without a right to remain in the EU, protect refugees outside the EU’s territory, and prevent migrants without a need for protection from trying to reach the EU.

Further Reading: “A ‘Hybrid Threat’? European militaries and migration” by Julia Himmrich

The New Mainstream

These goals now seem to have become political mainstream in the EU member states. The Austrian Council Presidency will help to further reinforce the EU’s narrative of migration flows as a crisis and (hence) as a security issue connected to organised crime and terrorism. This perspective is also reflected in the Justice and Home Affairs Council’s conference on ‘Security and Migration – Promoting Partnership and Resilience’ and the informal meeting of the EU heads of state and government on ‘illegal migration’, both of which will take place in September 2018 in Vienna and Salzburg respectively.

In a speech at the European Parliament on 3 July, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) stressed that the plans of the Austrian Presidency for managing migration were ‘exactly in line with what the European Council Summit had agreed on unanimously’, heralding the start of a ‘new trend on the European level’.

His remarks were greeted with measured applause by the MEPs, while Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s miffed expression seemed symbolic of the high levels of frustration and resignation currently shaping EU migration politics.

Leadership or Denial of Responsibility?

Overall, then, sustainable solutions to the EU’s cooperation crisis are not yet in sight and political stability is in jeopardy, not just in Germany. If seen from a positive angle, the above dynamics may provide a window of opportunity for re-energising European integration through political leadership and concrete measures to demonstrate the EU’s ‘ability to protect its members and citizens’ as per the Austrian presidency’s motto.

But its exploitation hinges on the fine balance between finding effective and long-lasting solutions for managing asylum and migration in the EU and ensuring that its member states live up to internal and external expectations regarding their shared responsibility for people who are fleeing war and persecution or, indeed, horrendous living conditions.

Josefin Graef is a Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.