Since 2015, migration control has remained a highly contentious issue within the European Union (E.U.). This major political consideration in the bloc’s policy-making was triggered by the European Commission’s response to the surge of migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing the Syrian civil war. Today, more than eight years later, the E.U. finds itself still grappling with an overwhelming influx of migrants. This year alone, it has encountered over 250,000 “irregular arrivals” and has a staggering backlog of 600,000 asylum applications. Surprisingly, the bloc has yet to reach a consensus on vital changes to migration law. However, recent developments and discourse suggest that the long-awaited New Pact on Migration and Asylum (New Pact) may be closer to finalisation than initially anticipated.
Objectives of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum
The New Pact, once implemented, will address sudden refugee crises, such as the Syrian civil war. Its primary objective, according to the European Commission, will be to create “a fairer, efficient, and more sustainable migration and asylum process for the European Union.” This will be achieved by establishing a “solidarity” package aimed at alleviating the mounting pressures on frontline countries, like Italy and Greece, by relocating some arrivals to other E.U. member states.
To encourage equitable participation, countries that oppose hosting asylum-seekers, such as Poland and Hungary, would be obligated to pay fines of €20,000 (£17,000) each to the E.U. nations willing to accept them. Beyond this redistribution mechanism, the pact encompasses several other critical aspects. Firstly, it seeks to provide clarity on asylum procedures, screening processes, and border registrations. Notably, the screening regulations are designed to tighten controls at external borders for third-country nationals. These regulations apply to both individuals arriving in Europe irregularly and those seeking international protection at border crossing points.
Simultaneously, the E.U. aims to streamline the processing of asylum applications, so that migrants deemed inadmissible are promptly returned to their country of origin or transit. Additionally, the pact will extend the maximum detention period for migrants in border centres from the current twelve weeks, marking a significant adjustment to the gradually evolving E.U. migration practices and policies.
The European Union’s Ongoing Migration Crisis
In recent times, illegal migration has surged dramatically across the Mediterranean and the Balkan route through central and eastern Europe. This unprecedented wave of migration has sparked fierce disagreements among E.U. member states and prompted the reintroduction of border checks in the borderless Schengen area.
For example, in September, Italy asked for help in dealing with the arrival of more than 12,000 individuals on the island of Lampedusa within a single week. In response, France bolstered its border checks with Italy. Additionally, Germany announced plans to dispatch police patrols to its borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. The patrols are to detect migrants who should not proceed further without being registered in their first E.U. country of arrival.
This influx of thousands of asylum-seekers onto Lampedusa intensified the urgency surrounding the need for a revised migration policy. Austria’s interior minister, Gerhard Karner, emphasised this urgency during the summit of interior ministers in Brussels when he declared, “When we see the pictures from Lampedusa, when we see how great the pressure is on Europe in the question of illegal migration, then we know that we have to work hard on this asylum and migration pact.”
Germany’s Perspective on the Migration Agreement
A pivotal shift in Germany’s human rights demands has indicated that the finalisation of the migration pact is imminent. This shift has paved the way for an agreement on E.U. regulations governing the management of immigration surges, even permitting extended detention of migrants at the border - a proposition that had been delayed for months due to Berlin’s objections.
German Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, has now officially confirmed that Germany will back the migration agreement after initially abstaining on an earlier draft it considered too harsh for certain categories of migrants. The change in perspective came about as a result of adjustments to the New Pact in favour of Germany’s human rights demands. Specifically, the alterations ensured that families and children would be “prioritised” when arriving irregularly in the E.U. and that admission criteria for asylum-seekers would not be tightened.
Another reason why the German government agreed to the deal was because “the concept of instrumentalisation was defined more narrowly.” This term refers to attempts by the Italian government to treat charity ships conducting migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean as people-smugglers, or to the actions of countries such as Belarus that have pushed the flow of migration towards Europe.
Faeser has clarified that her government will continue to advocate for greater protections for migrant families with children. Nevertheless, she confirmed that Berlin would “live up to its responsibility” and support the compromise.
Additional Delays and Disagreements
Following their agreement to the reforms established in June, a group of nations – Austria, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – held up the adoption of the crisis regulation. This hold up impeded negotiations with the European Parliament aimed at finalising the reform.
Conflicting views within the German coalition government also contributed to the delay. The Green party pushed for stronger human rights protection, objecting to certain measures, such as prolonged border detentions for migrants. However, during a meeting of the German cabinet, Chancellor Olaf Scholz intervened, overruling such objections and reiterated that Germany would not impede the progress of the asylum compromise.
Recently, the E.U. appeared to be nearing the end of its much-anticipated New Pact at the summit of interior ministers. However, once again, the journey towards consensus hit a roadblock as two new disagreements emerged between Germany and Italy, effectively stalling any progress. The first issue centres around Germany’s objection to a proposed clause, supported by Italy, that would permit breaches of the minimum standards in detention centres under exceptional circumstances. The second disagreement involves Italy’s far-right government contesting a clause, which Germany supports, concerning migrants assisted by NGOs to reach an E.U. member country.
Despite these setbacks, numerous officials, including the Spanish interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, remain optimistic that the member states are very close to reaching an agreement. In fact, some sources go as far as to suggest that a deal may be made prior to the upcoming E.U. leaders’ summit in Spain. In this regard, E.U. home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson has asserted that there are currently “no main obstacles” hindering progress in the development of new asylum laws.
In conclusion, the pressing need for a reformed E.U. migration policy has never been more apparent. With an unprecedented surge in illegal migration and ongoing disagreements among member states, the time for finalising the long-awaited migration pact is now. Recent shifts in Germany's stance and continued optimism among officials suggest that an agreement may be within reach, bringing much-needed clarity to the complex challenges of migration control in the European Union. The urgency remains, and the E.U. must act swiftly to address this critical issue.