The EU Migration Pact: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

On Wednesday 23 September, the European Commission unveiled its long-awaited “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” to finally solve the EU’s long-criticized lack of cohesive migration policies, which came to a head in 2015, when over one million refugees fled civil war and terrorism for Europe.  In order to get some kind of uniform policy made into law, the proposals have to get the green light in the European Council and Parliament, where far-right governments like Hungary have to support the same legislative proposals as left-wing countries like Sweden. It goes without saying that these countries’ diametrically opposed views can lead to heated debate and ultimately, policy deadlock, which has been the case since 2015. To avoid it being voted down, the Pact is therefore quite broad in its aims and policy goals, leaving significant discretion to Member States to implement it in a way that suits their politics.  The Pact’s main achievements, according to Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the Commission, are a new form of balanced solidarity between EU countries, enhanced screening procedures at the borders, and more efficient asylum procedures. Its key feature is the new “flexible solidarity” policy, whereby the Pact offers “flexible ways” for states to approach migration policy if they oppose hosting any asylum seekers at all.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. What does flexible solidarity mean? And how will it be implemented? In simple terms – the European Commission abandoned the idea of mandatory refugee quotas, which was at the heart of previous policy initiatives, to try and move past the deadlock the EU has been in since 2015. Instead, to get all Member States on board, including those that are not so keen on taking in migrants (think Poland, Hungary or Austria), the flexible solidarity policy allows Member States to contribute to EU asylum policy in alternative ways if they refuse to accept refugees into their borders. This could be by providing more logistical support at EU borders, providing financial support to hard-hit countries, or increased involvement in the return of refused asylum seekers. The latter is called “return sponsorship”,  and allows governments who refuse refugees and asylum seekers to focus on financial or other assistance in failed asylum seekers’ return to their country of origin instead of on accepting recognized asylum seekers into their countries. Many of the policy proposals in the Pact are meant to ease the burden for EU frontline states such as Greece and Italy, who have been most overwhelmed by migrants at their borders. The flexible solidarity policy, once properly implemented, will provide these countries with more resources and supposedly increase the efficiency of their asylum procedures. Yet, frontline states’ governments risk being disappointed by the proposals, as they will still carry the brunt of asylum claim management, and the Pact remains vague about what circumstances exactly would trigger additional support for an overburdened EU state. The Pact boasts that it will implement a faster screening of asylum requests, and make the asylum procedure “more efficient.” Indeed, cutting through overlong bureaucracy and making asylum more efficient sounds good on paper. One could say that it might help people stuck in refugee camps awaiting answers regarding their asylum claim to reintegrate or resettle more quickly. However, the reality of expediting asylum procedure is very different. Asylum seekers are often traumatized individuals fleeing complex situations, who if anything need more time spent on their individual case rather than less to receive the protection and assistance that they are entitled to.

This reflects the broader focus of the Pact which stresses returns away from the EU instead of arrivals. The entire policy emphasises EU coping mechanisms to keep the number of asylum seekers “low” or “manageable” instead of protecting the asylum seekers stuck at the EU’s borders. There is no word about safe passage or routes to Europe for people who are made to flee. No explanation on how countries accused of illegally pushing back asylum seekers at Europe’s borders will be monitored in order to prevent these violent human rights abuses. No clear policy points on how exactly disasters like the overcrowded camps and their catastrophic consequences (e.g. the Moria fires) will be prevented.

Seeking compromise with hardline anti-immigration countries is sensible to an extent; compromise lies at the heart of the bloc’s politics. But it doesn’t seem like the Pact succeeds in doing so, as politicians on the left and right of the political spectrum already came out to criticize it last week. Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared it “dead on arrival” for its welcoming inclinations, whilst Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in’t Veld stated that “the far right has captured EU migration policy.” Most problematically, the Pact relies heavily on the willingness or openness of individual Member States, and as a consequence, begs questions of effectiveness and enforcement. If Member States choose how they contribute and take up responsibility, is it then really a uniform and solidary approach? Or is it just another frail system that can break down if a few states do not live up to their commitments? If the latter is the case, and if we have learned anything from 2015, it is clear that they do not,  and that consequences for failing to adhere to the EU-imposed rules are negligible. Not much seems to have changed in that respect, as the new Pact fails to provide a strong message on what will happen should Member States neglect their duties. The reality is that the new Migration Pact is not revolutionary nor ground-breaking. It is a proposal of minor reforms to a broken system presented as a trailblazing change. It does not provide for “a fresh start” as von der Leyen stated. Rather, at its worst, the new Pact on Migration and Asylum risks to simply cement the failure of EU asylum policy, a policy which sadly has become nothing but a race to the bottom where the winner is he who hosts the least refugees possible. In the best case scenario, it does nothing at all, and the thousands of refugees stuck in camps on the EU’s border remain exactly where they are. Charlotte Rubin is a Queen Mary law graduate. She writes about immigration and human rights issues for Seraphus, the Justice Gap, Free Movement and other outlets.