Written by Etienne Bassot,
Although the record-high migratory flows to the EU witnessed during 2015 and 2016 had subsided by the end of 2017, sea arrivals remained at significant levels. In 2018 and in the years to come, considering the global repercussions of international and internal conflicts, climate change and the growing disparities between the EU and third countries, it is unlikely that migratory pressure will decrease. The EU must therefore find ways to adjust to the new reality and prepare for volatile forced migration flows. Several measures to this end are currently under way, and the political priority is also reflected in the EU budget, where nearly €4.1 billion has been set aside for migration and security in 2018, bringing the total funding in these policy areas to €22 billion over the 2015-2018 period.
Reform of the Common European Asylum System
In 2016, the Commission presented a number of proposals to reform the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), by amending the Dublin Regulation, to create a European Union Agency for Asylum, to reinforce the Eurodac system for fingerprinting migrants, to replace the Asylum Procedures Directive and the Qualification Directive with regulations, and to recast the Reception Conditions Directive. While the European Parliament and Council have made progress in negotiating these reforms, the legislative process is still ongoing, and all the files are included as priority pending proposals in the Commission’s 2018 work programme as well as in the interinstitutional joint declaration on legislative priorities.
Last year saw the lifting of the internal border controls that several Schengen countries had temporarily reintroduced after the detection of serious deficiencies in Greece’s external border management in 2015. Based on the Schengen Borders Code, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway were allowed to keep these arrangements until November 2017. Considering that prolongation was no longer possible, and in line with the ‘Back to Schengen’ roadmap, the Commission proposed to update the Schengen Borders Code by introducing stronger procedural guarantees, a special procedure for persistent serious threats and a longer maximum limit for the temporary re-introduction of internal border controls in case of foreseeable events and identified threats. The proposal is to be examined by the Parliament and Council in 2018. Another step towards stronger external border management was taken with the adoption of the Entry/Exit System to register all third-country nationals crossing Schengen borders. This will replace the stamping of passports with more automated controls, and help to detect document and identity fraud as well as visa overstayers. Due to become functional by 2020, the system is expected to improve the interoperability of EU information systems and close an important information gap.
Focus on return and re-admission
In its mid-term review of the European Agenda on Migration, the Commission estimated that out of the roughly 1 million third-country nationals found to be illegally present in the EU in 2016, half were ordered to leave and only 226 000 were actually returned. Part of the problem lies in the lack of cooperation from third countries on re-admission. In order of priority, the EU is focusing on concluding re-admission agreements with Nigeria, Tunisia and Jordan, and on pursuing negotiations with Morocco and Algeria. The EU’s policy approach, as reflected in its renewed return action plan, also insists on a more systematic approach to non-cooperation on return, including through visa measures. However, low return rates are also the result of EU Member States’ inefficiency in applying the relevant instruments. To address this, the Commission has recommended establishing a common set of guidelines – a ‘return handbook‘ – and stepping up cooperation with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Proposed new border-management tools such as the recast Schengen Information System, Eurodac, and the European Travel Information and Authorisation System, are also expected to improve information exchange between Member States for return purposes.
Cooperation with third countries
In March 2016, the EU and Turkey made a statement on their plans to increase cooperation to stem irregular migration from Turkey to the EU. Later that year, the Commission initiated a new dialogue with other countries of origin and transit to reinforce efforts within existing frameworks such as the Africa-EU Migration and Mobility Dialogue, and the Khartoum and Rabat processes. Accordingly, it devised a new partnership framework with third countries, intended to address the root causes of irregular migration, combat human smuggling, and motivate these countries to increase cooperation on return and re-admission. The new partnerships are linked to incentives, both positive ones such as visa facilitation, and negative ones such as conditions on development cooperation. Such partnerships have been concluded with Jordan, Lebanon, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia. In September 2017, the Commission announced that further partnerships had been established with western and northern African countries to reduce pressure on the Central Mediterranean route. With the same objective in mind, Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya in early 2017. In July, the EU produced an action plan with measures to support Italy and to assist the Libyan coast guard in intercepting and returning migrants in the Mediterranean. This course of action has recently drawn criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others, and the EU has been invited to ensure compliance with human rights and respect for the principle of non-refoulement when working in or with third countries, as also set out in the guidance by the European Fundamental Rights Agency.
Legal pathways to the EU
In his 2017 State of the Union address, the Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, acknowledged that ‘irregular migration will only stop if there is a real alternative to perilous journeys’. Within the EU framework, Member States have been resettling refugees from third countries directly under the provisions of the EU emergency resettlement scheme and the EU-Turkey statement. However, the number of resettlements remains modest on the global scale. In September 2017, the Commission recommended that Member States additionally resettle at least 50 000 vulnerable persons by October 2019. A more targeted approach to large movements of migrants and refugees, coupled with specific international commitments, including from the EU, is also being prepared by the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. Launched in September 2016 through the New York Declaration, this multi-step exercise will reach a formal consultation phase in the first half of 2018, with a view to adopting the final texts of two global compacts – on refugees and on migrants – by December. In parallel, private sponsorship schemes could be envisaged through engaging civil society organisations and private groups. Labour mobility is yet another way of increasing legal pathways to the EU. The EU Blue Card is meant to attract and retain highly skilled workers, but its use has remained limited. Its proposed revision is currently being negotiated between the European Parliament and the Council.
Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2018‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.