EU develops a collaborative migration policy. What will it look like?

The European Union is adopting a new approach to the continent’s migration policy. When migrants arrive in any EU country, the European Commission will use “meaningful links,” such as family or cultural ties, when granting them access to a host country. 

Salvatore Cavalli/AP
Migrants disembark from a ship in the Sicilian port of Catania, April 12, 2023. European Union lawmakers approved on April 20, 2023, a series of proposals aimed at ending the standoff over how best to manage migration, which has provoked a political crisis.

European Union lawmakers on Thursday approved a series of proposals aimed at ending the yearslong standoff over how best to manage migration, a conundrum that has provoked one of the bloc’s biggest political crises.

The proposals – passed in a series of votes by a roughly two-thirds majority – include an emergency plan that would oblige the 27 EU nations to help one of their fellow nations should that country’s reception capacities be overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of people hoping to enter.

The measures make up the European Parliament’s position for negotiations with the EU member countries and set a clock ticking. The member countries now have a year to finally reform their creaking asylum system before Europe-wide elections are held in May 2024.

Should they fail to do so, the project might have to be abandoned or completely overhauled as it’s taken up by the next European Commission – the EU’s executive branch – and the new members of parliament.

“If we miss this chance to make it right, I don’t think we will have another,” Spanish Socialist lawmaker Juan Fernando López Aguilar, who guided the plan through the assembly, said before the vote. “The kind of a message would be: ‘Hey, listen, it’s not going to happen. Not this time. Ever.’”

Europe’s divisions over migration were exposed in 2015 when well over 1 million people, mostly Syrians fleeing war, sought refuge. Reception facilities in the Greek islands and Italy became overcrowded.

As migrants moved north in the tens of thousands, some countries – Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia among them – erected fences and barriers. Many people hoped to find sanctuary or better lives in places like Germany and Sweden.

Under existing rules, the country that people first land in must take responsibility for them. Greece, Italy, and tiny Malta say that is unfair. They’ve demanded support and solidarity from their EU partners. But several countries refuse to accept the imposition of obligatory quotas of migrants.

The lawmakers now propose that any EU country hit by the sudden and mass arrival of people should activate a crisis mechanism. The commission would share out responsibility for the migrants using a pre-agreed “solidarity pool” based on annual support plans submitted by each member state.

Any migrant relocations would be based on these peoples’ “meaningful links” to a country they might be sent to, such as family ties, cultural similarities, or where they might have previously studied. Lawmakers hope this will discourage them from searching for a better place to stay.

The long-festering dispute has led to the collapse of the system. Unable to agree, the EU has tried to outsource its migrant challenge, making legally and morally questionable deals with countries like Turkey or Libya, which many people transit through on their way to Europe.

Earlier this month, a U.N.-commissioned investigator accused the EU of aiding and abetting human rights abuses and other crimes against migrants with its support to the authorities in strife-torn Libya.

Momentum is also gathering to use EU funds to build walls and fences, something the commission has always insisted isn’t in line with the bloc’s values. Common funds are already being used for watchtowers, surveillance cameras, and border security databases.

“In this European Union today, we have countries that lived behind an Iron Curtain, and I would be ashamed if the answer of migration means to build new walls,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said on the eve of the vote in Strasbourg, France.

“For me, the European Union was to take away walls and not to buy new walls,” he said.

The vote comes amid a sharp rise in migrant arrivals, although the entries are tiny compared to the number of refugees being handled in poorer countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

On April 11, Italy’s right-wing government declared a six-month national state of emergency to help it cope with a surge in people arriving on the country’s southern shores. Italy used a state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic to mandate many measures by decree, temporarily bypassing the usually long parliamentary process.

Since the start of this year, about 31,000 migrants, either rescued by Italian military boats or charity ships or arriving without assistance, have disembarked, according to the interior ministry. That’s nearly four times the roughly 8,000 for the same period in each of the two previous years.

Thursday’s votes at the EU parliament only became necessary after the political group that Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party belongs to, supported by a bloc of independent lawmakers, forced the polls.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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