La nuova Agenda europea sulle migrazioni: segnali di novità dalla Commissione dopo l’opportunità mancata del Consiglio europeo

Un’analisi di Ferruccio Pastore ed Emanuela Roman.

Una versione più breve di questo articolo è apparsa su Berlin Policy Journal.


On 13 May, the Commission disclosed its new Agenda on Migration containing some innovative ideas especially on how to reform the so far tragically ineffectual mix of control and protection policies on mixed flows at external maritime borders. But for the time being this is just a coordinated set of proposals which now need to be transformed into detailed measures capable to catalyse the (necessarily unanimous, except for some emergency responses) consensus of Member States. After months of tensions and tactical positioning, after an unfruitful ad hoc European Council, the political agenda for the next months is at last set. It is certainly not the first time that the EU at its highest institutional level tries to tackle the extremely sensitive and thorny issue of mixed flows at external borders. In December 2005, under British Presidency, the European Council launched a “Global approach to migration: Priority actions focusing on Africa and the Mediterranean” in response to some deadly attempts by Sub-Saharan migrants to jump over border fences in Ceuta. In the wake of the shipwrecks off Lampedusa, in October 2013, a Task Force for the Mediterranean was established by the Council. But none of these moves was decisive in preventing new tragedies. Remembering these precedents, it is necessary to ask what is really new in this last round of proposals and which are the concrete chances for its successful implementation.

The trigger of the current wave of political activism was once more a tragic event. The shipwreck off the Libyan city of Misurata, on 19 April, was the deadliest in the history of Mediterranean migration. At least 750 migrants and refugees (but the toll is still sadly uncertain) lost their lives. On 23 April the European Council gathered for a special meeting (promptly called upon by the Italian government) but the outcome was a vague, shy and predictable statement, which clashed with the enormous size and complex nature of the problem it was supposed to tackle. The document proposed the very same measures the EU has implemented (or committed to implement) during the last decade as part of its common migration policy. No new real commitment (except for an increase in money and resources to Frontex operations in the Mediterranean), no substantial change of strategy.

The beginning of the statement reads: «The situation in the Mediterranean is a tragedy. The European Union will mobilise all efforts at its disposal to prevent further loss of life at sea and to tackle the root causes of the human emergency that we face» [emphasis added]. But what were concretely these efforts? A 6-million-euro increase in the monthly budget of Frontex operations and pledges to offer more means and men? An unspecified number of places for resettlement or relocation of asylum seekers and refugees, subject to the will and discretion of States? The much (and somehow carelessly) mediatised proposal to «destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers», as if this would suffice to «disrupt trafficking networks» and «destroy their business model», as stated by an EU official?

The strengthening of Frontex operations Triton and Poseidon was in itself a positive step forward. But Frontex mandate is limited to border control and does not extend to proactive search-and-rescue (SAR), as it was once more clearly stated by the Executive Director of Frontex on the eve of the summit. A European SAR operation was invoked by many. But in fact this option was not even on the table of the leaders due to a simple Realpolitik equation: there is no rescue without reception. In other words, the problem is that SAR at high sea is tightly associated with the decision on where to bring the rescued migrants and refugees. If the EU took responsibility for SAR (as indeed it should, in order not to recant its own charter of fundamental rights) it would be difficult to avoid some form of territorial redistribution of the rescued ones. And this is what EU governments seemed to fear more.

The Council statement (and the following EU leaders’ declarations) disproportionately focused on fighting human trafficking and smuggling as a way to reduce Mediterranean migration flows into Europe. However, it is well-known that smuggling is not a cause of migration, but rather a response to a demand; and this demand stems from the combination of ever growing push factors and ever narrower legal entry channels. The establishment of legal ways for both migrants and asylum seekers to enter the EU would diminish their need to turn to smugglers and thus contribute to reduce the smuggling business. Conversely, fighting traffickers in the ways proposed by the European Council risks to result in a mere shift of migratory routes that would make journeys more dangerous and more expensive, once again to the detriment of migrants and refugees. Such a domino has already happened on different occasions, last time with the shift from the ‘walled’ Bulgarian-Turkish border back to the Aegean islands.

Although subject to severe legal and practical constraints (emphasized by Ban Ki-moon during his Italian visit, only a few days after the Council meeting) the controversial idea of destroying smugglers’ boats through a targeted CSDP operation is firmly on the agenda. On 11 May, EU’s High Representative for foreign and security policy briefed the UN Security Council on a ‘Chapter Seven’ resolution which should be formally submitted in the next days. Among many problematic variables, nobody seems to consider how such operation would be perceived on Mediterranean southern shores. «They deny us visas and destroy boats. No wonder if our youth is tempted by other destinations, equally dangerous maybe, but paradoxically easier, like battlefields in the Middle East». These chilling words were heard in Tunisia by one of the authors, a few weeks ago.

If the repressive strand of EU’s policy response is fuzzy and questionable, the protection and solidarity strand is almost entirely missing. No mention of a visa waiver (at least for Syrian people) or of humanitarian visas. The crucial question of the so-called ‘burden sharing’, i.e. a more balanced distribution among all Member States of the duty to receive asylum seekers and duly process their application (a responsibility that under Dublin Regulation lies on the State of first entry), seemed too controversial to be even discussed at the special European Council.

On that occasion, Member States kept resisting the idea of seriously committing themselves to resettle (from a third country) or relocate (from another Member State) a significant amount of refugees. As long as these options are framed as a voluntary choice, Member States will continue to neglect them. Interestingly enough, even the ridiculous quota of 5,000 refugees to be resettled across the EU this year, which was included in the first draft of the Council statement, was crossed out in the final version. Angela Merkel explained that European leaders could not agree on a figure but they «felt that 5,000 would not be sufficient». The solution to difficulties in finding a compromise was to set no quota at all and leave resettlement up to the good will of each single State, as usual.

If every crisis is also an opportunity to radically change track, 19 April’s unprecedented tragedy was a huge missed opportunity for European governments. The shock wave in public opinions could have been used to build up political capital against populist rhetoric and in favour of a credible long-term response, however articulated and costly this needs to be. Heads of States and governments proved unable to do so. Fortunately, however, both the European Commission and a majority of MEPs refused to bend to what would be an epochal failure. With a decisive impulse from its President, on 13 May the Commission has presented its European Agenda on Migration, which contains significantly more courageous and forward-looking policy responses to the refugee and humanitarian crisis across the Mediterranean. The most interesting novelty is the proposal for a mandatory scheme for redistribution of asylum seekers among all Member States. The relocation should be based on a ‘redistribution key’ that would take into consideration several parameters (GDP, population size, unemployment rate and past numbers of asylum seekers are among those cited so far). A barrage against this proposal started even before it became official, with the UK and Hungary in the frontline. On the other hand, though, an important political novelty is the softening of the sterile juxtaposition between main countries of first entry (primarily Italy) and main countries of destination (primarily Germany and Sweden) which had so far determined a vicious impasse.

In the attempt to overcome resistances, the Commission advanced a two-step solution. By the end of May, it will propose triggering the emergency response system envisaged by Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, stating that «in the event of one or more Member States being confronted by an emergency situation characterised by a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may adopt provisional measures for the benefit of the Member State(s) concerned. It shall act after consulting the European Parliament». The Commission’s proposal will include a redistribution mechanism that impose on the Member State where the asylum seeker is relocated the responsibility for examining his or her asylum application. However, such proposal needs a qualified majority vote in the European Council to be adopted, whose outcome is all but certain.

Hence, admitting that this measure would only be a provisional and partial solution to a problem which calls for long-term responses, the Commission plans to discuss by the end of 2015 legislation to establish «a mandatory and automatically-triggered relocation system to distribute those in clear need of international protection within the EU».

Even though the new Agenda on Migration is not going to be implemented neither rapidly nor easily, given the opposition of a still substantial bloc of Member States in the European Council, it nevertheless represents a step out of the sovereignty swamp which has so far brought nothing but political and humanitarian failures.