The European Council kicked off a new season of change last week, with the selection of a new Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, who will install a new college of Commissioners. Amid fevered discussion about potential EU policy reform, prospects for UK withdrawal from the European Union, and speculation about the other top jobs at hand, scant attention was focused on the series of “strategic guidelines” that European leaders agreed will offer a pathway for future policy development in the area of Justice and Home Affairs in the coming years, including on immigration and asylum.
Given the high political salience and public interest in all aspects of immigration in recent months across Europe, one would have expected this document to have received more attention. After all, publics and policymakers have been quite attuned to the growing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean, and the continued displacement of millions of Syrians. Of course, other serious issues have overshadowed the EU agenda in recent weeks, not least unrest and violence in Ukraine and Iraq. But the quiet delivery of the document also reflects a strategic decision on the part of Council President Herman Van Rompuy and his team to ensure the road map is uncontentious and thus desensitize a politically difficult set of issues, notably immigration and asylum policy.
In this last effort, the Council has been successful. Over the past eight months, various stakeholders, both governmental and nongovernmental, had ample opportunity to set out their ideas as to what the strategic guidelines should contain. Few groundbreaking ideas were forthcoming from a group of exhausted, and frequently disillusioned, actors. The Council then waited until the last moment to share its draft with leaders, to minimize the opportunity for dispute and adjustment. In the end, EU Member States had few objections to the short, almost perfunctory, document, which covers each area of Justice and Home Affairs in turn. But at a time when 28 Member States can argue for hours over the tiniest detail, the lack of dispute over the most theoretically significant document of all reflects a lack of content, rather than strong consensus. And in this respect, the strategic guidelines on migration and asylum represent a missed opportunity.
Indeed, the main area of consensus would seem to be that this next legislative phase should be one of hibernation, with core focus on consolidation and implementation of existing rules. The remainder of the document, though balanced in its entirety, sets out generalizations and oft-repeated statements about legal migration, integration, asylum, and border management. Specifics are mostly limited to endeavors already underway within the European Union. More ambitious statements are absent, notably a commitment to explore the possibility for mutual recognition of asylum decisions—a key ambition of the incoming Italian Presidency of the European Union and a long-term goal for many human-rights advocates—which was removed during final discussions.
In process terms, at a time when even the smallest immigration policy developments are heavily contested, the near-silent delivery of these guidelines has been a success. But have they actually tackled the challenges ahead? Humanitarian crises are mounting within the European neighborhood, and public skepticism towards both the European project and governments’ approaches to immigration has grown, as the recent European parliamentary elections made clear. Against this backdrop, the guidelines seem unfeasibly insulated from today’s realities and the deep challenges that EU policy has so far failed to resolve. The guidelines make blithe reference to “instability” across the world and note that there are “demographic trends,” with no effort to characterize what these might be. No mention is made of the situation of immigrants already resident in Europe, and the hardening public attitudes towards them. Sweeping this discussion under the carpet smacks of an elitist Brussels “they don’t know any better” attitude that has become commonplace within many discourses on migration. It not only fails to address public concerns but also sidelines them.
This approach also fails to address core disagreements between the Member States themselves, notably the solidarity principle, core to the EU response to the Mediterranean crisis. Mentioned, en passant, without effort to define or elaborate on what solidarity between Member States would look like in practice, the Council has dodged a bullet. However, it has failed to recognize that to sidestep the issue today will not resolve the problem tomorrow. Italy is calling on EU Member States and the EU Commission to join in its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue endeavor—which will kick start this discussion once more.
The principal response to the strategic guidelines drafts—from Member States and observers alike—has been “better than expected.” But a higher standard should be demanded from the President of the European Council, and the draft represents a missed opportunity to lead EU heads of state forward on critical issues. Many actors have invested in change, not least Italy, which has developed a robust search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean, but also countries such as Germany and Sweden, which continue to welcome both spontaneous arrivals of asylum seekers and increasing numbers of resettled refugees. The Council has a responsibility to offer leadership at a time when it is clearly lacking within many national governments, and push an ambitious agenda so that when Member States inevitably pull back, they still find themselves to have incrementally shifted ahead.
Why is this important? The strategic guidelines affirm a growing untruth. That the status quo with respect to shared border management and asylum systems is sufficient to resolve the various tangible challenges faced by the European Union. This thinking assumes that as long as EU legislation is properly implemented and in good faith, all will be well. But for different reasons, a growing number of experts doubt that satisfactory outcomes can be found through implementation alone. The guidelines are correct in that few actors would welcome or push for extensive development of new EU immigration policies. However, in maintaining that existing asylum and border policy can be effective without additional work, commitment, and perhaps eventually radical overhaul, the strategic guidelines offer little actual guidance for a way out of the inevitable crises ahead.
Over the next months, as a new European Commission is formed, officials will have to put meat on the bones of the guidelines. The lack of specificity in the Council document gives Commission officials enormous leeway to develop proposals and processes to ensure effective implementation and monitoring of EU immigration and asylum policy, which may not be to the liking of Member States that resent being told by European Commission officials in Brussels how to put policy into practice. And, to ensure that sufficient political will is maintained at national levels for development of rigorous asylum systems, the EU institutions will need to more effectively communicate the value and importance of existing Justice and Home Affairs commitments.
This will require significant leadership from within the EU institutions, and choices as to the form that leadership will take. Would a Commissioner for Migration, as advocated from within and outside EU institutions, be sufficient? A Commissioner for Migration would have to incorporate elements from a dozen existing portfolios, from Development to Education, and find a way to link External Action Service priorities to the Home Affairs agenda more effectively, and possibly “float” between portfolios. A choice would need to be made between a genuinely cross-cutting portfolio that would bring together the economic, social, security, and foreign policy dimensions of migration policy, and a Commissioner with genuine weight and influence. Such influence is currently defined through staff numbers and budget, and a Commissioner with a mandate to coordinate may find him or herself with neither. It is arguable that to do this effectively, a leadership position should be created in the European Council: an effective politician capable of speaking publicly about immigration, as well as engaging in active diplomacy both within and outside the EU space. Such bespoke positions have been of varying success in the past, but a visible focal point for migration issues, with sufficient mandate and maneuverability to act, is now necessary.
And last but not least, EU Member States will have to come together to decide the weight and meaning of their solidarity in the face of multiple emerging and protracted humanitarian crises. In the absence of a perfect solution that fits the priorities of each national government, EU asylum policy has become paralyzed. The major challenge for EU Member States will be to accept hard, practical compromises, and understand that the next steps to ensure both equitable and comprehensive protection for the growing number of people in need will involve identifying and agreeing upon the least worst policy options ahead, and making ambitious plans to realize them. The contents of the strategic guidelines highlight how far the EU Member States still are from making the leap from paralysis to action.
Elizabeth Collett is Director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe and is Senior Advisor to MPI's Transatlantic Council on Migration. Her work focuses in particular on European migration and immigrant integration policy.