E.g., 04/17/2024
E.g., 04/17/2024
An EU Commissioner for Migration? The Devil is in the Details
European People's Party

In the coming weeks, the President-Elect of the European Commission and leaders of the European Union will discuss the new institutional map of the European Union, including new portfolios for the incoming college of Commissioners. Despite the fact that immigration is a critical challenge for the European Union, it has become harder for EU institutions to forge a strong policy. Perhaps as a result of this disconnect, one of the key ideas on the table is to create a Commissioner for Migration. In a rare moment of agreement, actors and critics alike recognize the need to develop policy in a more coherent, and crosscutting, fashion. However, there a number of different means to achieve a more coordinated approach to policy leadership, and it is not clear from Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech in Strasbourg on Tuesday whether he means to create a bespoke Commissioner for Migration or just rename the Home Affairs portfolio to emphasize its migration responsibilities.

The past five years of policy development within the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) portfolio have reaffirmed two things: that policies related to mobility are deeply contentious, and consensus is near impossible to find; and that well-crafted migration systems cut across the full range of government interests, from trade and foreign relations to education and social policy.

The go-to solution for most observers, with the European Union under migration pressures from without and tensions from within among Member States, is to create a bespoke portfolio for migration, capable of cutting across the various interests and policies that are implicated by the phenomenon. Some have made the case for an even broader remit—a Directorate-General for Mobility—that would be capable of incorporating free movement. This is not the first time such an initiative has been developed. President Barroso created a dedicated Directorate-General and Commissioner for Climate Change (DG CLIMA) in 2009, to ensure the coherent development of EU policy at a time of political prominence for the issue. This is not something that should be undertaken lightly: it takes time for a new DG to establish its mandate, a problem experienced by DG CLIMA, the External Action Service, and DGs created in the wake of the decision to cleave Justice and Home Affairs in two. Does the European Union have time to wait for a new Commissioner and portfolio to “bed in”? 

Second, the devil is in the details. There are numerous constellations and variations of issues and policy responsibilities that might be coalesced into a migration portfolio. Looking at the various clusters that have been proposed, a migration portfolio could, and should, be connected to three of them: Security and Citizenship, Global Europe, and Smart and Inclusive Growth. This is not a challenge unique to the European Union: the choice of where, and how, to place immigration and asylum issues within governments has plagued national leaders across Europe and beyond. In the simplest form, one would divide Home Affairs once more, separating immigration and asylum from internal security. However, this would leave two small portfolios that would still be connected by their shared connection to Interior Ministers (still largely responsible for both). 

At the other end of the scale, a second option would see all EU units and departments with a “mobility” component brought together under one roof. This would result in a huge portfolio, multifaceted and potentially stretching to bring together those responsible for integrating migration priorities into development policy, with those concerned with recognition of qualifications for mobile EU citizens. It is also questionable whether this would actually help with the coherent articulation and implementation of policy. Though all the immigration issues would be in one place, the ability of the Commissioner and Directorate-General to ensure that migration policy is sufficiently integrated into other portfolios across the Commission would be inhibited. And it would not resolve the challenge of how to work more effectively with the External Action Service. 

Thus, some say, why not create a coordinating Commissioner, without portfolio, who could float between DGs and ensure the different elements of the European Commission operate coherently? The challenge here is that power in the European Commission is derived largely from size of budget and number of staff. Without large amounts of either, such a Commissioner would risk becoming a lame duck. To avoid this, a Commissioner for Migration would have to be a vice-presidential figure, strong and experienced, with a clear mandate and accountability: other Commissioners would have to report on their activities and account for policy decisions that have been made in the migration and mobility domain. It would be a new way of working for the European Commission, and one which might be useful for several portfolios. The creation of several floating Commissioners would strengthen the concept and practice overall. 

There are also more detailed choices to be made, including what to do with the existing Home Affairs portfolio. Legal migration and integration have arguably reached a plateau within the Home portfolio. Transferring them to DG Employment makes logical sense, though this would have to come with strong incentives for the new Employment Commissioner to prioritize the issue. But it also speaks to a deeper question that has plagued academics for the past 15 years: is immigration policy at the EU level about security or mobility? And what prominence to give humanitarian concerns? If future policy is about security and safety, then a new President could cluster asylum, border management, and visa policy together with foreign affairs, and leave legal migration, development, and integration to one side. If, however, future policy is about mobility, then you cluster legal migration and integration together with free movement and parts of the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility and created a policy incubator capable of looking into the distance and addressing the serious demographic challenges that await Europeans over the next decade. 

Given this complexity and the high risk of failure, there are solid arguments for leaving the Commission as it is, and focusing on the creation of a bespoke post within the European Council: a Coordinator for Migration or an Ambassador-at-large. The European Union is sorely in need of a leader who can speak to policymakers, politicians, and publics alike about immigration both within Europe and across the globe. This could be an appointed Council representative, a high-level figure capable of speaking to his or her own experience managing a complex, multi-faceted issue in an international setting. As a representative of the European Union, he or she could travel to the capitals of Europe, invest time and energy in understanding the particular parameters of each national debate, and take the lead on issues of coordination, monitoring, and evaluation, particularly of the many Council working groups that touch on immigration policy within their discussions. As an advisor to the Council President and the rotating EU Presidencies, he or she would be able to offer continuity and bridge the gulf between the European institutions, and particularly between European Council and European Commission. Such a figure would need to be an honest broker, considering the value of policy development and offering support when implementation falls short. He or she also would be able to assume a critical role in bringing different constellations of policymakers and their portfolios together under the Council umbrella.

It is arguable that such a person would need to be in the Council, rather than the Commission. One of the challenges of recent years has been the tension that has emerged between the Commission and the Council, due in part to the different functions and priorities of each institution. This would not negate the existence of one or more Commissioners responsible for different aspects of immigration, notably within the Home Affairs portfolio, but rather reinforce their work and support a more crosscutting approach. But Member State representatives are weary of negotiating on immigration topics with Commission officials lacking both front-line immigration experience and deep understanding of political concerns that national representatives must face upon return to the capital. An Ambassador-at-large would need to demonstrate the credentials and wisdom that long experience at the national level can bring, and that would allow him or her to bridge this gap to work alongside Commissioners committed to furthering EU policy development in this area.

The choices ahead are difficult. Regardless which type of leader is appointed, two conditions would need to be met for investment in such a high-level position to be worthwhile. First and foremost, the position would need to be invested with a clear mandate and sit at the apex of clear lines of responsibility and accountability to the EU institutions, Member States, and associated agencies. Second, it is essential to reform institutional coordination to ensure effective decision-making throughout the EU institutions.

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.