E.g., 02/26/2024
E.g., 02/26/2024
One Phase Closes for the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Now Another Begins
Image of EU and Member State flags flapping in wind
iStock.com/stormwatch153

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum agreed on December 20 by EU Member States and the European Parliament seven years after a grand reform was first proposed by the EU Commission will, without a doubt, go down in history as a signal political accomplishment. But what real change will it propel in the years ahead?

Will this agreement be assessed as the pact that watered down the rights of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving and living in the bloc, activating more border procedures and detention? As the pact that stumbled when it met its first crisis, because it could not meet—swiftly enough—the high expectations that governments and citizens had for its direct impact on the ground? As the pact that was the last of its in kind in a 70-year history of offering protection on the territory to those fleeing persecution, before European governments turned to full externalization as a default reaction to spontaneous arrivals at EU borders? Or will the pact be the last attempt to stuff the cracks in a dam that could break in the wake of 2024 elections for the EU Parliament and many Member States, when anti-immigration parties are expected to gain further ground?

The answer is no one yet knows whether, in the rearview mirror, this hard-won compromise will have been a success or failure in moving towards more resilient and rights-respecting migration and asylum systems. There are too many wildcards and variables yet ahead for an accord on which the ink is not yet even dry.

Yet the deal is historic. And given the often thorny and divisive issues, it is no surprise that it took seven years for Member States, the European Parliament, and the European Commission to gain agreement. Central to their debates were two questions: First, the question of responsibility sharing and how it can be made tangible across the European Union, in a context where each Member State is increasingly retreating behind its borders. Second, how to balance protection standards with a system that aims to more quickly process asylum applications at the border and return those with no right to stay.

The pact is also historic because it was agreed amid a rapidly changing political landscape where the anti-migration discourse is no longer a selling point uniquely for the far right but has now become common for many mainstream parties with policy proposals to “close the borders” and do away with the right to ask for asylum when reaching EU territory. Deals such as the ones struck with Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Rwanda, or Albania to reduce onward movement—usually with little consideration for the migrant and refugee lives involved and lost—will only multiply in the years ahead, as will national measures (for example in France and Germany) to reduce the rights of already present third-country nationals. The EU presidencies that will oversee implementation of the pact are Hungary, Poland, and Denmark—three countries that have resisted solidarity and continue to explore ways to double down on externalization.

The pact does not close the trajectory towards further externalization. But it casts a future where two tracks, externalization and maintaining the right to asylum (albeit with selective interpretation), can coexist. The pact text continues to enshrine the right to asylum and for asylum seekers to be treated in accord with what remains one of the highest standards of protection across the globe. These key principles, which will serve as stakes in the ground for years to come for EU and national legislation, will constitute a basis for judicial actions, whether kickstarted by migrants, civil-society organizations, or the Commission.

It also translates Member States‘ verbal commitment to responsibility sharing and solidarity into an actual legal obligation. And that is something that many Member States across the bloc see as a milestone—even if this solidarity mechanism will remain multifaceted and involve financial and capacity contributions in addition to relocation, clearly the preferred show of support. Still, except for the Temporary Protection Directive, no legal instruments regulating solidarity and responsibility sharing were available to Member States that have been staggering under the pressures on their asylum or migration systems.

The devil, though, will be in the detail of those hundreds of pages of pact text and in their implementability. This is no small point. Responsibility sharing and solidarity have been the Achilles heel of the EU asylum system and conversation, with their (perceived) absence eating away at the trust between the Member States for many years. This widespread mistrust has been one of the key drivers for national governments’ decisions to go it alone, in the process unfurling actions including pushbacks, criminalization of search-and-rescue operations, and questionable deals with third countries that are taken through the lens of what they will accomplish for that particular country rather than effects on the European Union more broadly or neighboring states.

The ability to translate the pact’s dense legal language into practice, and into a system that is effective for migrants and host communities alike, will be what makes or breaks it. There is no way around that. The series of (perceived) migrations crises that have affected the bloc and its different regions have fed impatience among segments of the European population, and may well result in constituencies that want to do away with the pact, even as early as next summer’s European elections.

The pact’s ultimate success will require an again united European Union to design the implementation plans and to support these with sufficient financial resources; capacity (e.g. boosting the capacity of the EU Agency for Asylum and Frontex); smart innovations, such as the sound use of digital tools; and monitoring mechanisms that among other things ensure fundamental rights are preserved. It will also require swift and resolute action if Member States deviate from the agreed course. And here, this could involve everything from ensuring that obligations are met in the following areas: investments in infrastructure (e.g. reception centers that uphold agreed standards and capacity needs); in registration, screening, and processing capacity that is properly carried out; in legal assistance so that even in fast-track procedures asylum seekers and other migrants receive the necessary information to make their case; and in information-sharing platforms that can help a swift exchange between countries and local authorities on who will need to be relocated, where, and how.

Beyond turning this dry legal text into reality, maybe just as important to how the pact is ultimately judged will be the communication of its envisioned impact and actual results. On the anti-immigration front, scavengers will be on the lookout to capitalize on any delays and failures of the pact, presenting European publics with a simple, yet unrealistic and ultimately damaging alternative: Further closing European borders.

The pact’s approval marks a significant political win for European policymakers, but there is a very long road ahead to build back migration and asylum systems that are efficient and credible—to European publics and migrants alike.