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Michael Kubi (via Flickr)

Challenges to a comprehensive and integrated EU migration and asylum policy

Europe’s 2015 political crisis over refugees and migration illustrated the lack of a coordinated approach by the European Union on these issues. Three constraints underpin this lack of coordination: the EU’s system of shared competences, the number of actors involved from different areas and with conflicting interests, and the fragmentation of existing programmes at the national level. Several steps can be taken to overcome these constraints, but they require a shared understanding that a joint EU response is essential.

This expert opinion is part of our living analysis on migration

The Migration Trail

While European policymakers are challenged to formulate unified migration policies, blind spots along the migration trails hamper our ability to understand the situation as it is.

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The ongoing refugee crisis has highlighted both political and structural flaws in the European Union’s response to what has been labelled ‘Europe’s biggest challenge’. A lack of leadership and coherent and coordinated policy making, as well as poorly-designed response mechanisms, have severely hampered Europe. And yet, there are high expectations that the EU will help resolve the migration challenges faced by its member states, particularly by curbing irregular immigration and managing local pressures on its borders.

One of the scenarios outlined in the Migration Trail living analysis is the development of increased internal policy coherence among European institutions. However, strategic and coherent policy approaches and their implementation in the different EU member states are just as important. Large implementation gaps persist and the EU member states continue to drag their feet in delivering on measures put forward by the European Commission – to which member states have signed up. Out of the agreed relocation of 160,000 asylum seekers, only 459 had been relocated from Italy and Greece by the end of January 2016. There is also a fair amount of scepticism about the EU’s ability to transform migration governance due to its limited role on this issue and given the continued centrality of the state in migration governance.

There are at least three fundamental structural reasons for the current constraints on Europe to deliver a comprehensive and effective approach on the refugee crisis.

First, the EU’s current migration governance system of parallel competences, which allows member states to pursue their own policies alongside EU policy, and the variety of actors involved limits the possibility of a comprehensive and coherent external approach. Shared competences by the EU and its member states become problematic when there are diverging interests and objectives. A prime example is the implementation of the EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM). While the EU has a balanced approach on paper, the problem is that the European Commission alone cannot implement it or make use of all the pillars of the GAMM without the cooperation of its member states. As a result, implementation of the GAMM has been tilted towards a focus on security, readmission and border control, rather than making use of the full potential of migration tools for development.

Second, the co-existence of many actors, who want to have their say in policies and who come from different policy areas with varying, if not conflicting, interests, poses challenges to an integrated policy scenario. The Directorate-General (DG) for Migration and Home Affairs, who coordinates the European Commission’s response to migration and asylum, has in the past transposed its concern for EU internal security onto the external migration and asylum policy, with the aim to stem irregular immigration. This approach has at times clashed with that of the external relations directorates of the European Commission, particularly with the DG for International Cooperation and Development. The result, in some cases, has been conflicting policy goals. For example, the strong focus on return and reintegration policies risks diverting attention away from the process of wider economic and political reform in partner countries. In addition, the insertion of readmission clauses in certain agreements has complicated negotiations with third countries. To date, the role of the European External Action Service, which is responsible for coordinating the EU’s external action, has been restricted to taking the lead in only some components of the EU’s response, such as common security and defence missions, without injecting a longer-term strategic vision into the EU’s overall response. In light of the different starting points and policy objectives, effective day-to-day coordination of approaches between the different EU services remains a challenge, despite improvements in the joint elaboration of overarching Commission policies, such as the European Agenda on Migration.

Third, there are a myriad of fragmented and, in some cases, overlapping funding instruments with a stake in addressing the external dimensions of migration and asylum. Some partner countries and regions have numerous programmes, each with different terms and conditions. In some cases, the EU institutions have no general oversight of what is taking place on the ground. At times, this has promoted parallel activities, such as training and business creation programmes for returnees, rather than reinforcing public schemes that are already working at the national level. It is yet to be seen whether the newly instated EU multi-donor Trust Funds will streamline responses or merely create yet another layer of funding instruments.

There are a number of incremental steps that the EU could take to overcome some of these constraints. These include the possible appointment of a senior political advisor to build bridges between the external and internal dimensions of migration and asylum policies across the EU system and between the EU institutions and member states; the establishment of an overarching strategy for international migration and asylum policy to overcome the disconnect at strategic levels between the internal and external dimensions of the EU’s policies on migration as well as security; better information exchange and coordination of national policies at the EU level on both the internal and external dimensions of asylum and migration policy; and the strengthening of EU institutions’ arbitration role so that they have the authority to ensure that EU rules are interpreted and applied consistently across member states.

To be effective, however, the proposed measures would require far greater political recognition of the fact that a joint response is in the interest of EU member states and the EU as a whole. This means that bilateral approaches need to be better reconciled with, and embedded in, one comprehensive EU approach. However, politics is currently travelling in the opposite direction.

This article draws on the report by Faure, Gavas and Knoll (2015): Challenges to a comprehensive EU migration and asylum policy.

Photo credit main picture: Michael Kubi (via Flickr)