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Divisions within European Union continue to widen when it comes to migration and asylum policy

Aideen Elliott, Maynooth University

Despite the fact that the number of people arriving in Europe to look for international protection or/and the chance to work has dramatically decreased since 2015, the tension between member states, and between the EU institutions, has continued to rise in advance of the self-imposed deadline of this week’s June European Council summit to reach an agreement on reforming the Common European Asylum System (CEAS).

The context in which the negotiations are taking place is far from heartening. The June Council summit will take place at the end of a month that has seen the Belgian Minister of Interior, Theo Francken’s call to “find a way around” Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and non-refoullement Oxfam’s report detailing with the abuse of migrant children by French police, Hungary passing a law forbidding lawyers from advising asylum seekers and Italy refusing Aquarius a port.

Of course, negotiations on the Common European Asylum System have been ongoing for over two years. Unlike the last recast of the CEAS in 2013, what is at stake here is a complete revision:  a proposal for new regulations to replace the Asylum Procedures Directive and the Qualification Directive; modifications of the Reception Conditions Directive; reform of the Asylum Procedures Directive; and, most famously, revision of the Dublin regulation.

The European Parliament has arguably emerged as the only institution to have put forward a coherent and (relatively) unified position. The Parliament’s report on reforms of the Dublin regulation has, under the stewardship of rapporteur MEP Cecilia Wilkstrom (ALDE), won a two thirds majority when put to vote. In fact MEP Alessandra Mussolini (EPP) described the level of cross-party support as ‘revolutionary’. She made this remark while participating in a press conference hosted by no less than six political groups, calling in the European Council to enter trilogue on their Dublin IV proposal.

MEPs posit that their Dublin IV proposal aims to tackle member states’ concerns over secondary movement and disproportionate numbers of migrants being hosted by border states like Italy, and at the same time grant some agency and decision making to persons seeking asylum in Europe. The Parliament proposes doing away with the cornerstone of Dublin; the principle that the country of first entry is responsible for the asylum seeker, and replacing it with a system whereby the asylum seeker will be relocated to the state with which they have some connection; for example a family member residing there or previous residence.

Applicants that lack such links with a particular member state would be relocated through the corrective allocation system, which calculates the ‘fair share’ of each member state based on the GDP and population (similar to the system used to calculate numbers for relocation in Council Decisions of 2015. MEPs say that rather than simply penalising secondary movement, they aim to address the causes of it by maximising chances of integration with tools such as relocating asylum seekers in common language groups and allowing applicants to relocate in groups of up to 24 people. In late 2017 Donald Tusk, President of the Europaen Council, dismissed this proposal as having “no future”, largely because EU member-states remained so divided on the issue of mandatory relocation.

At the end of May, MEP Ellie Schlein noted that “if we look at the Council drafts it looks like they haven’t even thought about the proposals that have come from the Parliament”. Indeed, none of what the Parliament has proposed appears to have featured in talks at the hastily-arranged mini-summit on migration, held in Brussels this past weekend.

Unlike the Parliament, the European Commission did not propose deleting the first country of entry rule from the Dublin Regulation. Instead it proposed that once a country is handling 150 percent of the number of asylum seekers they would be allocated (according to size and wealth), all further new applicants in that country would (regardless of nationality) be relocated with a ‘corrective allocation mechanism’.

Facing pressure from the Christian Social Union (CSU), Angela Merkel is seeking to address the issue of secondary movements; migrants and refugees moving on from the first country of entry. This focus on secondary movements, rather than arrivals to the ‘frontline’ EU member-states was what prompted Italian Prime Minister Conte to threaten to boycott the mini-summit. In the end, once the draft document was retracted, Conte came to Brussels, armed with a 10-point plan called ‘European multi-level strategy for migration’.

Like the European Parliament’s proposal, Conte’s plan does away with the country of first arrival rule, but in a very different manner. Rather than proposing that all EU member-states play a role, Conte proposes that non-EU states play even more of a role, by hosting ‘international protection centres’. The ‘disembarkation platform’ idea has emerged from a previous life as ‘external processing’ proposed by then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, and at that time the measure was opposed strongly by Germany. The idea to create such centres was proposed by Hungarian PM Viktor Orban in 2016, and recently was taken up by Matteo Salvini on a trip to Libya.

Leaving the mini-summit on Sunday, Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras pointed out that there are serious reasons to question the compatibility of the disembarkation centres with international law. French President Emmanuel Macron has endorsed the idea, which is no surprise as he has, since the first months after his election, been keen to engage African countries in helping Europe to have fewer migrants. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, appeared determined in his opposition stating “I am against Guantanamo Bays for migrants. This goes against European values”; the same European values that Macron made an appeal for the EU to uphold upon his arrival at the summit. Over the past few days members of the European Parliament’s LIBE committee have condemned the idea of ‘disembarkation platforms’, however the incoming Austrian presidency is well-disposed towards the idea and the mandate of the current parliament is coming to an end. The European Commission has, of course, promoted ‘European solutions’ too, warning that no one member state can solve their problems alone. With the Council continuing to be deeply divided, the message coming out of this weekend’s mini summit was that bilateral and trilateral solutions are better than no solutions. Thus institutional divisions as well as member state divisions persist.

When the search for solidarity from EU member states has come up short the EU has looked outside of Europe, to buy cooperation from poorer countries, and to move forward with a smaller cohort of member states rather than wait for broader agreement that may never materialise. ECRE (European Council of Refugees and Exiles) warned last week that no reform would be better than a bad reform, but with European media outlets persistently painting pictures of a ‘migration crisis’ and a division-ridden Council, there is very little likelihood of this week’s European Council summit producing any solutions.

Aideen Elliott is a PhD candidate at Maynooth University, working on EU migration policy. She is also Research Associate at l’Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB-LAMC) and a Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Scholar

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