Five Guiding Principles for EU Leaders Tackling a New Pact on Migration and Asylum

Tomorrow, the European Council’s Justice and Home Affairs Council will discuss a proposed new Pact on Migration and Asylum. After much delay, the European Commission presented the Pact last month as a “fresh start” that would transform the region’s approach to a critical issue. But it falls far short.  

That the European Union’s ad hoc, crisis-driven response has failed is widely agreed. How to resolve it, however, is not. With the number of forcibly displaced people reaching unprecedented levels and the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, it is urgent that leaders break the impasse and adopt real, sustainable solutions. 

As Member States’ interior ministers begin negotiations over the Pact, they should keep in mind five guiding principles: 

(1)   Don’t compromise on values. Reaching agreement on a new pact will certainly require trade-offs. But policymakers cannot compromise when it comes to the goals and values upon which the EU was built. This means the Pact must be rights-based. It means decriminalizing civil society efforts to assist displaced people either at sea or on land. And it means development aid cannot be conditioned on “cooperation” on migration—a euphemism for outsourcing EU asylum policy to countries of origin.

(2)   Focus on shared interests. The asylum debate is often framed in terms of conflict: external versus internal borders; big versus small states; the MED7 versus Visegrád 4. The result is a seemingly intractable situation and a fall back to the lowest common denominator. In the proposed Pact, this translates into focusing on facilitating third-country nationals’ return to their countries of origin. Rather than bringing people to safety, it prioritizes keeping people out.

If leaders instead concentrate on the positive contributions that refugees make to their host societies and economies, they could find higher common ground. Refugees’ essential roles in the COVID-19 response are just some of the latest examples. By acknowledging these advantages and dismantling myths, policymakers can boost public backing for more welcoming policies—and reap the benefits thereof.

The ensuing Pact would guarantee the right to request asylum, expand access to international protection, and promote refugee inclusion. This requires dedicating more resources to improving conditions for asylum seekers upon arrival, including by ensuring access to physical and mental healthcare and legal assistance. An independent mechanism proposed to monitor a new pre-screening procedure at borders should also be charged with monitoring those reception conditions. Moreover, an EU-level position to coordinate relocation from overcrowded reception sites could ease strained systems in major receiving countries. But the proposal establishes only a new EU Return Coordinator—a clear reflection of its distorted priorities

In addition, to address longer term implications of migration, a new Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion promised for later this year should take bold steps to help refugees and migrants access their rights and reach their full potential in host countries.

(3)   Humanize the discussion. Displaced people are often left out of decision-making that affects them. Technical discussions and glaring headlines about migration “crises” reduce individual lives to cold statistics. The proposed Pact treats refugees and migrants as a challenge to be “managed” by striking deals between governments. It reflects unfair assumptions about people’s motivations, as in the proposal to expand use of accelerated border procedures. These cursory reviews of asylum applications often result in rejections on insufficient grounds. Building an asylum process on the premise that most people arriving to Europe have no claim to protection ignores the realities of people who flee their homes.

It also risks violating the principle of non-refoulement. Without a careful review of each case, authorities cannot ensure applicants are not returned to a place where they would face danger. Speed cannot come at the expense of human rights.

(4)   Learn from past mistakes… Re-packaging failed approaches will waste resources and perpetuate the problems they created. After the fire in Greece’s notorious refugee camp, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson promised “no more Morias.” Civil society and policymakers across the spectrum agreed the disaster was preventable.

Nevertheless, the Pact’s “flexible solidarity” is too weak to avoid another tragedy. Instead of a permanent relocation mechanism, it offers a menu of options. One option is a questionable new practice of “return sponsorship,” whereby a Member State coordinates the return of an irregular migrant from their current location to their home country. Other measures include providing financial and technical capacity support. Without adequate incentives for Member States to choose actually relocating asylum seekers from countries of first arrival, then, the plan will do little to alleviate pressure on countries at the EU’s external border.

Moreover, the fact that solidarity becomes mandatory only in narrowly but ambiguously defined times of “crisis” means Europe’s ad hoc approach will prevail. The Pact needs a predictable solidarity mechanism that changes how responsibility for asylum seekers is distributed. 

(5)   … and successes. In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, EU Member States have reached agreements and coordinated efforts as never before. Although there have been missteps, Europe’s collective response to the shared challenge reflected a recognition that only a regional solution could work—and that the wellbeing of all depends on the wellbeing of the most marginalized. Policymakers should bring this spirit and experience to the Pact negotiations. 

The Commission’s decision to launch the Pact is, itself, a positive step. But Member State governments cannot miss this chance to agree on real reform. Appeals to common values, shared humanity, and mutual interests, and the humility to learn from past mistakes, have brought about successful negotiations over the EU’s coronavirus response, budget, fight against climate change, and other major challenges. Now Europe must do the same to ensure the safety and dignity of displaced people.


Photo Caption: A woman holds her child as refugees from the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros wait to board buses after disembarking at the port of Lavrio. (Photo by Dimitris Lampropoulos/NurPhoto via Getty Images)