To get the EU’s elusive “migration pact” back on track, some politicians believe it first must be broken into parts — and national capitals might finally be willing to let that happen.
The migration issue, which has bedeviled Brussels like almost no other, will be on the agenda of a Home Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday, where ministers will begin testing the possibility that a series of mini deals — beginning with a proposal to strengthen the EU’s asylum agency — is more realistic than getting all 27 countries to sign on to the Commission’s full migration initiative.
The proposal would give the asylum agency, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), a bigger role in screening applicants in the frontline countries where they arrive.
But even such a modest step is controversial, raising concern in those frontline nations, like Greece and Italy, that more applications would be rejected, thereby creating an obligation to return people to their countries of origin but without any broader deal on help and support with the costly and time-consuming logistical headaches that returns entail. Currently, only about one-third of those judged to have no right to stay in the EU are sent back.
Still, some ministers are holding out hope that an initial agreement on EASO could be followed by a similar deal on enhancing Eurodac, the database for registering fingerprints and other biometric data of asylum-seekers. Among other steps, the initiative would expand the information in the database, in hopes of speeding application decisions and clamping down on irregular migration.
But that hope may be misplaced.
A report that ministers will have on the table, prepared by the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the EU and seen by POLITICO, said that on Eurodac, “the Portuguese Presidency decided not to pursue further discussions” because “some Member States insisted to consider all the legislative proposals to reform the European asylum and migration policy as a package.”
So far countries in the Mediterranean have argued the migration pact can’t be completed piecemeal, but instead agreed as one large package, to avoid losing leverage as issues get decided one by one. Yet on EASO, Portugal said it “is still seeking a way forward.”
Even if a deal on EASO doesn’t come together in the last weeks of the Portuguese presidency, which ends this month, Aleš Hojs, the interior minister of Slovenia, which will take over the rotating Council presidency on July 1, told POLITICO he was confident it would happen.
“I’m quite sure that we will manage that,” he said.
To defuse the fears of the Mediterranean countries, where the majority of the migrants arrive, the agreement could take place using a so-called “sunrise clause,” meaning some agreed-upon, early-stage deals can only be implemented once the entire package is ultimately agreed. “It’s one of the solutions,” Hojs said, “and I think that also the European Parliament will agree with such kind of solution.”
In the interview, Hojs said Ljubljana would take a “step by step approach” and that a compromise is reached on EASO, the Slovenian presidency would then have a deal on Eurodac within reach. “I think that if we succeed to adopt those two legislations, EASO and Eurodac, it will be a huge political sign that we can go a step further.”
Enter the Draghi
The migration debate has been stuck, with Northern countries primarily worried about the irregular movements of migrants who arrive in coastline states, and Mediterranean countries insisting on a mandatory system to redistribute asylum seekers. Then there is Austria and countries in the East like Hungary and Poland that staunchly oppose any kind of mandatory relocation.
The idea of moving the talks away from the “package approach” is not new, and so far it has not been possible. What’s different now, according to diplomats, is the arrival of a new Italian prime minister: Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank, who has a reputation for pragmatism.
The discussion, diplomats say, will test Draghi’s willingness to take a gamble and adjust Rome’s approach. In exchange, he may also be able to secure a temporary agreement, among a limited group of EU countries, to redistribute migrants who arrive in Italy.
Sammy Mahdi, the Belgian state secretary for migration and asylum, said he believed that initial agreements on EASO and Eurodac could build trust and momentum toward a wider agreement.
“Those are not the big ideological discussions,” Mahdi said in an interview with POLITICO. “But I think if those two aspects could move forward, it could at least give some countries the confidence that you can do something — that it is possible with 27 countries to move forward on the European level.”
There are signs of growing urgency to reach an overall deal on migration and asylum policy even if there has been little change in the entrenched positions.
The coronavirus pandemic exposed the fragility of the EU’s visa-free Schengen travel zone, as countries unilaterally imposed border control measures. The Commission struggled to develop common guidelines, which national capitals continued to ignore.
Many officials and diplomats say that a new migration crisis would be even more damaging, perhaps leading to a collapse of Schengen and, consequently, a breakdown of the EU’s single market.
And there are reasons to fear that with the end of the pandemic in sight, numbers will rise. From January to May, the number of “irregular” migrants coming into the EU reached 42,700, “approximately one third higher than a year ago,” according to Frontex, the EU’s border agency, which reported the statistics in an internal note for the attention of interior ministers, seen by POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook.
While the pandemic kept illegal border crossings low last year, the increase this year was “primarily due to significantly higher figures on the Central Mediterranean, the Western African and the Western Balkan routes,” the Frontex note said.
Meanwhile, there are rising concerns that the EU’s agreement with Turkey, providing financial assistance in exchange for Ankara’s help in controlling migration flows, has created a perverse incentive for other neighboring countries, like Morocco, to seek similar financial gain, by threatening to allow new streams of migrants toward Europe.
Still, despite these developments, there are no expectations of a major breakthrough at Tuesday’s meeting, which means that yet another EU Council presidency — Portugal’s this time — will come and go without a deal on migration. EU heads of state and government are expected to tackle migration at a summit in Brussels later this month — the first time they will do so since a new EU leadership slate took office in December 2019.
Mahdi said he was most looking forward to seeing colleagues from the other 26 countries in person, and resuming the face-to-face discussions that could eventually yield a deal — especially if ministers try to walk in each other’s shoes.
“I’m more interested in the lunches, and the coffee breaks, than in the meetings, because we will finally have the opportunity of talking to each other in person and trying to convince one another about our own positions,” Mahdi said. “My personal feeling about it is when I have a discussion here, whether it is with Spain or Hungary, is that if you show even just 1 percent of empathy, you can start to have a discussion.”
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