Wednesday

26th Sep 2018

Analysis

Migration plan: Juncker's gamble

The European Commission's migration proposal is the the first clear indication that the Juncker administration is willing to challenge member states, but has the commission overplayed its hand?

When EU leaders met for their migration summit last month, prompted by the death over one weekend of around 1,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea, they made it very clear that they are keener on managing flows than offering solidarity.

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Less than a month later, the commission tabled its first ideas, to be followed by concrete legislative proposals next week, putting more emphasis on solidarity than EU leaders wanted.

While member states focussed on boosting border surveillance and destroying migrant-smugglers' boats, with virtually no discussion on resettlement of refugees from camps outside the EU or relocation of migrants who have already landed in the EU, the commission sketched out plans for both.

It suggested 20,000 refugees be resettled in the EU in the next two years. These are to be divided up between member states based on criteria including wealth and unemployment rates.

It also suggested triggering Article 78 (3) in the EU treaty which suggests that "provisional measures" can be taken if there is a "sudden inflow" of nationals of third countries. This is to be a temporary distribution scheme.

The commission is clear that this is only stopgap, or a "precursor" to a lasting solution. It plans to have, by the end of the year, a "mandatory and automatically-triggered system" of distribution when a "mass influx" occurs.

The proposals were announced last Wednesday. The commission then went on holiday for four days - a long time to leave national politicians alone with the microphone.

They ran free with the ideas mixing up the relocation and the settlement scheme and bandying about the word "quotas", which doesn't appear in the proposal.

Ministers had their first formal look at it at the beginning of the week. The "enthusiasm was measured" as one diplomat put it.

Questions have emerged about virtually every aspect of the proposal, including how the commission came to its allocated percentages for taking relocated migrants.

The distribution key is based on GDP, size of population, unemployment rate and past numbers of asylum seekers. But still some are scratching their heads. For example, questions are being asked about why Estonia is pegged to take 1.76 percent of relocated migrants in an emergency influx scenario, when its richer and larger neighbour, Finland, is down to take 1.72 percent.

Like budget negotiations

Seasoned observers of EU negotiations have likened the debate on numbers and percentages to the notoriously hard-nosed discussions on the bloc's multi-annual budget.

Meanwhile, the legislative proposals will need to spell out what constitutes a "mass influx". And is it only Italy - which sees the brunt of migrants arriving that will be affected by these proposals - or could, conceivably, Sweden, which takes the lion's share of asylum-seekers per capita, trigger the emergency distribution system? Will Malta, Cyprus, or Bulgaria also be able to trigger it?

Various member states, such as Hungary and Poland, have outright rejcted the distribution, while Spain has said its efforts to stop migrants coming to Spain from north Africa should be taken into account.

The legislation on relocation needs to be adopted by a qualified majority of member states. The 20,000-migrant resettlement will be in the form of a recommendation - not binding - to the member states by the commission. But if necessary, next year, there will be a binding mandatory system proposed.

These are bold proposals.

The last European Commission, under Jose Manuel Barroso, saw the beginning of this surge of migrants coming across the Mediterranean, prompted, to a large extent, by the failed Arab Spring.

Barroso - who rarely challenged member states - managed to reach the end of his term without tackling the issue. Juncker is a different type of politician and has a better feel for the elasticity of politics and rhetoric. The migration problem has also become much more acute. There was only ever a finite amount of time before the EU simply had to deal with the people who make it to its shores.

The politics of the EU is such that the commission should be making an audacious opening gambit in sensitive areas. What eventually emerges at the other end of the legislative pipeline will be watered down.

The question is: how much watered down?

National governments are extremely wary of the rise of anti-immigration parties, so they might reject the proposals out of hand. In this case, the commission will have gambled and lost.

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