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17th Oct 2021

EU in sudden turmoil over UN migration pact

  • The UN pact aimed to set out some basic principles over migration, such as saving lives (Photo: Mission Lifeline)

An increasing number of EU countries are withdrawing from a UN pact on migration in a sign of increasing nationalism that is hampering creating common European positions and acting multilaterally.

The non-binding UN agreement that EU countries already supported earlier this year is causing an unlikely and unexpected political turmoil in many member states, shaking governing coalitions and prompting the departure of Slovakia's foreign minister.

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This week Belgium became the latest country in the mix, where the dispute over the pact is threatening the fall of the government.

On Monday (3 December) the Flemish nationalist N-VA said it had a problem with the pact, and would not support the federal government if it adopted the agreement next week in Marrakesh (there will be no signing, since it is not a treaty).

The leader of Belgium's biggest party, Bart De Wever, warned that the pact is "unacceptable" to the party, which says the pact will add to the "illegal migration crisis" in Europe.

Other coalition partners of prime minister Charles Michel's government support the pact, and negotiations are ongoing.

Last week, Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia's veteran foreign minister resigned in protest at the Bratislava parliament's decision to join EU countries that have already rejected the pact.

Lajcak was the president of the UN General Assembly when the migration pact was adopted last July with the support of almost all 193 UN nations - except the US.

Slovakia's premier Peter Pellegrini has said his government would "never" accept the pact because of its take on migration as a generally positive phenomenon.

The growing number of EU countries that reject the deal is particularly interesting, because in July it was at first - and only - Viktor Orban's Hungary, whose government follows a hardline anti-immigration policy, that indicated it would not adopt the agreement.

Since the end of October, it has been rejected by Austria - which holds the EU's rotating presidency - Poland, Bulgaria, and Czechia. It is also rejected by Israel and Australia. The deal caused internal debate in Germany, Italy, Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and now in Belgium.

'Puzzling'

Opponents of the deal argue it tramples on national sovereignty, gives extra protection to asylum seekers and does not distinguish sufficiently between economic migrants and people in genuine need of international protection.

Louise Arbour, the UN special representative for international migration, however, told the AP last week that she finds the countries' rejection "puzzling", because the compact is not legally-binding and "there is not a single country that is obligated to do anything that it doesn't want to."

The UN official also pointed out that governments have been negotiating this for over two years, extracting concessions from each other.

Avramopoulos wades in

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos on Tuesday (4 December) warned that withdrawing from the deal could hamper cooperation with third countries to control migration if another influx such as the one in 2015 and 2016, were to happen.

"It is in the interest of all member states, in order to be best served within the framework on this global compact and not outside of it," he told reporters.

"It is a very clear signal towards our partners in Africa that we really want to cooperate on an equal base with them in order to address this challenge," the commissioner added.

He called on EU countries that have withdrawn to reconsider their position.

Late withdrawals

"I regret not only that some countries have withdrawn, but that their reaction is so late. All components are there. Addressing root causes, reducing irregular migration, offering protection and ensuring returns," he said.

"This compact is not about increasing migration, as some believe it will something like an invitation for people to come to Europe. It will precisely help us to reduce irregular migration," Avramopoulos argued.

Asked about Belgium and what is wrong with the migration pact, he said: "I would revert to you, by asking whether it is wrong in the way some little parties read and understand it."

The pact outlines 23 goals with the aim of addressing migration on a global level. It specifically says the pact upholds the sovereignty of nation-states and does not establish migration as a human right.

Among other things, it also calls on countries to share data on migration, to push back the drivers of migration, such as conflict, poverty, climate change, but it also focuses on integration, such as the development of skilled workers.

The debate over the compact highlights the fact that migration is a key vehicle for nationalist parties to set the agenda ahead of the European elections next May and that the issue still deeply divides EU countries despite the number of migrants arriving to Europe has dropped to pre-2015 levels.

The past couple of years within the EU has seen the anti-immigrant AfD party in Germany grow from zero to 94 seats (of 709) in the Bundestag, and coalition governments comprising hard-right parties in Austria and Italy, alongside nationalist parties in government in Hungary and Poland.

EU countries have been unable to agree on reforming the bloc's asylum system and boosting the EU's external border agency's staff to 10,000.

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