5th Mar 2024

Blocking minority of EU states risks derailing asylum overhaul

  • A looming deadline to overhaul the EU's asylum and migration pact is adding to the pressure for a deal ahead of the European elections in June 2024 (Photo: Fotomovimiento)
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A blocking minority of member states is posing tricky questions on whether the EU can reach a deal on an overhaul of the bloc's asylum and migration laws.

The European Commission is still hoping for a political agreement before the end of the year — despite fresh resistance from Germany, an on-going rebellion by Hungary and Poland, and other naysayers like Austria and the Czech Republic in a key proposal known as the crisis regulation.

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"Together with Germany, those four will form a blocking minority, so something needs to happen," said one EU diplomat, who requested not to be named.

Another diplomat also cited the Netherlands and Slovakia as abstaining on the rule.

The reforms, launched in September 2020, build on previous failed efforts by the EU institutions to overhaul a dysfunctional asylum system that has led to more internal border checks throughout the passport-free Schengen zone, as well as human rights violations.

The hope is that a political agreement will allow the upcoming Belgian EU presidency in January 2024 to then sort the outstanding technical details spanning some 10 legislative files before the European elections in June.

But even if such an agreement were to be reached ahead of the elections, it would take at least two years for them to be implemented in member states.

Credibility and Schengen

The two-year delay, as well as questions on whether a deal can even be reached, comes at a time when the six-month rotating EU presidencies will be helmed by Hungary during the second half of 2024, followed by Poland and Denmark in 2025.

Hungary and Poland have no interest in getting the reforms passed or implemented, while Denmark clamps down on asylum at home amid past efforts to outsource its system to Rwanda.

Even if just on paper, the stakes for an agreement are high for a European Union that is desperate to regain lost credibility on fixing an internal asylum system that has eluded policy and law makers for years.

"What is at stake here is the very existence of Schengen," said Monique Pariat, a senior EU commission official, earlier this week at an event organised by the Brussels-based think thank, the European Policy Centre (EPC).

"Yes there is no solidarity. And because there is no solidarity, there is no trust or maybe it's the other way around," she said. 'Solidarity' is the EU shorthand for relocating asylum seekers and migrants from frontline arrival Mediterranean states such as Italy and Greece to other member states.

The reform package has been hyped by the commission's top envoys, Margaritis Schinas and Ylva Johansson, as the solution.

With Germany now upset over a relatively new bill that determines how member states deal with a sudden large arrival of asylum seekers, the prospect of pushing the EU-wide reforms over the final hurdles remains elusive.

Spanish EU presidency faulted

The current Spanish EU presidency has made it one of their top priorities in light of outright rebellion from Poland and Hungary over the summer on a key file, which seeks to relocate asylum seekers from such frontline arrival states, as part of a menu of so-called mandatory solidarity options.

But even the Spanish EU presidency has been faulted for not organising meetings this week in the council, representing member states, in order to resolve the German dispute ahead of a gathering of interior ministers on Thursday.

"The handling from the Spanish presidency is interesting. Let's put it that way," said the EU diplomat, noting the Spanish EU presidency had set aside only 15 minutes on Wednesday for ambassadors to discuss the issue.

While Berlin supports the wider overhaul, it will not back an added proposal known as the crisis regulation out of fears it would create incentives for other EU states to forward unregistered asylum seekers to Germany.

'Open door to chaos'

Annalena Baerbock, Germany's foreign minister, said the crisis regulation would instead "open the door to chaos" as her country grapples with over 200,000 asylum requests within the first eight months of 2023.

But at the council, Germany is alone in the dispute, according to a second EU diplomat.

"For the time being, it's not the case that Germany has found a lot of support," he said, noting that Germany is pressing for a proposal that is more humanitarian-based.

In a sign of the brewing tensions, the European Parliament last week suspended talks on other files until the council finds a common position on the crisis regulation.

"This is a key juncture. And what will happen in the next few weeks is likely going to have a decisive weight on whether the new pact reforms will go ahead or not," said Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, a senior policy analyst at EPC.

The acrimony is playing out with a fresh threat of German border checks with Poland and the Czech Republic to curb migration, in a move that has eluded the European Commission for years and left it scrambling for various solutions without clear results.

The current dispute also points to the toxicity surrounding migration and asylum, as the EU shores up its external borders and attempts to persuade countries like Tunisia into stopping people from taking boats to cross the Mediterranean in exchange for financial incentives and political clout.

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