28th Feb 2024


The EU's ultimate asylum spin doctor

  • Perception over substance; a skill honed by Margaritas Schinas over years, that attempts to exonerate the executive of any accountability (Photo:
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Margaritis Schinas, the vice-president of the European Commission, has spun the EU's asylum and migration overhaul as the solution to problems facing member states.

"It is a system that addresses all our difficulties," the 61-year-old Greek politician told the European Parliament, earlier this year.

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Once implemented, lost trust will be restored among EU states. People will no longer take dangerous sea journeys to reach Italy and Greece.

Internal border control checks will be lifted and asylum seekers will no longer sleep rough amid an outpouring of solidarity among EU states.

Schinas's misguided optimism is, at best, a dangerous spin. At worst, it is deception that feeds into what academics term "organised hypocrisy," further eroding EU credibility.

It is also one that defies his official job title in promoting the so-called 'European way of life.'

Organised hypocrisy

In June, Schinas dismissed violations at EU-funded closed centres on the Greek islands, where people are isolated behind barb-wired walls.

And he described Moria, a ghetto-like refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos that was torched in late 2020, as a stain on Europe.

"These were images that did not do justice to the European way of life. And as I told you back then, and I'm repeating today, Moria was not my type of Europe," he said.

Yet, the 'hotspot' approach that created Moria was the brainchild of the European Commission itself.

Giulo di Blasi, a senior European Commission official who is now vice-president of global operations at the Ottawa-based Refugee Hub, once introduced himself as its progenitor.

"I am a little bit the originator and father of the 'hotspots' in the European Commission," the Italian told a Renaissance hotel conference room full of industry security representatives in May 2016.

And during his time as chief spokesperson of the European Commission, it was a policy Schinas also repeatedly defended.

Schinas is now reading from a different script that negates ownership of past policies created by the EU institution he helps lead. It is perception over substance; a skill honed over the years that attempts to exonerate the executive of any accountability.

House of Cards

His current favourite metaphor is a "house" to describe the EU pact on asylum and migration.

The first floor deals with countries of origin and transit, the second with border management, and the third with solidarity.

"The problem with this house is up to now, many member states political forces wanted to take the lift and go straight to the floor that they like the most," he has said.

Another problem is that the first floor of Schinas' house has already collapsed.

The EU cannot control what other countries do, in particular, those with autocratic leadership.

A paradox has also emerged. Despite EU aid, most foreign states refuse to create a functioning internal asylum system out of fear they will be designated a safe country where refugees can be offloaded.

And most origin countries simply refuse to hand out travel documents to rejected asylum seekers the EU wants to return.

A deal with Tunisia signed over the summer to prevent people from fleeing on boats towards Italy derailed almost immediately.

Aside from Turkey, the Western Balkans is the only region where the EU has any leverage given accession aspirations.

But even those leverages are limited as people continue to transit through the Balkans in the hopes of setting foot in Germany or elsewhere.

In November, Niger coup leaders repealed an EU-drafted migrant smuggling law, which has prompted EU commission fears of more boat departures from Libya.

And a 2016 deal with Turkey is unlikely to be replicated because of the transactional relationship the EU has with its hardline president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan has since used that deal to usher thousands of people towards the Greek land border in 2020, triggering a major diplomatic dispute.

Force Majeure

What happened next is an insight into the future of asylum policy itself.

The Greeks suspended asylum for a month, with zero blowback from the European Commission, and then later introduced the concept of 'force majeure' into a key EU bill that makes up the current asylum pact.

As a legal concept, force majeure is something unpredicted, an unforeseen event of large dimensions that allows you to not respect contractual obligations.

This comes despite repeated past warnings from Erdoğan of allowing some four million Syrian refugees it hosts to enter the EU.

Now force majeure has been folded into the EU's crisis regulation, a bill that ultimately allows EU states to avoid their legal obligations to asylum.

More derogations were later introduced with the instrumentalisation regulation, a bill that was created in response to Belarus shuffling people into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

"This is the nail in the coffin of a common system," said Catherine Woollard of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a Brussels-based NGO.

Woollard said it means EU states will start applying different laws, leading to multiple legal frameworks that will undermine any notion of a future common european asylum system.

A variation of such laws are already playing out in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia that has led to collective pushbacks.

This hasn't stopped hostile states like Belarus as people continue to cross the Polish border in an effort to reach Germany, sometimes with deadly consequences.

The vast majority are from countries where war and persecution is rife with most likely to get some form of protection.

But knowing the harsh reception that awaits them on such borders, many will try to evade detection.

Some may even be allowed to cross without any registration by member states authorities, triggering resentment among other EU states and more internal border controls.

"Partly because of all of these restrictions, and the lack of any safe route, the smuggling business is booming," said Woollard.

Indeed, despite almost a decade of EU policy and action plans to crack down on smugglers, the business is at historic highs. According to the EU commission, more than 90 percent of irregular migrants who reach the EU come through smugglers.

Meanwhile, between 2014 and 2022, the aggregate length of border fences at the EU's external borders and within went from 315km to 2,048km. We should only expect more of the same.

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