26th Apr 2019


Defying the populist agenda?

  • 'In 2014 around 200,000 potential asylum seekers landed in Italy alone' (Photo: noborder network)

Might a centre-right Greek politician, formerly in charge of defence policy, be able to reach a compromise among EU member states on immigration reform?

In a plenary debate on ghost ships and smugglers in the Mediterranean held at the European Parliament in Strasburg on Tuesday, Commissioner Avramopoulos front-loaded his presentation with what EU governments and MEPs worried about the terrorist attacks in Paris wanted to hear – security.

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But he also suggested innovations are needed if the EU wants to respond to the changing strategies of smugglers in the Mediterranean and to do more to face the Syrian refugee crisis.

The tactic of finding common ground before exploring beyond it is one that Avramopoulos will have to use during his mandate in order to have member states finally move towards a coherent and integrated migration policy.

Avramopoulos announced a tightening of the EU's grip on smugglers, including revision of the legislative framework on facilitation, more Europol coordination of police operations and further studies on the main migration routes as a response to the recent arrivals by sea.

This was the predictable message.

However, and more importantly, he did not concede to populist claims that the EU is being invaded by boats full of clandestines or hiding foreign fighters.

Rather, the Commissioner made clear that the dozen cargo ships that reached the Italian and Greek coasts towards the end of last year transported people in need of protection, overwhelmingly from Syria.

He also took pride in saying that the first interventions of the EU's Triton operation contributed to saving about 16,000 refugees’ lives.

This was not an obvious account of the EU’s involvement in the Central Mediterranean, given continuous allegations from some member states that search and rescue operations contribute to pulling more migrants to Europe and that FRONTEX's unique mandate is to patrol borders against irregular immigrants and their facilitators.

The announcement that the Commission is working on a ‘distribution key’ for refugees based on criteria such as member states’ population and GDP per capita shows a commitment to try to break the EU governments’ stalemate on the Common European Asylum System.

"Europe has to take charge" said Avramopoulos, almost echoing the repeated requests for help by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

The Commission and member states need to move beyond the mantra of implementing the EU's current asylum system and start innovating on how to improve it.

For example, the Dublin regulation provides that asylum seekers need to remain in the first EU country of entry, a position that most member states have continued holding despite the fact that in 2014 around 200,000 potential asylum seekers landed in Italy alone.

If member states could agree on a distribution key for refugees, the EU would avoid the paradoxical situation of having two thirds of its refugee population and asylum claims concentrated on only five of its member states.

After solidarity among member states and redistribution of asylum seekers, access to protection is the other big challenge that the EU needs to face.

In 2014, the lack of legal ways to access protection in Europe other than by travelling on leaky, over-crowded boats costed 3,000 lives. Last December, EU member states pledged to increase the number of resettlement places for Syrian refugees from a few thousand up to 37,000.

This remains a fraction compared to what Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are doing for Syrian refugees, but is a small step forward in a context where xenophobic parties are gaining ground in almost every EU country.

Avramopoulos’ final remarks to the Parliament showed that he is well aware that he will face strong opposition as soon as he tries to tackle Commission President Juncker’s five-point plan on immigration, which provides also for an integrated policy on legal (i.e. labour) migration – an area so far almost exclusively in the hands of the member states.

But the cautious approach he presented on the idea of the distribution key for asylum– “avoiding negotiation and agreeing on a minimum set of common criteria in order to experiment” – may well open some doors that will lead to a greater appetite for the innovative and solution-based immigration reform that is urgently needed.

Costanza Hermanin is a migration policy experts at the Open Society European Policy Institute

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