5 things to know about Brussels’ new migration plan

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The European Commission’s long-awaited and oft-postponed plan to overhaul migration policy offers up a mix of toughness and togetherness.

It proposes stronger measures to send home people whose asylum claims have been rejected while also insisting that all EU members must show solidarity with countries that host the bulk of new arrivals on Europe’s shores.

The Commission’s move carries considerable political risk as all previous attempts to reform the policy have failed since the 2015 migration crisis that exposed deep divisions within the bloc.

It seeks to increase its chances of winning approval from EU member countries by dropping the most contentious parts of previous plans, such as mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers across the bloc. That element was fiercely opposed by Central and Eastern European countries such as Hungary, which took the EU to court over it (and lost the case). But it had remained a core demand of coastline states like Italy and Cyprus.

Instead, the plan focuses on areas where there is more consensus among member countries: increasing the protection of external borders, speeding up returns of rejected asylum seekers and stepping up pressure on other countries to take back their citizens.

The balanced approach means the Commission has decided not to play the moral arbiter — in its eyes, the views of Hungary and Poland are as valid as those of Greece and Italy. “No one’s concerns are more legitimate than the others,” Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told a press conference to lay out the new Migration Pact, made up of 10 separate proposals.

Here are five takeaways from the Commission’s plan:

1. Reinforcing Fortress Europe

For NGOs already worried that Europe is building its (figurative) walls too high, the Commission’s plans to better protect external borders and increase deportations are a cause for concern. The Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas said the proposed changes would most likely be “at the cost of asylum and human rights safeguards, jeopardizing the principle of “non-refoulement” — according to which every new arrival should have the right to claim asylum and not be immediately pushed back from Europe. Although such pushbacks are banned under international law, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam have accused both Greece’s conservative government and Maltese socialist administrations of carrying them out.

In an effort to assuage concerns, the Commission proposes a “new independent monitoring mechanism” to ensure respect of fundamental rights. It would be supported by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, and designed “to make sure that there are not pushbacks at the borders,” stressed Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson.

2. Solidarity, with a twist

The plan seeks to offset the security push by proposing a system to ensure what Schinas called “permanent effective constant solidarity.” That doesn’t mean countries being forced to take in asylum seekers who have arrived in another EU member country. But it would mean an overhaul of the principles of the Dublin regulation, which stipulates that the EU country in which an asylum seeker first arrives is responsible for processing that person’s claim. That idea would remain among the criteria for determining which country handles a claim — but it would no longer be top of the list. The most important criterion under the new plan would include the best interests of any child involved, followed by other considerations such as reuniting a family and academic ties to a particular country.

The Commission hopes this means fewer asylum seekers will stay in the coastline countries in which they first arrive. It also hopes this measure will mean fewer “secondary movements,” when asylum seekers move without approval from one EU country to another (often from southern Europe to richer northern countries such as Germany or the Netherlands).

3. Flexible friendship

Under the new plans, each member country’s needs would be assessed and it could be offered a mixture of help in relocating some asylum seekers within the EU and getting assistance from another EU member to return migrants whose claims have been rejected. In other words, solidarity is mandatory but the form of solidarity is not.

However, returns have so far proven very difficult to implement. Official EU documents say that on average only around a third of those rejected are returned home. The Commission is keen to use all possible tools at its disposal to increase this rate. That could include offering countries outside the EU better visa terms and more investment if they take back more of their citizens. But migration officials have tales of how difficult it is to agree to deals with such countries. They talk about cases of public opinion being opposed to taking back those who have left and governments that don’t want to welcome back political opponents who could cause trouble.

4. Love (later) for legal migration

The Commission is making an effort to distinguish between irregular migration and legal migration, which it stresses brings in vital and highly qualified workers. “Legal migration is something that we want to be very ambitious on but which deserves its own moment, its own narrative, divorced from the discussion on irregular migration,” said Schinas. He said the Commission has launched a public consultation on the topic and “proposals will follow next year.” Some migration specialists saw that as a missed opportunity, given that migrant nurses and doctors are saving lives in EU hospitals during the pandemic right now.

5. Everybody gets something, nobody gets everything

The Commission’s plan appears designed to give all member countries a bit of what they want, in the hope they will at least accept it as a basis for negotiation. But no one can claim complete victory. Hungarians don’t have the migration centers outside the EU they have long asked for, Italians don’t have the automatic and mandatory relocation scheme they have wanted. The EU’s big two, Germany and France, found enough to like and quickly welcomed the Commission’s proposals. But the first big test of whether the plan will fly comes when EU interior ministers meet next month.

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