international analysis and commentary

The migration crisis: Brussels acts while the capitals hesitate


After burying its head in the sand for years, the EU is now belatedly dealing with the humanitarian fallout of the Syrian conflict. The EU was prompted to act by the arrival of thousands of migrants on its shores, not by the suffering of internally displaced people and refugees in and around Syria. As Europeans slowly come to terms with new challenges, a significant rift emerged between the leading role played by the European Commission on the one hand, and the slow – and very uneven – response of most member states on the other. 

The Juncker Commission deserves credit for starting to address the issue of migration when this was not yet everyday news. The appointment of a commissioner exclusively dedicated to migration, home affairs and citizenship[1] when the Juncker Commission took over on November 1, 2014 is testimony to this. Six months into the job and having had the time to get to work, the Commission was therefore ready to propose a European Agenda on Migration[2] aimed at providing a first comprehensive strategy to deal with migration flows from North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.[3] Needless to say, at the time the Commission’s proposals did not get the political traction they deserved. EU member states agreed to a woefully inadequate and watered down version of these and the Commission was forced to hail as a great success the relocation of 40,000 migrants from Greece and Italy to other member states.[4]

Fast-forward to September 2015 and national governments are horrified to discover that far more migrants than they had expected are reaching the European Union. Even worse, they soon realize they cannot handle the ongoing migrant flows. All of a sudden, the European Commission can get political traction for its proposals. The weeks following the Justice and Home Affairs Ministers meeting of September 23 are therefore a flurry of diplomatic activity. EU member states agree to a series of stopgap measures such as the relocation of up to an additional 120,000 migrants already within the EU, to a significant boost to military operations in the Mediterranean and to far greater financial commitments to support humanitarian organizations in and around Syria.[5] It seems that, at long last, European capitals are following the Commission’s lead and taking the first tentative steps in framing what should later become a more sophisticated action plan.[6]

We are now one month down the line and, whilst the European institutions matched their words with actions, EU member states did not.[7] Since the September 23rd meeting, EU institutions have committed2.8 billion euros to tackling the crisis. Of these, 500 million euros are earmarked for the Syria Trust Fund, 1.8 million for the Africa Trust Fund and500 million for humanitarian assistance. Member states, on the other hand, have so far pledged only about a half a billion euros: 18 million for the Syria Trust Fund, 12 million for the Africa Trust Fund and 416 million for humanitarian aid. As EU countries are expected to match the contributions coming from the EU budget, this is an embarrassing shortfall of 2.35 billion euros. 

When moving to the operational front, the list of national shortcomings is possibly even more depressing. Frontex asked for an additional 775 officers: six countries pledged to dispatch 48 in total. The European Asylum Support Office requested an additional 374 experts: another six member states provided 81. A further six countries notified what their reception capacities for the relocation to their territories of migrants that have already entered the Union might be: no news from the other member states. Most member states have made the effort to establish national contact points: three of them haven’t bothered yet. Finally, Hungary is stubbornly refusing to even send liaison officers to Greece and Italy as part of the relocation deal to which it was forced to agree.

Was this not enough, member states are also doing a terrible job at respecting the commitments they had made well before this summer. Almost all EU members are failing to implement important provisions pertaining to either one or all elements of the Common European Asylum System. The 2008/115/EC Return Directive, the 2011/95/EU Qualifications Directive, the EU/603/2013 EURODAC Regulation, the 2013/32/EU Asylum Procedures Directive and the 2013/33/EU Reception Conditions Directive have all suffered patchy implantation.[8] As result of this, in September 2015 the European Commission launched 40 new infringement procedures against 19 member states on top of the 34 cases already open.[9]

In sum, it is misleading to talk about a “European” response to the migrant crisis. What we have, instead, are two Europes. One that seeks a coherent pan-European response, which matches short-term solutions with a long-term strategy and that follows its statements with actions. This is the Europe of supranational institutions, of Brussels and its often-maligned Eurocrats. The other is the Europe that is stuck in its own national perspectives,[10] that improvises in desperation rather than thinking strategically and that talks the talk but does not walk the walk. This is the Europe of “national interests”, of European capitals and of national governments. It is high time for the latter to follow the lead of the former and start thinking long-term.The ongoing debate is producing policy proposals that should be taken into account by policy-makers[11].