international analysis and commentary

EU and immigration: still a power game with no winners


In a recent interview, Italy’s new Foreign Minister, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, stated that reaching an agreement that would suit all EU member states on migration could not be more difficult than “having Europeans stop fighting each other in the 1950s after centuries of bloody conflicts.” However, currently the topic of migration seems to represent the perfect motivation to start a fight at all levels, sparking off national divisions and re-echoing into a deadlock in European cooperation.

Fostering agreement on a shared approach during the European Council meeting on June 28-29 would not be an easy task, and this was clearly foreseeable in the run-up. Tensions had been rising both among member states (such as in regard to the Aquarius and Proactiva Open Arms cases) and internally in Italy as well as in Germany with the Merkel-Seehofer tug of war. The French-German Meseberg Declaration, that outlined their joint position ahead of the Council meeting, had further unsettled a number of member states such as Italy, that felt once again sidelined by the bigger players in the EU power game. The organization of a last-minute “mini-summit” with the participation of 16 member states just four days ahead of the Council meeting tried to patch things up, but without succeeding in coming up with one shared position to prepare the summit.

In this context, Italy’s freshly-baked government, headed by Giuseppe Conte, was determined to take the opportunity of its first Council meeting to display Italy’s new role as game-changer and completely reverse the status quo. Conte presented the “European Multilevel Strategy for Migration”, a 10-point document listing Italy’s views on the topic. But that obtaining a green light on the Italian proposal would have been a difficult shot was quite evident in light of Merkel’s domestic infra-coalition brawl and the Visegrad group’s line-up.

The Council conclusions reflect this multi-layered struggle: the thorny Dublin issue is (elegantly) postponed, actions both on countering so called “secondary movements” inside the EU (such as those from Italy to Austria, Germany and France) and responses to illegal migration (as named in the conclusions) are kept vague, and the main fil rouge is the voluntary nature of member state commitments. This can hardly be said to reflect Italy’s requests for turning the talk on solidarity into action. Demands for mandatory relocation quotas, the overcoming of the country of first entry criteria and the establishment of centers in other member states have indeed been watered down by adding the on a voluntary basis caveat.

Once again, while the picture on the internal dimension looks bleak, attention has shifted to the external one: as has been the trend in recent years, it is this topic that yields the most agreement among member states, and translates into an ever-increasing externalization of migration management. The migration management and border control dimension, that has progressively been reinforced and diversified, includes agreements with third countries aimed at strengthening local border control capacities and enhancing security force cooperation, returns and readmission agreements, as well as the reinforcement of EU external borders.

This approach is confirmed by the Council conclusions which (re-) emphasize the need to step up support for countries of transit, replenish the (controversial) EU Emergency Trust Fund with an additional tranche of European Development Fund reserves, propose a “dedicated, significant component for external migration management” in the new Multiannual Financial Framework, call for strengthening Frontex’s role and stepping up returns, as well as unequivocally side with the “Libyan Coastguard” (calling all vessels in the Mediterranean to not obstruct its operations).

What may seem new at first sight is the formalization of the proposal for externalizing asylum processing, with point 5 of the conclusions referring to “regional disembarkation platforms in close cooperation with relevant third countries as well as UNHCR and IOM.” This proposal, which sounds promising in theory as it would allow to break the asylum-migration nexus and establish a legal access way for protection-seekers, is nevertheless not new, either. Referred to in EU and member state discourse since the 1990s in numerous ways, ranging from extraterritorial processing centers or “hotspots” to protection missions, it has never been detailed, and so far (only) resulted in stepping up resettlement efforts or at least trying to do so (see the case of the Emergency Transit Facility in Niger). This has numerous reasons, ranging from the constraints created by international and EU law to third countries’ understandable lack of enthusiasm and questions of practical feasibility.

Visualization of the proposal of extraterritorial asylum processing. Source: European Commission, The Legal and Practical Feasibility of Disembarkation Options, June 2018


Numerous voices in the Italian government had pushed this proposal forward in the days before the summit: there was Conte’s strategy referring to “international protection centers in transit countries” that should process asylum requests, offer legal assistance and serve as a platform for voluntary return, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini bragging about moving “reception centers at Libya’s southern borders”, and Foreign Minister Moavero Milanesi softening tones again by pointing out how they should be called “assistance, information and protection centres” and would need to fly the EU flag.

If the vague reference made in the Council conclusions is intended to represent a step forward towards increased attention to this topic, as long as there is no discussion on the details this is merely hot air. First reactions by third countries (with Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya immediately ruling out that they would host such facilities), the international organizations (UNHCR, IOM) and even the Commission (see the clarification paper) indeed heavily caution against tasting victory in this regard.

And while the member states keep quarrelling internally and among themselves, the Italian government fights its dirty war in the name of greater EU solidarity by forcing search and rescue NGOs out of the Mediterranean and strengthening ties with Libya. The huge spike in fatalities in the Mediterranean in June 2018, despite an 80% decrease in arrivals compared to the same period in 2017, demonstrate how this power game has only produced many losers and no winners.

Migrant fatalities in the Mediterranean: 2014-2018. Source: IOM, Missing Migrants Project: Situation Mediterranean, as of 1 July 2018