Two weeks of tense negotiations on EU migration policy — precipitated by political fights in Italy and Germany — came to a dramatic end in the early hours of Friday morning as EU leaders finally agreed to a way forward.
Despite the lack of polish, some vague and awkward wording, and several uneasy compromises, the EU summit conclusions focus on the right things — it might even be called a success. With the Italian premier declaring Italy is “no longer alone” and Angela Merkels challengers conceding “something has moved in the right direction,” it looks like EU leaders found enough common ground to, for now at least, avert another crisis.
The call for more cooperation with Libya to prevent departures across the Mediterranean, and the big new idea of “disembarkation platforms” to process migrants outside the EU, are moves to appease those clamoring for a tough approach and hint at an irreversible shift to the right. Indeed that was no doubt about the intention.
But Europes work is far from over: EU leaders may have bought themselves time, but they have only just begun to sketch out the solutions.
And jostling with these questionable and potentially dangerous policies, there are also the seeds of a better one: the creation of control centers in members countries to “distinguish between irregular, who will be returned, and those in need of international protection, for whom the principle of solidarity would apply.”
If a committed coalition of EU leaders can agree on the right policies to make sense of these mangled words, there is hope that Europe will finally alight on the humane, effective migration policy it needs.
To do so, they will have to avoid the temptation to focus on the illusory — hopes of Dublin reform and mandatory quotas — and resist the practically, morally and legally questionable external processing.
A successful — which is to say, an effective and humane — migration policy will not only benefit refugees and migrants, but help see off the threat of populist forces trading on their tolerance for cruelty. Much is still at stake.
The conclusions are right to state that “it is necessary to eliminate the incentive to embark on perilous journeys.” But this should not be done by indiscriminately cutting migrants off mid-route — least of all in countries as dangerous and unstable as Libya. It should be done through the rapid and fair processing on EU territory of all asylum seekers, the return of those rejected to their countries of origin and, where possible, the return of refugees to third countries in which their rights will be fully respected.
This does, indeed, require “controlled centers” within the EU — specifically in Greece and Italy, and potentially Spain, as countries of entry. The conclusions are silent, however, on three things that are essential to making this policy work.
The first is a significant acceleration of asylum proceedings in Italy and Greece. These would need to be brought down to two months, up to and including a full judicial appeal. This is difficult, but not impossible: The Dutch managed it, without compromising on quality or procedural guarantees, and other states and the European Asylum Support Office should lend help here.
The second is effective readmission agreements with countries of origin — particularly those in Africa from which few applicants ultimately get protection. This requires the immediate appointment of a respected politician to negotiate them over the summer months, and the offer, from participating EU states, of generous terms and increased pathways for regular migration.
The third is a tight framework for who can be held in such centers — which must include rights-sensitive exceptions — and for how long, which must be time-limited. Decent conditions are non-negotiable.
EU leaders were also right to include in their conclusions that the EU needs to make “additional efforts” to fully implement the EU-Turkey refugee deal, which created a framework for the return of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece to Turkey.
Conditions on the Greek islands are appalling, the processing of migrants too slow and the numbers returned to Turkey very low. The agreement holds, for now, but the number of people arriving has been rising steadily.
But here, again, the conclusions offer few details on how to proceed. Beyond improving conditions and speeding up processing in Greece, the EU should be looking to extend the statements application to those arriving across the land border and improving the confidence of Greek courts that Turkey really is safe for as many refugees as possible.
The focus on voluntary cooperation between willing states, rather than mandatory new rules, is not only a political necessity, it is the right way to go.
To do so, they should appoint an independent reviewer to oversee the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal and quickly disburse the second tranche of EU funds, focusing on where the assistance will improve conditions for specific categories of refugees and asylum seekers.
All this leaves the controversial idea of reforming the EUs Dublin asylum rules at the wayside for now — which is probably where it belongs. The specter of unimplementable mass transfers only played into the hands of populists promising to defend their people against an imaginary threat.
Better to let other policies do the work. What would make sense — but only on a voluntary basis — is the relocation of recognized refugees. The conclusions hint at this idea, but it should be developed further and encouraged through the creation of a new integration and infrastructure fund for participating states and, perhaps more usefully, municipalities.
The focus on voluntary cooperation between willing states, rather than mandatory new rules is not only a political necessity, it is the right way to go.
If the Council conclusions can bring such a group together, and they can focus on the right things, then there is still hope that a short-term fix may yet yield long-term results.
Gerald Knaus is chairman of European Stability Initiative. John Dalhuisen is a senior fellow at the same think tank.
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