Reigniting the migration and asylum debate: Comments on the Commission’s proposal

By Dario Mazzola, Executive Scientific Coordinator of PROTECT, the University of Bergen

It is precisely by aiming at the center of a very polarized political spectrum, and by presenting itself as a compromise, that the proposal can hope to spark a fruitful debate. Any expansive or restrictive suggestion from the angle of Northern, Eastern, or Southern states would be immediately dismissed by the opposing fringe.

While the EU Commission displays further-reaching ambitions with their proposal for the reform of Dublin, they have already succeeded in reviving the debate.

This latter has been stagnating for too long, not only due to the COVID crisis, but also for the breaking down of the system itself, together with all the reforms and betterments proposed so far.  

Sure enough, even in crises, the system has succeeded in buffering waves of asylum seekers and migrants for Northern and Central EU countries. Yet since these are naturally favored when it comes to sustaining border management, this has fuelled anti-Europeanism in Southern and Eastern states, based on the accusation that prosperous countries far from EU borders were acting as free riders.

Other shortcomings of the “system” are too blatant to need listing, and many are dramatically embodied in the incident in Moria, or in the very existence of the camp. 

The best achievable outcome?

The Commission’s proposal moves from the argument, poignantly and persuasively voiced by Margaritis Schinas, that almost anything would be an improvement compared to the current “non-system”.  

And many aspects of the proposal sound indeed appealing to frontier states: enhanced EU assistance in border management and response to search and rescue, swifter and larger redirection of refugees with ties to other EU countries, simplified and more effective procedures for repatriation of economic migrants, and an overall solidary participatory scheme embracing both relocations and returns.  

It is perhaps no coincidence that the reaction of the Italian press has been lukewarmly appreciative: Il Corriere della Sera immediately called the suggested compact “the best achievable outcome”.

Yet subsequent interventions returned on the one critical point Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte inserted in his tweet welcoming the Commission’s proposal: “assurance on return and relocation is needed”. In a day, “the best achievable outcome” was dwarfed to “the mini-pact on migration” in headlines. 

Designed to make all states dissatisfied

Akin concerns might be shared by Greece, Spain, Malta, and Cyprus, who supported the Italian appeal to the Commission advanced in June and give relevance to tensions already visible at the presentation.

Then, in response to the umpteenth journalist asking what guarantees EU solidarity, the chair closed the press release by commenting that this had been answered several times. Had it, really? 

Still, the Commission is not concerned for this or other criticism coming from different interest-groups of states, as Ylva Johansson has reiterated in interviews; this “pragmatic working proposal” is designed to make all states “dissatisfied”.  

And here lies its strength. It is precisely by aiming at the center of a very polarized political spectrum, and by presenting itself as a compromise, that the proposal can hope to spark a fruitful debate. Any expansive or restrictive suggestion from the angle of Northern, Eastern, or Southern states would be immediately dismissed by the opposing fringe.

EU positions itself as a mediator

In the terms of Global Cleavage Theory, the discourse of the EU Commission here presents itself at the center, as a stabilizing, moderate, and mediating force between nationalists and nativists on the one hand and globalists on the other. 

Unsurprisingly then, the proposal has outraged many supporters of more inclusive asylum and migration policies. Among a host of issues, the firm commitment to strengthening border control and externalizing measures, the sharp distinction between refugees and migrants, the refusal to finance new SAR operations as possible incentives and “pull factors”, the lack of coercive mechanisms addressed at Visegrád, the vagueness of the commitments to expanding legal entries, all make the proposal unappealing to progressives. 

On the other hand, the rhetoric of migration as an ineliminable and, in the face of the demographic crisis, even a necessary and positive factor probably irritates restrictionists, and politicians such as Viktor Orbán and Sebastian Kurz might challenge the request of taking responsibility for migrants when “return sponsorships” fail.

Yet the tensions with populist parties run deeper: Johansson has announced “a new independent monitoring mechanism for all Member States to implement in guidance with the European Agency for Fundamental Rights to make sure that there are no push backs at the borders”. In recent past, collective push backs have been tempting for Malta, Italy, and Greece, with some politicians demanding a “naval blockade”. Johansson’s statement is thus in line with the recent vote by the Italian Parliament, who let Matteo Salvini be tried as they judged his response to migrants’ ships not to have been made out of collective interest, that is, not a political act. 

As it appears from this bundle of tensions, the proposed migration pact is set to stir debates and questions for a long time, the crucial ones being: will it finally make EU asylum policies and practices more effective and humane despite current circumstances?  

And if not, what will? 

Meet Dario Mazzola

Dr. Mazzola’s field of specialization is Migration Theory, and his research casts light on current issues by addressing them from a multidisciplinary perspective forged by the encounter between Political Theory, Political Sciences, and Ethics of International Relations.

Dr. Mazzola works on activating, harmonizing and synchronizing PROTECT’s activities, particularly in the more theoretical Work Packages, such as WP1. His coordinating role is especially focused on WP4.

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