Crisis over, crisis continues

Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship has conceded that the overhaul of the EU's immigration and asylum rules will not be achieved this year. [Commission]

This article is part of our special report Migration and security: Snapshots across a divided Europe.

The migration crisis in Europe is over. According to the statistics, at least.

Some 634,700 applications for asylum across the European Union were lodged in 2018, 10% fewer than in 2017, and similar to the level of 2014, according to data published by the European Asylum Support Office last week. Asylum applications peaked at 1.4 million and 1.3 million in 2015 and 2016.

“We are returning to pre-crisis levels. We are on the right track,” EU migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said following the report, although he added that current levels of migration are likely to be the norm for many years and that European countries, particularly those bearing the heaviest burden from migration, must be better prepared.

But the optimistic message isn’t shared by many European citizens.

The most recent Eurobarometer survey shows that 40% of Europeans consider immigration to be one of the two most important issues facing the EU – and the highest reported of all issues.

Yet while voters across the bloc are concerned about migration policy, their political leaders remain as divided as ever over how to deal with migratory flows, and how to integrate those who have recently settled in their country.

The political impasse over the European Commission’s proposals to overhaul the EU’s immigration and asylum laws will remain until after the May European elections. In December, the Juncker Commission admitted defeat on plans to reform the Common European Asylum System.

Instead, the EU executive wants MEPs and ministers to adopt the five out of seven laws on EU asylum reform where there is agreement, before the European elections. These do not include the proposals for mandatory relocation or resettlement in the Asylum Procedure Regulation and the Dublin Regulation.

Any settlement or relocation within the EU remains voluntary, as it has been since autumn 2017, when refugee quotas were abandoned after member states resettled a mere 28,000 refugees, far short of the initial 160,000 target set by the European Commission.

The Commission’s admission of defeat prompted MEPs from the European Parliament’s Green group to accuse the EU executive of “burying a common European asylum policy”.

The Parliament, particularly its centrist and left-wing groups, has been frustrated in its attempts to push member states to reform the Dublin Regulation, and blames member states for dragging their feet and the Commission for a lack of leadership.

“We had 1.3 million (migrants) in 2016 (at the heart of the migration crisis), but that’s still only 0.25% of the European population,” Elly Schlein, the Socialist and Democrats lead spokesperson on the files, told Schlein also described the break-up of the files as “cherry-picking”.

“It’s not a problem of means and population but of lack of political will,” she added. “There is no leadership, and no understanding that common challenges need common solutions.”

With reform of its internal rules deadlocked, the focus of EU policy-makers appears to be more on externalising the EU’s borders. A €4 billion cash for migrants deal with Turkey originally signed in 2016 appears to have become a model for accords with north African states including Morocco and Egypt.

But here, again, there is disagreement. In 2018, several Visegrad states held up agreement on the Commission’s negotiating mandate for the successor to the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific community for several months demanding a tougher strategy on migrant returns.

Earlier this month it was reported that Hungary and Poland had blocked mention of the UN’s Migration Pact in the joint statement by the Arab League and EU that will follow a summit between the two on 24-25 February.

That suggests that even with a new Commission and a new composition of the European Parliament, the road-block on EU migration rules will remain unchanged.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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