Commission issues guidelines on ‘integration’ to clear way for EU migration pact

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson (R)and European Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life Margaritas Schinas (L), arrive for a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 24 November 2020. [EPA-EFE/VIRGINIA MAYO]

The European Commission on Tuesday (24 November) issued a new set of guidelines, calling on EU member states to do a better job of integrating migrants into European societies.

Critics, however, say the plan is likely to fall flat because the guidelines are not legally binding on EU member states who have no obligation to implement them.

The EU’s new Action Plan for Integration and Inclusion, part of the Commission’s push of an overhaul of EU asylum policy, is a follow-up to a previous integration plan from 2016, which covered only non-EU nationals.

By contrast, the new document aims to address both regular migrants and EU citizens with “a migrant background”.

The main actions under the new plan are focused on migrants’ education and training, employment opportunities and skills recognition, access to health services, as well as housing.

“The plan proposes targeted and tailored support that takes into account individual characteristics that may present specific challenges to people with a migrant background in the EU countries, such as gender or religious background,” the Commission said in a statement.

It suggests how national governments, with the help of EU funds, could promote local language courses and more quickly recognise professional skills among migrants looking for work.

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said that “inclusive integration is giving the same tools and support needed to contribute to society so that migrants can reach their full potential and European societies benefit from their strength and skills.”

The plan also includes a survey to give a breakdown of ethnicities in order to evaluate how well migrants are integrating.

“To monitor the effectiveness of policies in the long-term, accurate and comparable data on the scale and nature of discrimination suffered by migrants is important,” states the Commission’s Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion.

“This also requires disaggregating data by ethnic or racial origin,” it said.

The survey is to be carried out by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2022, focusing on immigrants and descendants in the 27-nation bloc.

This is however likely to cause tensions with member states, which have different approaches on integration.

In France for instance, it is illegal to gather statistics related to ethnic origin, religion or political opinion, though it does allow surveys about country of birth and nationality.

No legal obligations

But while the new plan intends to be extensive, it does not seek legal commitments from EU member states on implementation and is essentially a wish-list by the Commission, backed by EU funding.

Most of the policy areas – education, health, employment, housing – are the responsibility of national governments, meaning there will be no legal obligation on member states to follow the Commission’s plan.

“There is no way that this can work by Brussels dictating an obligation to include and integrate – this would be the wrong recipe,” Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told reporters at the announcement.

“What we are doing is that we are very precise, very complete, very forensic, I would say, in identifying concrete action plans that need to be implemented in the years to come, most of them on specific areas,” Schinas said.

“This is not a Christmas tree. We do not propose to integrate everybody on everything,” he added.

To many, however, the plan is one of the weakest legs of the EU’s Migration Pact, presented in September, under which the Commission proposed a burden-sharing mechanism to redistribute migrants among member states.

EU's new migration pact to request 'mandatory solidarity' from member states

The European Commission proposed to member states on Wednesday to share responsibility for asylum seekers under a “mandatory solidarity” mechanism. With the new migration pact, it hopes to avert a replay of the 2015 migration crisis by giving the countries a choice between taking in migrants or helping to send them back home.

The key point of the EU’s migration proposal was that member states would have to either accept asylum seekers, send back those who are denied entry, or offer financial assistance on the ground to front line EU states.

The new proposal, according to the Commission, is meant to “strike a new balance between responsibility and solidarity” and make solidarity with EU front line states – especially Greece, Italy and Malta – compulsory when they are “under pressure” from arrivals.

Although it was meant to pacify Eastern European countries, who have persistently refused to accept asylum seekers, EU diplomats have stressed it is unlikely that the plan will be accepted without a discussion about the EU’s migration approach in general.

“What we are presenting today is something that will contribute to facilitate the adoption of the pact,” Schinas said.

“We need, on European migration policies, less drama and more effective management,” he said, adding “very often those who want to torpedo a European agreement on migration policy use issues like inclusion, integration, security, terrorism, radicalisation, to undo the main narrative.”

NGOs commended the European Commission’s integration plan, but warned the push will not be enough to make sure member states will take up the commitments.

“When refugees and asylum-seekers are given the opportunity to contribute socially, culturally and economically it benefits everyone – both receiving countries and refugees,” said Imogen Sudbery, Europe director at the International Rescue Committee.

However, she reminded that ultimately “member states have to do the job”.

“The next challenge will be to make sure that, this time, it has full support from member states, which are ultimately responsible for integration laws and policies within their own borders,” Sudbery said.

“EU member state must now recognise the crucial role migrants hold in our societies, and enable the equitable participation of newcomers in the economic, social and cultural life of their new communities,” added Erin McKay, Oxfam’s Europe migration campaign manager.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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