By Claus Sørensen
The new European Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen must regain control over migration while respecting the dignity of those seeking a better life. To do this, it needs to reset the European Union’s approach in four areas, mobilizing member states in the European interest.
BRUSSELS – More than 900 migrants trying to reach Europe have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year. Meanwhile, the rescue ships Open Arms and Ocean Viking have spent the summer seeking a safe harbor that will allow their human cargo to disembark. The refugee and migrant camps on the Greek island of Lesbos are overwhelmed, and conditions in other holding camps in Libya are similarly horrific. And Turkey has undermined the 2016 agreement under which it had been stemming the flow of migrants into the European Union.
Although Europe wants to help the migrants and respect international law, it does not want to be overrun. The 2015-16 spike in the number of refugees and migrants entering the EU, many of whom were fleeing the war in Syria, dramatically undermined trust within the bloc. The huge inflow eroded governments’ confidence in the EU’s external borders and asylum management, and revealed the weakness of partnerships with migrants’ countries of origin. Migration thus became a political football, to the delight of populists.
The new European Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen must therefore regain control over migration while respecting the dignity of those seeking a better life. To do this, it needs to reset the EU’s approach in four areas, mobilizing member states in the European interest.
First, the EU must urgently secure its external border as a prerequisite for keeping its internal borders open. No other area with free internal movement of people, including countries such as the United States, India, China, Switzerland, or Russia, is outsourcing control of its external borders to its states or regions. Controlling the EU’s external border must be a collective as well as a national task.
The EU’s border and coastguard agency, Frontex, must therefore be reinforced further, and should deploy guards jointly with member states – including at maritime borders and airports. The EU must also revitalize its Operation Sophia initiative to combat refugee smuggling in the Mediterranean.
Second, Europe needs to handle economic migrants and asylum-seekers separately. Combining them has brought its asylum system close to collapse; separating them would help to ensure that those in fear for their lives can be given a fair hearing in which their rights are protected.
Addressing genuine economic and social needs in the EU requires an effective blue- or green-card policy for economic migrants, with an overall immigration target. And policymakers must not wait until the next migration crisis before introducing the scheme.
To make this happen, the EU may have to break some taboos. First, the number of economic migrants entering the EU labor market must be recognized as an issue of common interest. Second, the policy must make explicit which migrants are welcome. Third, member states must be asked what EU assistance they would need to smooth the process. Lastly, visas and work permits must be on the table to facilitate illegal migrants’ return to their countries of origin.1
True, in accordance with the EU Treaty, each member state manages immigration from outside the EU on its own. However, it would not be a giant leap for governments to agree to an overall EU-wide immigration target. In turn, member states could indicate the countries of origin and profile of economic migrants they prefer, and the EU budget resources needed to accommodate them. Having drawing rights to migrants would thus be a privilege rather than a burden.
Canada, for example, has long had an active immigration policy, with selection according to criteria such as country of origin, skill sets, and age group. Europe can do the same.
Third, the EU needs to repair its asylum system. For starters, it must scrap the insensitive insistence on the forced redistribution of asylum seekers within the EU. This has poisoned the atmosphere in the bloc, but may become workable once a fully efficient border, asylum, and immigration system is put in place.
In addition, frontline EU member states cannot be expected to cope on their own as illegal migrants cross external borders. Camps are overcrowded, and migrants are either abused or waved northward by overwhelmed authorities. The responsibility of the member state where these migrants first arrive must be complemented by European solidarity.
The EU must also provide expertise and funding to align the practices and management capacities of national asylum agencies. Only then will national decisions be respected across the Schengen zone, ensuring the preservation of the border-free travel area. Such alignment will also eventually enable the processing of asylum applications to be shared among member states.
Fourth, the EU should forge stronger, mutually beneficial partnerships with countries of origin and transit. Such ties are essential in order to enable the prompt return of those who are lawfully refused entry to the EU. To help secure cooperation, the EU should mobilize all its foreign-policy instruments, including development assistance and investment funds, and initiatives in security, trade, energy, agriculture, fisheries, climate action, air transport, and health. The EU immigration targets, combined with skill partnerships to prepare for jobs in Europe, would also be on offer for third countries interested in stable remittances.
At the same time, the EU must try to address migration’s underlying causes. These include the demographic explosion in Sub-Saharan Africa; climate change, which is undermining food security; recurrent pandemics; ethnic conflict; and a shortage of jobs.
EU assistance should focus on restoring stability and reducing risks by supporting security, community resilience, and good governance. Success here will make investments safer and unlock private and domestic finance, thus enabling national economies to grow, create jobs, and offer an alternative to migration.
The new European Commission has an opportunity to move the EU away from knee-jerk reactions to migration crises and toward a far more coherent and sustained approach, internally as well as externally. It cannot afford to miss the chance.