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Why and How to Make Immigration the Core of Imminent European Reforms



Why Might Something Just Happen Now?

A sudden crisis threatening German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition in mid-June underscores the point that in Europe, no less than in the United States, the overriding political imperative is to overhaul the continent’s immigration, asylum, and external border control institutions. But unlike the horrific divisive scenes of caged children in America, several events are coming together in Europe to make such an overhaul more likely around the time of the upcoming EU Council meeting on June 28-29.

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s denial of access to Italian ports for a refugee ship from Libya strengthens the case for the European Union (EU) to make a deal on immigration, which gives Salvini’s government a political win and could defuse or postpone a future clash over his government’s reckless fiscal policies, which are unacceptable to the rest of the EU. An agreement to reform the immigration, asylum and external border control institutions would also address a legitimate sense of political abandonment in Italy, which metastasized into a major political problem because Europe has failed to address concerns faced by EU frontline states.

Another factor that could lead to an immigration overhaul has been the collapse of the EU’s year-long attempt to reform its so-called Dublin Regulation, which determines which member state is responsible for examining an application for asylum made by an arriving refugee in the EU. The Dublin Convention of 1990 placed the responsibility of processing asylum applications on the first country of arrival (i.e., frontline states like Italy and Greece in recent years). It was signed in an entirely different political era, when immigration from poorer nations was not the issue it is today. It was part of the original Schengen Agreement’s open internal borders in Europe, which has become increasingly outdated with the influx of migrants.

Another complete failure has been the European Commission policy after the surge of refugees in 2015–16 of allocating binding national refugee resettlement quotas for member states. Only a trivial number of refugees have been resettled from Greece and Italy to other member states.

The German crisis, finally, has forced the issue because Chancellor Merkel has had to promise her Bavarian coalition partners in the Christian Social Union (CSU) to agree to a European solution within two weeks in the face of CSU demands that refugees be turned away at the German border. Conveniently for Merkel, though, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, an immigration hardliner, assumes the rotating EU presidency within the deadline on July 1 and is likely to make proposals that both Merkel and the CSU can agree to.

An unmistakable additional pressure has come from President Donald Trump’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with Germany and the rest of Europe, making it politically more important for the EU to stand together in an increasingly uncertain world. Such are current political winds in Europe that mainstream political elites can actually marginalize their nationalist opponents as “Trumpists,” hardly a popular appellation.

What would a solution look like?

Domestic politics in Italy and Germany make mere incremental changes to European immigration laws unlikely to be acceptable. Austrian Chancellor Kurz could well be the unlikely point person. He is politically close to Merkel’s Bavarian coalition partners and has his own political coalition with the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party. He could likely relish the opportunity to address the issue by introducing new practices previously considered unthinkable.

The European Commission has proposed to triple funding for border control and migration issues. But the Commission is also constrained by the existing EU budget framework and the fact that ultimately only member states can agree to a change in asylum rules and border control funding.

The incoming Austrian EU presidency has announced an informal meeting of heads of state or governments on September 20. The presidency work program includes an intention to link aid and economic cooperation with the countries that are sending refugees agreeing to take back those nationals whose immigration petitions are rejected. It also calls for a significant increase in resources to Frontex, the embryonic European border control and coast guard agency.

It is noteworthy how large an overlap exists between the incoming Austrian presidency’s announced plans on immigration and this week’s Franco-German Meseberg Declaration. It talks about the need to work with origin and transit countries “to avoid departures to Europe” and “an ambitious strengthening in terms of staff and mandate of Frontex.” The fact that France and Germany do not simply endorse the Commission’s earlier budget increase hopefully suggests that the two countries want to strengthen the agency even further.

A plausible set of proposals from the Austrian presidency, which would likely have French, German, and Italian support, with Chancellor Kurz acting as midwife for the deal later in the summer, might incorporate the following elements:

  1. Offshore Asylum Processing Centers in Third Countries: Under such an arrangement, the European Union would provide an incentive to African and Middle Eastern countries to accept Frontex-run and EU-financed processing centers on their territories, with accepted asylum seekers transported to Europe and the rejected applicants turned away. The centers would be a hybrid of Australia’s processing of asylum seekers on remote islands in the Pacific and the EU deal with Turkey, in which the EU essentially paid the Ankara government to block migrants from entering the EU. The centers would exist in several African countries, such as Libya, currently the largest departure point for migrants arriving in Europe. The French and German governments have recently in meetings with the new Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte supported this approach, making it likely that an overwhelming majority of EU leaders would accept it.
  2. Asylum Quotas: The EU would establish de facto annual quotas, or at least a target range, for the number of asylum seekers, who would be admitted into Europe through EU-funded offshore asylum processing centers according to harmonized European asylum rules. The quota and distribution would have to be set by tense political negotiations. Crucially, restricting the number of asylum seekers permitted to enter the EU through offshore processing centers would not be a comprehensive restriction on asylum, as this would be against existing European international commitments and still leave open the option to apply for asylum once on EU soil. Politics dictate, however, that the total number of asylum seekers to be admitted into Europe will have to be reduced. An agreement to do so would enable Merkel to say she is doing it for Europe’s sake and not to placate populist anti-immigration demands at home. One way to set the quota would be for each member state to establish its own national level, but that would lead to a very low total number. There are ways the EU could financially nudge its members into accepting more refugees. One option, discussed in-depth with my PIIE colleague Olivier Blanchard recently, would be for the common EU budget to shoulder the entire financial burden of accepting asylum seekers from offshore processing centers. In this way member states would finance the arrival of new refugees via the common budget but would forego many of the financial benefits from the EU budget if they refused to accept more than a token number of new asylum seekers. In this manner, member states would retain their sovereignty when deciding how many refugees to accept—a political requirement the recent failure of the mandatory quota system has highlighted—but would suffer financial opportunity costs by not accepting asylum seekers. As EU funding would be made available to each member state, refugees who decided to move within Schengen to another member state would lose access to government financial support.
  3. A Larger Frontex: Establishing de facto EU asylum seeker quotas would make European refugee policy more like that in the United States. As a nonsignatory of the full UN Refugee Convention, the United States has a system in which the president collaborates with Congress to determine the annual number of accepted asylum seekers (45,000 in 2018). By contrast, in Europe, each arriving refugee has a legal right to a credible individual asylum evaluation. EU members are unlikely to rescind their adoption of the UN Refugee Convention. Therefore, “offshore processing centers” are relevant only if EU members can largely seal off the migrant sea routes across the Mediterranean and other land routes into Europe. Otherwise, the introduction of new offshore processing center quotas will merely increase the incentives for people smuggling and illegal migration into Europe. Europe would then experience the same issues as the United States in recent decades. A massive investment in new external border control measures would be required, in addition to striking numerous migration management deals with neighboring countries like Turkey. In short, Frontex will have to get a very large budget increase.

It is crucial for the reform package to contain all three of these items. Frontex-run and EU-financed offshore processing centers are meaningless without common asylum rules and much better European external border control. This is acknowledged in the Meseberg Declaration, which explicitly proposes “two key reforms beyond the short run: (1) setting up a genuine European border police building on the existing Frontex and (2) creating a European Asylum Office harmonizing asylum practices in Member States and being responsible for asylum procedures at external borders.” Hence, while in the short term the offshore centers are likely to be a political downpayment to Italy (Austria and others), and short-term bilateral deals between Germany, Italy, and others to manage refugees are possible perhaps even at the upcoming mini summit between some EU leaders, including Germany, France, Italy, and Austria later this week, in the long run Europe is likely moving towards a much more integrated and comprehensive approach to immigration.

Europe tends to reform almost solely in response to crises. The current situation in Europe should be seen as much as an opportunity as a reason to despair. This is especially the case, as a leap towards more European integration of immigration and asylum processes appears the best way to solve Merkel’s domestic political crisis. But make no mistake, if immigration proposals along the lines discussed here are actually implemented in Europe, the EU will be a much-changed and more integrated entity. Europe will have taken over another crucial element of traditional statehood and implemented reforms that for the first time have a real chance of addressing the true causes of populism in Europe. In doing so, it will have adapted its existing freedoms established in the early 1990s inside Schengen to a new 21st century reality as a major and permanent migration destination.

Immigration overhaul would be a far more important development in the long run for the European project than any plausible tinkering with euro area institutions.

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