The European Commission’s proposal to overhaul the EU's migration policy by getting member states to agree to take in asylum seekers or take charge of sending back those refused asylum is a retreat from the core principle of solidarity that has underpinned the European Union since its foundation.
The so-called Migration Pact has some good elements: It emphasises the speedier return of economic migrants to their place of origin when asylum claims are rejected, the strengthening of the EU’s external borders, and the creation of new legal routes for the resettlement of refugees within the EU.
Five years ago some two million migrants entered Europe from the Middle East and Africa. The reality of huge waves of people arriving in makeshift boats on Europe’s southern shores challenged the EU's external frontier, and bitterly divided member states.
As frontline southern states, Italy and Greece shouldered much of the burden while eastern states, especially Poland and Hungary, refused to agree to a system where all member states would be obliged to take in a proportionate number of asylum seekers. In the end, an unholy alliance with Turkey to take Syrian war refugees in return for financial support helped to stem the crisis momentarily. Germany also took in 1m refugees.
The commission says it is now determined that countries such as Greece and Italy should no longer be expected to shoulder the whole burden and describes the new pact as a compulsory system to manage migration after years of division over how to respond to the crisis.
It is right that Greece and Italy should get relief but if fairness is at the root of this new system, the commission must insist that all member states take in at least some migrants. Where is the logic or solidarity in allowing states like Poland and Hungary which are the top two major beneficiaries of EU funds to refuse to take a single migrant while others continue to take in thousands?
Under the new plan, states that refuse to take migrants will be asked instead to help in the logistics of returning some migrants to a list of ‘approved countries’ — whatever that means. Overseeing such a convoluted system would be, in itself, a logistical nightmare. What form would such help take? Would it be financial or operational and who would approve it?
As well as that, it is likely that this would actually encourage more member states to refuse to take in asylum seekers, opting instead for the less burdensome alternative.
The new pact, which has been supported strongly by German chancellor Angela Merkel, proposes a “fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity between member states” but it is likely to achieve nothing of the kind. Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen has described it as a “European solution... to restore citizens’ confidence” and rebuild trust between member states. In fact, this timid and expedient European solution to a European problem avoids the fundamental issue and may do more to divide the EU than unify it.