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The Road Ahead: the EU Migrant Crisis in 2016

FILE - A group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans aboard a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued 25 miles off the Libyan coast.
FILE - A group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans aboard a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued 25 miles off the Libyan coast.

An interview with migration expert Elizabeth Collett

Following an interview with top EU officials about the current state of Europe's immigration crisis per VOA's Adrift: The Invisible African Diaspora —​ we asked Elizabeth Collett, director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute, Europe, to provide some background on the nuts of bolts of existing EU immigration policy, and whether recent forecasts that indicate an increased number of arrivals for 2016 are accurate.

VOA: The European Commission's 2015 Autumn Forecast projects another 3 million migrants in the coming year. Do you feel that's a reasonably accurate number?

Collett: That's a number that comes from an economic forecast that was put forward by Moscovici's team [Pierre Moscovici European Commissioner, Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs]. Having looked very briefly at where they got that number from, I don't think that's a reliable number. That said, it's really difficult to make accurate predictions about what's going to happen in the next few years in terms of the numbers of migrants arriving in Europe. There a lot of different variables, including real-time geopolitics and foreign policy — i.e., conflicts brewing, ongoing, ending in the European neighborhood — and whether the EU will take further measures to prevent arrivals in the European Union itself. I think all you can say is that, at this point, none of the drivers impelling people towards Europe have disappeared.

VOA: From a governance perspective, in terms of managing Europe's irregular arrivals, how is realistic is it that the responsibility should fall to the EU — as is often portrayed by some media outlets and critics of EU policy — as opposed to the responsibility of individual European nations?

Collett: Right now it does fall on individual member states. So, each EU member state is still responsible for managing their own external borders. They're also responsible for managing their own asylum system and immigration systems writ large. What the EU has done is create a set of coordinating mechanisms: basic standards for the reception and adjudication of asylum seekers [and] common rules in terms of the management of external borders. They created these baselines because there is a Schengen area with no internal borders, which means each country has to rely on the country next door doing the job at least as well as they do it in order for this to function. Now, that looks good on paper and in theory as long as everyone lives up to their commitments, but we have seen this is not the case in many countries. Also, geographic realities mean that responsibility falls extremely unevenly across the European Union: obviously countries that have long external borders or are more geographically proximate to particular crises will find themselves receiving larger numbers of people initially. Countries that do take those responsibilities seriously — and here, I think, Sweden is probably top of the list — find themselves receiving far more claims than the countries next door, because asylum seekers understand that they would be safe and treated well in those countries. So, it's ultimately member-state competence and responsibility overshadowed by a set of rules at EU level. But, ultimately, it is a very national determination about how seriously they take those responsibilities and standards, which is of course the source of this tension. We're in a halfway house between a European regime and a national regime.

VOA: And exactly how binding are EU-level rules and standards?

Collett: Formally speaking, they are legally binding on EU member states, and in September of the last year the EU Commission started infringement proceedings towards a number of member states that had not fully “transposed” EU legislation — which is to say, member states that haven’t translated EU legislation into their own national sets of rules. But repercussions of infringement proceedings are fairly weak. While the infringement proceedings are typically the EU's main tool for addressing countries that haven't transposed, the reality of the infringement procedures is that they take a long time. It's a very bureaucratic process and can sometimes end up in a court case that can take years and years to resolve. So it doesn't have a huge effect, normally, on EU member states; political pressure has a much greater effect if placed by other key member states. Here, for example, Germany has been telling [non-compliant countries] "you have to do these things, you must do these things." So these EU rules and standards are binding in a formal sense, but in reality the penalties for non-compliance with some of these standards that have been set for asylum seekers are fairly weak, particularly at a time of crisis. Managing follow-up and managing to meet reception standards when countries are seeing exponential rises in the number of [asylum] applications has proven really hard.

VOA: And beyond this, a given member state's level of voluntary compliance may depend on how much that particular country has invested in being an EU member state or maintaining its status as such, right?

Collett: Yes. And it also depends on how they conceptualize this relationship within the EU. And we really saw this first with the euro crisis and now through this asylum crisis or refugee crisis or migration crisis or whatever you want to call it. For example, around five years ago, EU member states realized that while the Greek government had formally transposed all EU-level legislation for building an asylum system, they hadn't actually built an asylum system, triggering a great deal of approbation; the EU created an action plan and started funding the Greek government. The Greek government, meanwhile, had other things on its mind — a financial crisis that was cutting extremely deeply. And so, historically speaking, in some cases we see that it's a question of prioritization: i.e., is this the main thing on everyone's minds? For some EU member states — Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria — this is the top priority. Right now, for other states, it is just not important. But then there's a more complex situation wherein countries very strongly buy into some parts of the "immigration/asylum EU world," but not other parts. And towards the end of last year you saw Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Slovakia come together and call themselves "the friends of Schengen," in which they jointly stated: "We will defend Schengen in the absence of internal borders to our dying breath." It was a very political statement about how they didn't want to see other countries — namely Germany, Austria and others — destroy Schengen because of asylum seekers. For those countries that are reimposing border controls, Schengen is intrinsically linked to meeting obligations on asylum; you cannot maintain a system of free movement internally — or free crossing of borders within the EU — unless everyone is on the same page with respect to offering asylum, developing capacity within an asylum system, and meeting the standards that have been set at the EU level. For those core member states, asylum rules are a corollary of the Schengen system. But for the Central European member states, Schengen is a completely separate issue. And there you see fundamental difference in philosophy that's really, really hard to overcome, whereby central European member states are just really not sure this is their problem.

VOA: You've written that confronting the migration crisis requires a whole-governance approach that's currently lacking in Brussels. Has the 2015 reorganization of the EU Commission improved its ability to address the crisis?

Collett: On paper there's certainly recognition that better coordination is necessary. And over the last year, we had seen a foreign policy on migration led from DG home [Directorates-General Migration and Home Affairs], which is the department responsible for migration affairs. You've now seen the External Action Service take that role more centrally, so it's moved up high enough in prioritization, for example, that it led this recent EU/African Union heads of state conference in Malta in November. So, that service has moved up the ladder politically. In terms of a coordinated approach, however, there is still, I think, quite poor coordination, but also quite different philosophies just within in European Commission, and the same thing is replicated at national level. In other worlds, most EU member states suffer from the same absence of coordination and differing philosophies. So, for example, interior actors — actors responsible for home affairs and immigration policy — would like to see funding conditionality become part-and-parcel of EU foreign policy: that you cut funding for states that are not willing to cooperate on migration management and asylum issues, whereas the development actors are deeply, deeply and fundamentally opposed to this way of working. It's these development actors who would say, "You cannot cut development funding because someone doesn't cooperate on one aspect of foreign policy, however important it is to you, because the people who are hurt by that are citizens, not government, and ultimately you are not going to resolve any of the tensions inherent within migration policy." And so that debate goes on. The middle ground is the "more for more" principle, which is the idea that you pay countries more when they do cooperate, rather than take money away, which was really exemplified in the EU-Turkey deal.

VOA: In terms of prospective EU policy in 2016, is there anything that could be a game-changer?

Collett: So, the European Commission has put the building blocks in place from its point of view, which is a deal with Turkey to try and limit the number of people arriving through the Western Balkans route. You now have this sort of management of flow through the Western Balkans route, which is primarily centering on the Greek-Macedonian border and letting certain nationalities through. But everyone is holding their breath for May, for several reasons. First, as the weather improves, there's an expectation that more people will try to make the crossing that becomes very dangerous in winter, even though numbers haven't dropped as much as I think people expected them to over the winter period so far. And second, the countries that implemented temporary border controls within the Schengen area in mid-October — for example, on the German-Austrian border — EU rules allow member nations to maintain those controls for only a limited period of time. This means that by mid-May they will have to decide whether to lift those controls or maintain them. So you will then, in mid-May have a big political discussion about the future of Schengen, when member states will grapple with the question of whether to change rules to manage this crisis. That is, "do we accept that we have to lift borders or do we say goodbye to Schengen?" And although the latter, I think, is nearly impossible, you'll see a flash moment there.

Also, I think they'll be greater investment on the foreign policy and bilateral negotiations with key third [non-EU] countries over the next month. And I think the difficulty for many EU states along this line is that, first, they don't have much money left — or at least there is a funding shortfall that is global, and do they have enough money raised to manage the asylum populations nationally as well as maintain humanitarian development aid? And, second, the public are becoming increasingly concerned, and we've seen a shift toward the more populist parties in more countries. And a number of countries are really concerned about what happens should any of those parties gain power and what would subsequently happen to the asylum system and asylum principles. So, yes, there's a lot of stuff to look for this year.

VOA: Can you speculate on which way the Schengen debate may go this March?

Collett: I think it will depend a great deal on whether the number of arrivals from Turkey has decreased sufficiently, and capacities increased sufficiently in places like Austria and Germany to be able to deal with those new arrivals, to allow them to feel comfortable to lift those border controls. I think the instinct in Germany would be to lift them if at all possible, rather than change rules or walk away from Schengen. Ultimately I think the longer-term questions are probably more important: What is the future of Schengen when it's now become clear that not everyone is signed up to it on the same basis? And of course that's a more philosophical debate to be had within the European Union. But ultimately, the pragmatic point of view is: it's extremely expensive to reinstall borders across the EU as a whole. Not just the direct cost of human resources and the physical cost of maintaining internal borders, but the indirect cost that come from a commuter taking an hour longer to get to work; goods and services crossing borders, etc... Quantifying those indirect costs, I think, hasn't really been done yet. But they would be significant, so the European economy as a whole would suffer if we lost Schengen. So, ultimately, I think people are keen to see Schengen maintained.

VOA: I've assumed consideration of trade variables alone would keep Schengen intact.

Collett: Yeah, and I haven't seen any numbers or estimates on that, but certainly. And the frustration of people who work cross-border; [even along the] German-Austrian border, there are a lot of people who depend on that. You can see the numbers that the Danish transport companies have put out after threats to close the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. If you look at some of those figures that train companies and hauling companies have put out — the added costs to their businesses on a day-to-day basis — you can see that it's significant for the private sector.

VOA: Beyond primary push and pull factors that compel people to undertake these dangerous journeys, what do you make of the opinion of some migration experts that more lives could be saved not by addressing root causes via development abroad and/or by tightening domestic border security, but by getting EU economic realities synced up with its prevailing migration policies?

Collett: For me, it's true that it's not a case of preventing people arriving in Europe and dealing with root causes: As any development expert will tell you, development policy alone won't limit migration. In fact, it might give people more expectations of mobility in the future. So, the idea that you address root causes and migration goes down doesn't hold. Also, the idea that you can do that within 5 to ten years or the timelines that the policymakers are thinking about is ridiculous. We're talking about generational policies that have still yet to bear fruit. The timelines just do not match up. And so there is a lack of coordination between migration ambitions, trade policy, agricultural policy — you know, all aspects of foreign policy put forward by the EU and its member states. There does seem be some fundamental disconnect. But one of the things I think that is overlooked is the idea of trying to create regional economic hubs — for example, in sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than thinking about trying to develop everywhere, but instead thinking about regional mobility, which is much more accessible for a larger portion of the deeply impoverished. You know, moving south-south, well, what can the EU do there to help create industrial hubs or places where there is growth and development and job opportunities that do offer people a different kind of life? There are things that are much more specific and perhaps short-term that aren't necessarily about limiting mobility, but are about trying to create opportunities that don't require people taking extremely dangerous journeys to what, as I'm sure some of your subjects know, can often be a very disappointing end. You know, the disappointment upon arrival. Having spent so much money — for so many people, it's huge. And [they come to find] it's not necessarily the life that had been put forward by smugglers and others, or by family members who've gone and reported an overly-rosy view of what Europe is like.

VOA: And you're familiar with then-Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini's 2011 proposal for a so-called Marshall Plan for the Mediterranean basin, jobs programs and development on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Collett: And I think that was a discussion about 4 or 5 years ago, probably when the Arab Spring really taking hold. One of the EU failures, I think, was the inability to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the Arab Spring fully. It came out with a lot of policy papers and a lot of wishy-washy words. If there was ever a moment to say, okay, let's look at this youth population, let's see what we can do to make a different future for them. And that was a missed opportunity from the perspective of the European Union, because everyone was scared that that entire youth population would look towards European Union and say, "we want to come there." And if you look at a country like Turkey, if you talk to young people in Turkey, they're not that interested in coming to Europe. Europe is dying for them. They're interested in the economic opportunities in Turkey and elsewhere. You know, I think the fear of the numbers that may come prevents a lot of smart policymaking.