How can it be explained that the European Commission’s Pact on Migration and Asylum and its political initiative are limited to treating human mobility as a threat and a source of internal instability?

Gonzalo Fanjul y Ana González-Páramo


The proposal of the new Pact on Migration and Asylum, presented by the European Commission on 23 September, creates cause for confusion from its first page. In a small box after paragraph two, the authors present a statistical snapshot of immigration in the European Union, in which the figures for the legal and orderly movement of immigrants clearly outnumber those for asylum applications and unauthorized arrivals; and in which the number of legal non-EU residents was eight times higher in 2019 than the total number of refugees hosted by EU States. This is a pattern of immigration that sustains the European economy and welfare model, and that will become even more essential in the coming decades.


If this is the starting point, how can it be explained that the bulk of the pact and its political initiative are limited to treating human mobility as a threat and a source of internal instability? Beyond the rhetorical packaging, this proposal is Europe speaking to itself, and fooling itself too. Instead of proposing an approach to governing human mobility that is aligned with the present obligations and future interests of the Union, the European Commission has chosen to dig deeper into the hole we are in, and continue its shortsighted balancing act between member states.


The negotiations which now follow will allow us to further examine and debate the details of this proposal, but a first reading of the pact suggests five priorities:


  1. Border management designed (and funded) to stop migration, not regulate it


Border control, deterrence, and migrant returns form the cornerstone of the proposal. A triple check – identity, health and security – is to be introduced on external borders, followed by an express screening of those eligible for asylum and those to be redirected for return. Despite this, the process could last up to twelve weeks, creating a legal and human rights limbo in a transit zone, and requiring stays or detentions in the same types of infamous, closed or semi-closed centre, as those which have featured prominently in the events of recent weeks.


Although an independent monitoring mechanism is proposed, special attention will have to be paid to procedural guarantees; the foreseeable increase in rejections; and the issue of transparency in the extraterritorial management of asylum and refugee obligations, which include the principle of non-refoulment. With the Dublin Regulation withdrawn, we will discover what the role of the EU is in assigning responsibilities to states, beyond the criterion of first country of entry.


From the institutional point of view, the position of European Returns Coordinator will be created, a European Asylum Agency will be established and Frontex will be further reinforced; its 10,000 armed agents of the European Border and Coast Guard will begin patrolling in 2021. This constitutes an immense investment in bureaucracy, personnel and technology that will go directly into the pockets of the migration control industry, and indirectly to migrant smuggling groups. To set up this system, it is calculated that an investment of 417,626 million euros will be required between 2021 and 2027, in addition to the29,872 million required for the reinforcement of the Eurodac biometric system.



  1. European lack of solidarity à la carte


The flexibility and empathy that are lacking in external border management are evident when it comes to meeting the needs of the member states themselves. The aim is not only to avoid overloading the front-line countries, but also to discourage secondary movements within Schengen, a disturbing problem for the EU. In response to this last issue, the pact incorporates incentives for asylum seekers to stay in the country which is responsible for processing their case. These are facilitating family reunification during the waiting period; expanding the concept of family to include siblings; and promoting better integration by facilitating education, access to work and residence. The pact waives the imposition of a mandatory relocation system, but does require a choice between voluntary relocation or, failing that, return sponsorships or other types of contributions and operational support. This approach will require deft governance and coordination by the European Commission and the European agencies. It will probably be the biggest hurdle in the looming legislative process.


  1. Labor mobility: vagueness and gaps in an area where the EU has much at stake


Buried on pages twenty-five and twenty-six of the twenty-eight that make up the pact is the section on the mobility of workers and their families. The Commission itself recognizes the importance of this issue and the fact that ‘the EU is currently losing the global race for talent’. Even so, here it falls short.


The Labor Mobility Partnerships initiative estimates that, in the absence of immigration, OECD countries would lose 92 million workers by 2050. By this time, they will also have an additional 96 million pensioners. Considering current forecasts on the automation of a number of economic sectors, the organization concludes that there is no future for European economies or welfare states without the abundant and continuous contribution of non-EU workers.


This is the elephant in the immigration debate room. Achieving the levels of labour immigration that the EU needs will first require a sophisticated analysis of the future of our labour markets and the skills and knowledge required to equip them. Second, it will require innovative tools that ensure legal, safe and predictable migration pathways. Finally, it needs an institutional and regulatory framework that is flexible, adaptive and based on strong agreements with the countries of origin.


Do not expect to find any of these elements in the Commission’s proposal, which is limited to rehashing existing models (such as the Blue Card for highly qualified workers) and disconcerting staff by proposing to ‘open a debate’ at some point on the matter (was this not exactly what the pact was supposed to do?). The proposal does include some seemingly minor but highly valuable points, such as the extension of Schengen benefits to long-term residents. However, these are almost incidental when the issue deserves to be treated with much more depth and interest.


  1. Migration governance is reduced to twisting the arms of the countries of origin and transit


Perhaps it is at this point that the self-absorption of the European proposal is most evident. Beyond the rhetorical references to the strategic nature of relationships with countries of origin and transit, the pact insists on the same unilateral and utilitarian logic that the EU has been cultivating for years (particularly, since the reception crisis of 2014-16). One way or another, whether by cooperation or economic and diplomatic pressure, the EU seeks the complicity of third countries in the remote control, care and return of migrants.


It is frustrating to see to what extent the logic of the ‘root causes of migration’ (poverty, unemployment) and the magical potential of development aid to solve them has permeated the European discourse. At this point, when the literature has overwhelmingly shown that, at best, aid offers incentives for emigration rather than incentives to remain, the Commission’s stubbornness can only be understood as an exercise in cynicism and realpolitik.


There is one last issue. Has the EU completely forgotten about the Global Compact for Migration, in which some of its states invested so much political capital just two years ago? There is not a single reference in the texts to an agreement that, even with all its limitations, constitutes the foundations of an architecture for migration governance. If it is a question of working with others, the compact provides the framework and further agreements can be founded on bilateral and plurilateral programmes, such as those that the EU has already explored with the Ibero-American region and West Africa.


  1. Integration and inclusion are relegated again


The efforts of the Commission to change immigration rhetoric and detach it from the context of crisis and security is appreciable, despite the fact the content of the pact contradicts that language. However, relegating the measures related to integration and inclusion to last place in the list of proposals does not help give greater importance to the narrative effort. Despite being state competencies, the text recognises the integration of migrants and their families as key to their social inclusion. As such, integration should be encouraged with at least with as much enthusiasm as other goals related to border and migration control, which also fall under national competence. An Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-24 has been announced for the end of the year. It is currently being subjected to a broad consultation process, which should correct the serious omissions in this pact.


Ultimately, the usefulness of this type of pact is derived from its ability to respond affirmatively to some basic questions: Will it contribute to providing our economies with the workers they need? Will it make it possible to manage arrivals at the external borders in a more orderly manner? Will it guarantee the EU’s obligations regarding the protection of migrants and human rights? Will it facilitate coexistence in increasingly diverse societies? Will it contribute to the development of the countries of origin?


The answer to each of these questions is negative or uncertain, at least with the current version of the text. However, the EU is at a crossroads where it must choose between two great models of society and globalization present in world politics.


When the European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, says that her proposal ‘is not going to please anyone’, perhaps this is not due to her political astuteness. On the contrary, there are times when debates must be won, not arbitrated. In this case, perpetuating the status quo is not maintaining equidistance, but rather yielding to the narrow, self-harming vision of identity proposed by national-populism. We must all stand up in the coming weeks, starting with a Spanish government that has much more at stake in this matter than the management of a small humanitarian crisis on its border.