After a tense night of negotiations, the European Union’s 28 countries announced that they had reached an agreement on migration on Friday. But many observers are doubtful as to how solid the deal really is.
The EU 28 agreed that they would share the burden of welcoming refugees; that “controlled centres” would be set up within the bloc to accommodate them; that “regional disembarkation platforms” would be set up to process migrants outside of Europe; and that the EU would invest in strengthening its external borders.
However, at a time when arguments over the docking of rescue vessels show European co-operation to be at a low ebb – and at a time when opposition to taking in migrants is more entrenched than ever – the measures announced in the EU agreement seem unclear and far from unanimously agreed upon.
What exactly does the agreement say? And will it improve conditions for the thousands of people trying to enter Europe?
‘Regional disembarkation platforms’
The "regional disembarkation platforms" are amongst the main stumbling blocks. This is still a vaguely described concept, which the agreement says should be “explored quickly”. To deter crossings in the Mediterranean, migrants rescued at sea from outside Europe could stay at these places, in co-operation with two UN agencies, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
But the problem is that, thus far, no third country has offered to host such places to receive migrants who have been rescued in international waters, where there is the vexed question of how to distinguish between irregular migrants and eligible asylum seekers entering the EU in accordance with international law.
This particular measure – and indeed the agreement as a whole – constitute “a real fiasco”, according to Patrick Martin-Genier, a European politics specialist at Sciences-Po in Paris.
“We agree that we don’t agree on anything – and then we ask the European Council and European Commission to consider this idea for regional disembarkation platforms outside Europe, something no one wants, whether it be Libya, Algeria, Morocco or Albania,” he said in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Thierry Allafort-Duverger, director general of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), expressed a similar view. Recalling the urgency to respond to the shipwrecks (last week was the deadliest of the year in the Mediterranean, with at least 220 people drowning, according to the NGO), and the plight of migrants sent back to Libya, where many have suffered violence and abuse, he also told FRANCE 24 that: “There have been plans to set centres up in Niger, and they didn’t work; we outsource everything and don’t try to find European solutions to these problems.”
In the eyes of Yves Pascouau, an academic specialising in migration at the University of Nantes, this idea could be a way forward, “but if – and only if – people in these centres have the same access to the asylum procedure as those who have reached Europe".
“But it won’t work if we set up centres that reject 99% of asylum applications,” he told FRANCE 24. “People will still try to get into Europe illegally via the Mediterranean, through gangs of people smugglers, with all the danger that it entails; so to prevent deaths in the Mediterranean, we’ve got to create legal avenues for people to come to Europe, by providing visas to find a job, to study or to join family members.”
The agreement stipulates that migrants rescued in European waters must at first stay in “controlled centres”. In these places, it is envisaged that a distinction would be “swiftly” made between irregular migrants to be deported and legitimate asylum seekers to be distributed within the EU.
It is planned that these centres in member states will be set up on a voluntary basis, as would the sharing of refugees amongst EU countries.
“These controlled centres aim to reconcile two positions: that of Italy, which is protesting the disembarkation of rescue vessels on its territory, and that of the Visegrad group (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia), which doesn’t want to take in refugees,” Pascouau observed.
The agreement provided a fragile consensus by making the welcome and then reception of migrants voluntary, but this was broken a few hours after the agreement was signed, when French President Emmanuel Macron declared that, “France will not open reception centres for migrants who arrive in Europe because it is not a country in which migrants arrive first."
Macron insists that these “controlled centres” must be set up in the countries where migrants land, namely Italy, Greece and Spain. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte immediately poured cold water on the French president’s favoured approach, while Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini announced that the country’s ports would be closed “all summer” to NGOs rescuing migrants. “A clear failure of European co-operation,” Martin-Genier commented.
“I think this is really the first time that the European Union has faced a genuine challenge because in all previous cases where [EU institutions] took on national governments, they had nothing like the level of virulent opposition to their programme that they now face with the Italian government,” commented Steve Keen, a professor of politics at University College London, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Reinforced exterior borders
The deal calls for the EU to bolster the resources of the European border force, Frontex, by giving it more financial resources (although no figures were specified) and a broader mandate.
It also plans to strengthen support for the Libyan coastguard and calls on “all vessels operating in the Mediterranean” to “respect applicable laws and not hinder Libyan coastguard operations”. This went down particularly well with Italy and Malta.
“The only things that European countries seem to have agreed on are blocking people at the gates of Europe – regardless of their vulnerability and the horrors they are fleeing – and the demonisation of NGO search and rescue operations,” said MSF emergency officer Karline Kleijer.
“Europe is unable to take things further on immigration and asylum – especially seeing as governments are afraid of the populism that we’ve seen emerge in Italy, Hungary and Austria,” Martin-Genier concluded.
“The EU 28 aren’t facing a migration crisis – they’re facing a political crisis,” Pascouau argued. He proferred statistics in support of his view: one million migrants arrived in Europe in 2015, but that figure fell to 200,000 by 2017.
Will this crisis – whether migratory or political – be overcome? It seems dubious, especially at a time when Austria, in favour of a restrictive policy on taking in migrants, takes the rotating presidency of the EU on July 28.
This article was adapted from the original in French