As the night sky over Brussels hinted at the coming dawn, bloc leadership emerged from the EU Council summit early last Friday exhausted, but triumphant. Stretching past 4:30am, the June 28-29 meeting produced a plan for collective action to tackle present and future migration challenges in the Eurozone, which, to the relief of everyone in the room, won approval from all 28 Member States.
The consensus came at a critical period, assuaging heightened tensions both within and among EU nations grappling with divergent migration and asylum policy aspirations. Presenting a unified front on multinational migratory reform is critical for bloc harmony; however, the challenges that lie ahead will be even more difficult to traverse. EU Council President, Donald Tusk, acknowledged, “We have managed to reach an agreement in the European Council – but this is in fact the easiest part of the task, compared to what awaits us on the ground, when we start implementing it”.
EU leadership rallied around the need to strengthen and control external borders, provide support for countries of origin, and reduce “secondary movements” of migrants entering the bloc – those who register in one country before moving on to another.
A major component of the compromise included a Franco-Italian proposal for closed control centres in first-destination countries along Europe’s southern rim. Meant to alleviate pressure on frontline states, the processing centres will act essentially as refugee camps collectively managed and funded by the EU, and erected only with the express, voluntary permission of the host nation.
The Council also pledged greater support to both Frontex and the Libyan Coastguard, which patrols the waters off Africa’s most popular launch point for smugglers’ boats headed to Europe. In the agreement, all vessels must respect the law and “must not obstruct operation of the Libyan Coastguard” – perhaps a nod to recent remarks by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. On a recent trip to Tripoli, Salvini reiterated his long-held belief that charity vessels facilitate illegal migrant access into Europe, and that they should relinquish patrol duties to local authorities.
Leveraging a hardline stance, Italy managed to win big at the summit as the EU Council pledged greater financial support to communities affected by a large influx of migrants, in particular, Sicily and Italy’s remote islands. Spain’s new socialist Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, also welcomed such support: despite the net migratory decline in Europe, Spain is receiving an ever greater number of Moroccans at its borders.
Keeping longevity in mind, leaders also looked to allocate relief and development funds to migrants’ countries of origin in an effort to reduce so-called “push factors”. Earmarking a renewable 500 million euros to the EU Trust Fund for Africa, the agreement cites “tackling the migration problem at its core requires a partnership with Africa aiming at a substantial socio-economic transformation of the African continent”. Looking outside of Africa, leaders also agreed to launch the second tranche of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, rounding out the three billion euros pledged to Ankara as part of the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal.
A more controversial initiative, the Council explored the potential of disembarkment platforms set up in “third countries” outside the EU. A policy of containment designed to restrict migrant flows to Europe, local authorities will be tasked with distinguishing refugees from economic migrants. In practice, these offshore centres can only function if migrants are detained, implicating significant human rights concerns. Such concerns are compounded if nations like Libya, which has a strong history of human rights abuse, lay host. However, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both insist on close collaboration between the EU and host nations, and that such disembarkment platforms be subject to international law and the strict scrutiny of both UN refugee and migration agencies. Though some leaders pushed to exclude UN supervision, Macron insisted “this idea was rejected at the table… these do not conform to our values”.
Ultimately, the outcomes of the summit were received positively by IGOs and NGOs alike; the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is reportedly “very pleased at the solidarity and consensus”. But still others are dissatisfied, alleging the agreement accomplished only the bare minimum for the sake of political expediency and did little to solve long-term challenges. Many tough questions – such as how to distribute refugees among EU Member States, how to handle another massive influx of migrants, and how to reform or replace the Dublin Regulation – remain unanswered.
However modest, the breakthrough represents tangible progress few would have thought possible in the EU’s current climate of political tension. Ultimately, the EU leaders settled for short-term fixes in lieu of inaction. The conciliatory nature of the summit and concerted strides toward partnership in tackling the migration crisis illustrate individual Member States’ enduring interest in preserving the Union. Macron hailed European that cooperation had “won the day” while Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte was able to return home promising reprieve: “Italy is no longer alone”.
Still, as bloc leaders debated during the ten hour meeting, thousands of kilometres away an inflatable boat carrying 120 people capsized off the coast of Libya. A German news outlet reported at least 100 individuals were missing, and at least three bodies have been recovered. This all too common narrative serves to remind EU leaders and the world that progress and policy reform are immediate humanitarian imperatives, and that compassionately minded collaboration cannot wait.
Prime Minister Sanchez considers this the first of many, much-needed, whole-of-Europe responses: “It is no longer the case that when a migrant off the coast of a European country, the member country has to take care of him. Now, when someone arrives in Malta, Spain, Italy or Greece, that person is arriving in the European Union”.