Immigration fight returns to Europe – Politico

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The fight has become fierce — and public.

Austria is openly accusing Hungary of allowing undocumented migrants to cross its border. France has attacked Italy for diverting migrant rescue ships from its ports. Bulgaria has been outraged after the Dutch prime minister suggested migrants could quickly enter the country from Turkey with a €50 bribe.

With the number of people entering the EU illegally reaching levels not seen since 2016 and European leaders eyeing a series of electoral tests, including the 2024 European Parliament elections, immigration is back on the EU agenda — in the worst way.

The bloc’s leaders, gathered in Brussels for a special summit this week, are expected to debate the EU’s overall migration strategy for the first time since 2018. But they are not expected to solve it or make much progress.

Obstacles: Politics. Everyone wants to see us take a strong stand on this issue; Voters can hardly afford to be perceived as willing to compromise what they see as their national interest.

“I’ve learned over the years that it’s great for the press to take a very principled stance on these issues,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told a small group of reporters last month. But when EU leaders come together, “we have to find practical solutions that somehow reach a majority view. And ultimately, it has to be unanimous.”

Rutte should know. As one of the bloc’s longest-serving leaders, he has been grappling with the issue since 2010. Under pressure ahead of provincial elections in March, he is keen to show he is protecting Dutch interests. Root was one of the few leaders who pushed to put the issue on the leaders’ agenda — even if he played down expectations.

“I don’t think that on February 9 and 10 we will say, ‘Now the problem is solved.’ But we will have a sharper idea of ​​what we need to continue to do,” he told reporters ahead of the summit. The idea is that these decisions “will lead to further action in March and April.”

increasing arrival

Migration occupies a unique place in the Brussels policy spectrum.

While conventional thinking dictates that the toughest issues are best tackled by EU leaders around the European Council table, the dominant theory in Brussels is that migration policy can actually only proceed from the spotlight.

For now, that doesn’t seem to be an option. After a standstill during the Covid pandemic, the number of people entering the EU without a permit is increasing.

“The EU has seen a large increase in irregular arrivals on routes across the Mediterranean and the Western Balkans, the highest number since 2016,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote in a letter to leaders ahead of the summit.

EU border agency Frontex estimated that around 330,000 people entered the EU “irregularly” last year, a 64 percent increase over 2021. While this number is well below the peak of the 2015-16 migration surge, when around 1.8 million migrants and refugees entered the bloc outside the normal channel, it is on top of the nearly 4 million Ukrainian refugees currently living in the EU.

For von der Leyen, resurfacing the issue is a challenge. Following his 2020 proposal to overhaul the EU’s process for processing and distributing migrants, the Commission president has tried to soften the issue with two notable exceptions.

The Commission reacted quickly after Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine, taking just 10 days to grant Ukrainians the right to live and work in the EU. It acted quickly to counter an attempt by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to “flood” the EU with migrants in 2021.

But for the most part, von der Leyen seems content to let national leaders lead the way. An agreement between 18 EU countries in August last year to redistribute around 10,000 migrants rescued at sea by countries such as Italy was seen as a sign of what could be achieved once the Klig Light is turned off.

‘Back with a vengeance’

Now, however, the spotlight is very much back.

Recent gains by far-right politicians such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, France’s Marine Le Pen, Spain’s Vox Party and the Sweden Democrats have spurred mainstream conservatives to harden their positions.

Manfred Weber, president of the European People’s Party – the pan-European umbrella of conservative parties ranging from von der Leyen’s German Christian Democrats to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – seized on the issue ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections.

“We are sleeping through a new immigration crisis,” Weber recently told Politico’s Brussels Playbook.

“The capacity to receive migrants via the Balkan and Mediterranean routes is exhausted,” he warned. “Since the EU failed to adopt a comprehensive policy after the last migration crisis in 2015, the issue has become taboo. It is now coming back with a vengeance.”

Indeed, the issue has become a flashpoint among EU governments.

Austria has accused Hungary – a major entry point for migrants into the EU – of not properly registering new arrivals passing through the country to the west (a charge Hungary denies).

“I have never hidden that all states, including Hungary, must comply with applicable EU law,” said Austria’s Europe Minister Caroline Edstadler.

And in November, after a rescue ship carrying 230 migrants was redirected to France when Italy refused to dock it, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin warned of “extremely serious consequences” for relations between the two countries and said Paris would suspend plans to take them. Refugees from Italy.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev also public beating In Rutte, the Dutch prime minister defended Bulgaria’s decision to block its bid to join the EU’s visa-free Schengen area, alleging that migrants can cross the country with a €50 euro bribe.

Commission proposal

Growing anger over action plans to tackle migration through the Central Mediterranean and Western Balkans has forced the Commission to take up the issue again.

In his letter to EU leaders, von der Leyen laid out a few piecemeal proposals that, he said, would make an immediate difference.” Some, such as strengthening the bloc’s external borders or facilitating the repatriation of rejected asylum seekers, are likely to win support from assembled leaders this week.

Others, insisting on registering migrants in the country they arrive or agreeing on a common list of safe, non-EU countries to send migrants out of the bloc, are likely to prove more difficult.

Another sticking point could be the use of EU money to build fences. Excited Austrians, backed by European People’s Party leaders like Weber, are pushing the proposal forward. But the commission has consistently rejected this, arguing that erecting barriers only redirects migrants to other entry points.

What is unlikely to be achieved – as long as the issue is in the full light of European politics – is agreement on the Commission’s proposed overhaul in 2020.

For now, the so-called new deal on migration and asylum has been relegated to the bottom of the agenda, according to a draft text seen by Politico, on what leaders are expected to agree on. The text calls on leaders to “complete the task” as they “regularly” return to the issue.

If there’s one thing to take comfort in for von der Leyen, it’s that the bar for claiming forward momentum is low.

The last time EU leaders discussed the bloc’s migration strategy, in 2018, they sparred in the early hours before finally agreeing on a plan to send back rejected asylum seekers.

It was never implemented.