Is the EU Gradually Renouncing its Fundamental Values in Order to Better Protect its External Borders?

| November 2016
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Police car near Hungary-Serbia border barrier. Photo Credit: Bor Benedek

Police car near Hungary-Serbia border barrier. Photo Credit: Bor Benedek

Criticism by a number of NGOs and policy commentators about the European Union’s wavering observance of some of its core fundamental values has been mounting over the past few months. One strategic area in which such criticism has been most acute has been the EU’s evolving immigration and border security policy.

In 2015, over one million migrants and asylum seekers entered the European Union, mostly through the bloc’s external borders in Greece and Italy. This was an unprecedented level of immigration, prompting some to refer to it as the greatest exodus since World War II. While in slight decline, the number of immigrants and asylum seekers during the first ten months of this year has continued to exceed the continent’s typical levels of inflows.

The EU’s political and operational responses to such a pervasive phenomenon have been incremental at best. Initially, they relied almost exclusively on the member states’ capacity, and indeed their willingness, to contain some of the most adverse effects of such a mass displacement. They have also assumed that there would be a readiness to share responsibility with those member states that are most exposed geographically to such mass arrivals. One of the EU’s flagship initiatives in this respect has been the EU Relocation Plan, which was adopted in September 2015 and which entails the redistribution of asylum seekers based in Greece and Italy to less affected member states on the basis of a distribution key taking account of various objective criteria.

To date, only 6,925 asylum seekers have been relocated from Greece and Italy, out of a legally binding pledge to relocate 160,000 people by September 2017. Responsibility sharing in the field of immigration and refugee policy is clearly a notion that has never been fully endorsed by states, at least in practice. This became even more perspicuous at the September 16 informal summit of the 27 heads of state or government in Bratislava, when the four Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) issued a joint statement stressing that EU migration policy should be based on the principle of “flexible” and “voluntary” solidarity and that member states should be allowed to decide on specific forms of contribution, taking account of their experience and potential.

It is against this background that a major shift in the EU’s border security doctrine occurred earlier this year, when the notion that key countries of origin and transit should be fully involved in the bloc’s immigration policy was first tested and gradually expanded upon. So, how has this new doctrine materialized and why has it been generating such an overwhelming degree of contention?

The first major initiative under the EU’s new border security strategy has been the EU-Turkey agreement on migration, which was launched at the end of March 2016 and which stipulates that for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. Despite having reduced the average number of daily arrivals of migrants from Turkey to Greece to around 80, compared with almost 2,900 at the height of the crisis one year ago, and therefore despite having emerged as one of the most effective responses to the migration crisis since 2015, the EU-Turkey agreement continues to generate significant rancour among several NGOs and migration policy experts, who rightly question Turkey’s status as a safe country of return, as well as a number of other issues of legality.

But the outsourcing of the EU’s border security strategy to third countries with a potentially poor human rights record and an often discretionary use of rule of law has not been confined to Turkey alone. In June 2016 a Migration Partnership Framework, aiming to involve key African countries of origin and transit in the prevention of illegal migration to Europe, was also adopted by the EU executive. Launched initially in Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, and Ethiopia, the framework consists of specific partnership agreements with major countries of origin and transit, backed by substantial financial support and technical assistance packages from the European Union, to help these countries improve their means and procedures for managing irregular migration directed to the EU.

The adoption of the Migration Partnership Framework has aroused even more criticism than the EU-Turkey agreement from a large number of organizations and commentators, all of whom have pointed to the dangers of placing Europe in a situation of great vulnerability by entrusting mostly undemocratic regimes with key elements of the bloc’s border security policy. In a joint statement to EU leaders published in June of this year, more than 100 human rights organizations stressed that the new framework risks cementing a shift toward a foreign policy that serves one single objective—to curb migration—to the detriment of Europe’s fundamental values and its ability, historically, to use aid as a vehicle to promote human rights.

Given all this, would it now be fair to suggest that the European Union has indeed renounced some of its core principles in the course of developing its new migration policy strategy? The first point that needs to be made is that the EU’s approach to public development aid in third countries may indeed be undergoing profound changes. Relations with African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries have traditionally been regulated by the Cotonou Agreement, which foresees that in return for EU aid these countries should respect a range of political, technical, and democratic conditions. Recent EU migration policy initiatives strongly suggest that the “human rights conditionality” that had traditionally applied to the granting of EU aid may now have been lifted and replaced with the exclusive requirement to cooperate actively on border control procedures and the readmission of deported citizens. It is therefore likely that aid conditionality will feature prominently in the discussions leading up to the negotiation of the post-Cotonou agreement in 2018.

The second point that needs to be stressed is that the outsourcing of some elements of the EU’s border security policy to third countries has ensued largely as a result of the poor interstate cooperation and the lack of a common migration policy vision within the European Union, let alone the absence of any active endorsement of key notions such as intra-EU solidarity and responsibility sharing. This is of course in addition to the growing populist discourse ahead of a number of major national elections in Europe over the coming twelve months.

In view of the EU’s failure to establish a fully functional immigration policy entailing a balanced and effective contribution from each member state, the strategic importance of investing in the external and multi-stakeholder dimensions of the bloc’s border security policy, and therefore of using European aid as a lever of influence in this area, should not be condemned ex facie. However, what the increasing outsourcing of the EU’s border security strategy to third countries will indeed require urgently is the establishment of a fully fledged set of fundamental rights guidelines and monitoring mechanisms to review the EU’s compliance with adequate human rights standards, the principle of non-refoulement, and fair access to asylum procedures. This is currently a very critical missing link in the EU’s new migration policy initiatives, and establishing it would at least contribute to breaking the ongoing dialogue of the deaf in this key policy area between European policymakers and civil society.

Solon Ardittis is managing director of Eurasylum, a European research and consulting organization specializing in migration and asylum policy affairs on behalf of EU and national public authorities. He is also a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) and co-editor of Migration Policy Practice, a bimonthly journal published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Twitter: @Eurasylum.

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Category: Migration, Online Exclusive

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