After eight years of division, fighting and threats, the 27 reached an agreement in principle on Thursday on how to share or share the responsibilities and costs of hosting refugees and migrants. "Ministers have just agreed on a general approach on the Asylum and Migration Management Regulation and the Asylum Procedure Regulation," the Swedish presidency said after 20.40 at night, after a long meeting marked by the open battle between Italy and Germany. "These files constitute the two main pillars of the reform of the EU asylum system and are key to a good balance between responsibility and solidarity. The hard work over several Presidencies has contributed to the result we have achieved today," added the Swedish Government.
In reality, the issue is not resolved. This procedure was the most complicated part, but not the last, and the issue will continue to cause headaches. The Commission must polish some technical details, the spirit will be discussed in depth at the next European Council, and the next phase is the passage through the so-called trilogues, so there will be replications in the coming months. The aim was to come out with a pact, or at least sell it that way, but the discrepancies remain deep and among the delegations, at the Council's headquarters in Luxembourg, there have been more faces of concern than relief.
The ministers have agreed on the criteria and thresholds that they want to be applied when activating a mechanism of "flexible solidarity" that will force other countries to move when one of the partners is overwhelmed, either accepting in their own territory the relocation of a part of the arrivals or paying a compensation of 20,000 euros for each case it rejects. The ministers have decided by majority vote, but as happened eight years ago, forcing a decision somewhat in that way and not unanimity (as continental leaders had accepted) on such a sensitive issue is a guarantee of failure. Only Hungary and Poland voted against the deal, but Bulgaria, Malta, Slovakia and Lithuania abstained, showing the limitations.
The text must now go through the European Parliament, which although divided has always called for relocations to be mandatory and binding, not optional or exchangeable for money. "This agreement proves that there is trust between partners and a great spirit of solidarity between members. And that's very valuable. It is a historic moment. The trilogues do not scare me, it will not be the first time that we start with very different positions so I am convinced that we can reach an agreement, "said the Commissioner for the Interior, the also Swedish Ylva Johanson.
The day has been long and full of shocks. Italy's Matteo Piantedosi called the Swedish compromise text "a proposal doomed to failure." Nine other countries, each for their own reasons, also spoke against, but in the end there was a meeting point. For their part, Italy, Greece, Spain or Malta, above all, will have to commit themselves to doing their job better and completing the applications within a maximum period of six months, with the help of Frontex if necessary. This agreement also extends the period during which a State is responsible for migrants arriving in its territory, from 24 months compared to the current 12. But with the exception of those who are rescued in maritime rescue operations, in which case the year could be maintained.
One of the most delicate and controversial parts is the return or expulsion of those who do not have the right to asylum. The agreement reached today stipulates that these people will have to be returned to their countries of origin as usual, but there is also the possibility that it will be to another, outside the EU, to one of the transit countries that they have passed through to reach Europe. It can be done only if there is a proven "connection" between the applicant who has been refused stay and that country and if it is a "safe country" according to fixed criteria of international law. There is no list at this time, but the agreement includes that it be done. In any case, it is up to each government, and not Brussels, to stipulate whether that "connection" (which may be having resided in the past or having family there) is sufficient to justify expulsion.
The most decisive factor of the decade
The debate has been open, or broken, since 2015, when the political incapacity of member states caused a deep crisis that returned border controls and was about to take away Schengen, the area of free movement. That year, with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, trust between neighbors jumped through the air and the capitals imposed controls, closures and closed their eyes to all kinds of outrages, from the mafias but also from their forces of order. Since then, it has become clear that there has been a need for an in-depth reform of the entire system, and in particular of the Dublin Convention or Regulation, the agreement that establishes which State is responsible for examining an asylum application according to the circumstances of access to the member countries.
The general rule says that the country where the asylum seeker arrives must take charge of the file, but that mechanism that was perhaps valid then, or in quieter moments, proved completely inefficient. Countries such as Greece, Italy or Malta, where refugees or economic migrants arrived, could not cope to manage the flow, process the papers. There were, and are, deaths at sea, impotence, push-backs, refugee camps in appalling conditions, political tensions, clashes. That crisis gave way to a wave of identity movements, and both issues have marked continental politics over the past decade. The deepest divisions, the most atavistic fears, the worst of each house.
In 2015, the European Commission proposed a mandatory quota system for the distribution or relocation of those who had arrived, but much of the Union revolted. The mechanism was approved, but in practice it did not work. Germany took in a million people, Sweden hundreds of thousands, with huge consequences on the political spectrum, but there were countries that refused and continue to do so. Since then, agreement on reform has been impossible. The countries of arrival asked for solidarity, funds, distributions, aid and complained about the selfishness of others. The most reluctant threatened to close their borders and have said that any mandatory reception regime was off the table. And the countries to which migrants end up arriving, such as those mentioned or France, have demanded that those arriving fulfill their legal responsibilities, without looking the other way or pushing beyond their borders the applicants for international aid because they too do not want or can receive the full flow.
It is a political, identity problem. Europe has welcomed millions of Ukrainians without controversy, racial tensions or speeches of panic or invasion. The question is different, but it is real. The agreement that has been sought for years is partial, because it addresses the main issues on paper, but it does not settle the issue. "In the coming days, you will hear a lot about the EU migration pact. Some may even try to convince you that the EU has reached a migration pact. Eye: it may seem like a pact, do what like a pact and walk like a pact, but it is not the migration pact of the EU, "says ingeniously Camino Mortera, of the Center for European Reform in Brussels.
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