Europe’s internal fault lines over migration bedevil its capacity to act coherently on the issue on the international stage.
The messy split among European Union member states over endorsement of the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration one year ago puts the European Commission, including its new leadership, in a delicate position. It also limits the EU’s ability to speak with a united voice on migration on the international stage, and to act in concerted fashion on a stalled European migration portfolio.
There is a certain irony that Europe, which was a catalyst for initiating the most comprehensive global agreement on international migration, now finds its options on migration curtailed after passage of the non-binding accord. This is doubly ironic because the objectives at the heart of the agreement—ranging from co-operation on migrant return and readmission to improved border management and increased efforts to fight human trafficking—largely align with the EU migration strategy.
United Nations member states endorsed the pact on December 11th 2018, after a late-arriving controversy precipitated by nationalists and other critics who charged inaccurately that the compact would lessen national sovereignty. Though the controversy erupted in many places, it flared brightest in Europe—sparking the Belgian government’s downfall, the resignation of Slovakia’s foreign minister and protests in several European capitals. Although the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the agreement, eight EU member states opposed it or abstained.
Since then, the EU and most member states have remained notably silent about the pact, fearing that explicit references to it could rekindle internal quarrels and public backlash.
The European schism over migration laid bare by the pact will likely prompt the EU to tiptoe around migration matters central to its own and its partners’ interests abroad in some areas. It diminishes hope that the external dimension might at least be the one domain where progress on migration still appears attainable—a troubling development at a time when EU reforms over internal migration and asylum have stalled.
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European disagreement around the pact also curbs the leadership role EU institutions have begun to play on migration on the external front. In the wake of the 2015-16 migration and refugee crisis, the commission and its diplomatic service became more muscular on the international scene: they struck partnerships with third countries and increased external spending on migration, for example.
But this engagement (and the pressure to deliver quickly on migration objectives) sometimes led EU institutions to make inroads without obtaining the formal approval of all member states, for example when commissioners made their own declarations on migration. Hungary’s decision to publicly question the EU’s legitimacy in speaking on its behalf in the pact’s negotiations led to a closer examination of when and how EU institutions are involved in migration and became a reminder that the institutions are bound by the unanimity rule here.
Elsewhere, the EU and partners in Africa and beyond, particularly those receiving European funding, find themselves constrained in advancing the global compact’s objectives. To date, the EU has not provided any substantial direct financial support for the compact or its implementation fund, the Multi-Partner Trust Fund.
When governments in Africa, the middle east or elsewhere seek funding to implement pact-related initiatives, Brussels could theoretically provide assistance under the EU development framework, which requires only qualified-majority support (unlike migration or foreign affairs, the development portfolio falls outside the unanimity rule). Such a move, however, could rekindle intra-EU tensions.
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Instead, several EU leaders have avoided referring to the compact explicitly while supporting projects and policies which effectively advance its agenda on migration co-operation. From their perspective, better to save political chips for EU internal migration and asylum reforms.
With Europe’s external migration front a new playground for Hungary and its populist allies, the newly seated commission must find a way of managing their complaints if it does not want to see its migration goals abroad stifled in a similar manner to inside the union. There is now a bigger question of how the EU can safeguard the coherence of its diplomatic efforts—let alone its visibility and credibility on migration at the international level—if some member states keep refusing to play the game of compromise and co-operation.
With new challenges abounding—including the Venezuelan displacement crisis, largely off European leaders’ radar—EU institutions should lead on strengthening international co-operation on migration. Yet the pact remains a touchy subject.
While it is decidedly premature to proclaim the failure of the Global Compact for Migration, the coming months will be important as the new commission assesses whether the prize of supporting pact-linked initiatives is worth the risk of another showdown with member states. This decision will set the stage for the pact’s relevance in the coming years—and for EU external migration policy more broadly.