How have some European Member States reacted to the New Pact on Migration and Asylum?

1 December, 2020

After almost two months since the launch of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, questions arise on the possibility for EU Member States to leave past controversies behind and move towards a more coherent and cohesive approach to migration and asylum.

Economic, political and social discrepancies among EU Member States highlight the difficulty to create a common ground of discussion and implement a more inclusive and transparent system to manage migratory movements. The aim to increase the collaboration among Member States, by sharing benefits and burdens, appears to be quite an optimistic and, even, utopian way to depict a reality which is far from being inclusive and collaborative.

A landscape which lacks solidarity

Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have publicly opposed the EU’s new migration pact. Zoltan Kovacs, the spokesman for the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, published a message on Twitter claiming that Hungary’s stance on migration “has been clear and unchanged” since 2015. He added: “we must ensure that the external borders of the EU and the Schengen Area remain perfectly sealed along all sections.”

The Czech President, Andrej Babis, also highlighted that “the protection of Europe’s border and the cessation of illegal migration” must be prioritized. In addition, he claimed that his declarations were also supported by the prime ministers of Hungary and Poland.

Realistically, it is unlikely that the Czech Republic and Hungary’s anti-migrant governments, along with those of Poland and Slovakia, will suppress their unwillingness to host refugees and ease the burden of their Mediterranean coastal partners. These governments have already and repeatedly refused to bow to immigration policies and they have tried to increase anti-refugee and anti-EU sentiments among their citizens. It is improbable to think that there will be a sudden change of direction in terms of migration policies and hospitality measures supported by these countries.

These reactions from some members of the Visegrad Group outline the controversial atmosphere which has characterized the release of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The New Pact implies that states would be given the option to either host refugees from other European countries or take full responsibility for deporting persons with no entitlement to asylum. This is something that the Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki has termed “compulsory solidarity”. This negative phrasing is one example illustrating the problematic stance towards the pact taken by some states. The tough rhetoric used by some EU Member States opens a terrain of uncertainty as well as a series of questions.

Following the New Pact, EU countries that are reluctant to transfer refugees to their territory would be allowed to sponsor the returns of those without a right to stay instead. MEPs questioned what would happen if most Member States opt for this possibility and this doubt adds to the concerns on the effectiveness of the New Pact. This form of solidarity, perceived as compulsory, can exacerbate past controversies and lead to new problems rather than solutions.

The challenging period that we are in, the lack of solidarity amongst some Member States and the scarcity of cohesive paths of reasoning resulted in mixed reactions from governments, civil society representatives and NGOs. In this regard, Eve Geddie, Amnesty International’s EU Advocacy Director, said: “pitched as a fresh start, this pact is, in reality, designed to heighten walls and strengthen fences. Rather than offering any new approach to facilitate bringing people to safety, this appears to be an attempt to rebrand a system which has been failing for years, with dire consequences.”

Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director for Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, also expressed her concerns. The deputy director criticised the idea of allowing countries which are not willing to welcome migrants to play an “enhanced role in deportations” and she compared this resolution to the choice of “asking the school bully to walk a kid home.”

A structural problem

Time will tell whether these problems and doubts can be effectively addressed, and if solutions will be consciously implemented as the Commission proposal makes its way through the legislative process. However, there is a deeper structural problem to the Pact, resulting from a missing common ground on interests, rights and responsibilities. The lack of understanding and solidarity among EU Member States can lead to dreadful consequences and it does not create a proactive climate.

The situation commonly referred to as “migrant crisis” has always required common response and solidarity from all Member States. However, not all of them have shared responsibility through time. Migration policies have recurrently been a thorny issue in the politics of the European Union. Nowadays there are multiple challenges to face and the embedment of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum within the European Union will surely be contentious. If all Member States will not cooperate and move in the direction of effective migration policy, past failures can repeat and exacerbate.

At this point, the New Pact itself cannot be developed nor implemented in a climate which lacks collaboration and solidarity between countries. The eagerness to listen to what other parties want to say is lacking. In addition, the gap between the so-called pro-immigration supporters of the left and the anti-migratory conservative of the right wing, is becoming wider and strongly divisive. There is the need to restore a common sense of belonging and understanding to go further. This is a challenge which the EU has been facing for a while, and which needs to be tackled continuously and systematically. The EU must consciously address and understand the reasons why solidarity and sense of belonging are missing to effectively confront this problem from its roots and implement valid solutions.

The mere polarisation and strict distinction between pro- and anti-migratory movements is one of the reasons why the European Union is struggling to move forward. This distinction is disunifying, and it has created a climate of closure and distance. Some parties, both from right and left wings, are reluctant towards fruitful debates and they are empowered by this strong division. This dichotomic portrayal of reality oversimplifies the debate and it stops Europe from creating a common ground of discussion where to openly share interests, doubts and points of view. Solidarity is possible and effective when all parties show willingness to understand and actively listen. It is extremely complicated to create ties and points of connection when this eagerness lacks. The so-called “mandatory solidarity” would not solve the problem either, but it could intensify resentment, and even hatred, as it is not based on a solid terrain of shared understanding and sympathy.

While the negotiations among Member States are ongoing and the insufficiency of effective collaboration slows down the process, lives are at stake in the Mediterranean Sea, inclusion and long-term integration of migrants and refugees are still key issues within the European landscape. These problems must be prioritized over game of power, unproductive discussions, and the inability to cooperate among Member States.

It is now important to move one step forward and work to break the unfruitful polarisation which has toxified the debate on migration. The discussion needs to take a different direction and foster more thoughtful engagement. This process starts from a collaborative work between European institutions and EU Member States; from their ability to listen and keep a proactive approach; from their willingness to change a landscape which has lacked solidarity for too long. This sounds quite rudimentary in theory but, in reality, it requires deep changes of approach and significant diplomatic efforts. All parties must reconstruct and recognise the real meaning of solidarity and collaboration as founding values of European culture. Otherwise, these words are easily turned into empty terms that everybody can strategically employ.

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