“Our common European values and our historic responsibility are my starting point when I think about the future of Europe’s migration policy” – Jean-Claude Juncker

With this sentiment in mind, yesterday, the President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his yearly State of the European Union address, where he presented a new plan for more EU solidarity on migration. Symbolically, the day before, on the iconic September 11, the anniversary of the infamous terrorist attack on the New York twin towers of 2001, more than 100 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. As Libyan, Maltese and Italian authorities quarrelled over who would be responsible for the people battling with now the deadliest sea journey in Europe, Juncker’s words seemed more urgent than ever.

Born from the ashes of three decades of international conflict, the EU was founded upon a commitment to human rights, still vital to its ethos and existence. Thus, the way in which its migration policy has increasingly kept people out of the bloc, a strategy referred to as Fortress Europe due to its free mobility of insiders matched by an increasing closure towards outsiders, has been seen as in direct defiance of its moral duty to protect vulnerable people.

So, what has Juncker proposed and what will this mean for incoming migrants and increasing xenophobic anti-immigrant political leaders?

The Proposals

Juncker included 4 main proposals: a reinforced Asylum Agency, a fully equipped European Border and Coast Guard, a stronger and more effective European return policy and enhancing legal pathways to Europe.

But what does this actually mean?

A reinforced Asylum Agency

Juncker insists that more long-term solidarity is necessary, rather than the panic every time a rescue ship approaches European shores, with different national authorities pointing fingers on who is officially responsible. Juncker aims to increase the financial means to provide more resources and administrative support to the identification and then perhaps reallocation of asylum seekers.

However: will an increasing EU presence to deal with arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers ensure a fairer procedure for the person involved?

A fully equipped European Border and Coast Guard

The European Border and Coast Guard, more commonly known as Frontex, is tasked with the border control of the European Shengen area (the area of the 26 EU Member States that abolished internal border controls). Frontex is an incredibly opaque agency, which works primarily in international waters, so beyond the public eye. Referred to as “the EU’s Dirty Hands” by the NGO Human Rights Watch, Frontex is most notoriously known for having significantly amplified border controls. And yesterday, Juncker proposed to amplify its staff and responsibilities. By amplifying its workload and having 10,000 standing corps by 2020, rather than the 1,300 that are currently in place, Juncker would effectively be bringing more power to an integrated European approach to border control. Yet, not only do these border guards work strictly under the authority of the national authorities of the member state they are operating in, their lack of transparency allows for inhumane border control practices to continue unabated.

Photo: Dimitris Avramopolous (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0
A stronger and more effective European return policy

Most EU funds in migration management have always been allocated to initiatives to return migrants to their countries of origin – an extremely costly endeavour (both in time and money). This part of the plan is no exception. Juncker laments that in 2017 only 36% of irregular migrants were effectively returned to their country of origin and aims to increase this figure – naturally with more funds. Why are returns so hard?

The answer to this question is almost as complex as the process. Each EU member state has its own procedure on determining whether a person is indeed fleeing persecution, some with ridiculous requirements to prove abuse, and usually involve dealing with uncooperative governments. The proposal includes the core principal of ‘non-refoulement’ enshrined in international law, that states that no one can be returned if their life is in danger in the journey or in the country they are being returned to, stressing a necessity to make returns more humane. Yet, with the fact that most European countries consider Afghanistan a safe country of return, a country still ravaged by conflict and violence, I find the commitment to this principle a little hard to believe.

Juncker’s plan is a promise but, as the Mediterranean graveyard grows, we must take action to ensure these common European principles and this historical responsibility are implemented on the ground.

Enhancing legal pathways to Europe

The moment most migrants rights activists have been waiting for – the mere mention and promise of legal pathways. Legal pathways, would act as a sort of corridor for those fleeing persecution to reach safety in Europe without immediately being branded as illegal for doing so and in a manner which doesn’t further endanger their lives. While a whole segment is dedicated to this in the proposal, the initiatives all still need to continue to be discussed by the European Parliament and Council.

The EU Blue Card initiative seeks to attract more highly skilled workers, tailoring them according to what needs European member States have at the time. A seemingly interesting project, undeniable is its morally questionable nature in its discrimination of the ability to migrate if you are poor. Also, the EU’s relocation programme will be expanded, which has relocated a mere 38,000 people since 2015 and strives to reach 50,000 by October 2019. This expansion relies on cooperation from member states to accommodate more people – an extremely unlikely endeavour. Then a vague delineation of pilot projects with African nations on legal pathways – none of which have materialised – nor will in the near future.

Photo: Ggia (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY -SA 4.0

So – it’s really a lot of the same: EU strengthening its borders, focussing its resources primarily on returning irregular migrants and shoddy promises on legal pathways. While the sentiment of human rights to be respected and EU solidarity is commendable, this needs to materialise in the implementation of these projects. When strengthening Frontex and other agencies, install more safeguards. When building stronger cooperation on migration with non-EU countries these need to be equal partnerships not just return agreements. And the legal pathways need to be a concrete plan rather than a vague promise.

Don’t forget a lot of power in how these decisions are implemented rests within the European Parliament. These are people elected by yourself, should you still be an EU citizen in May 2019. So let’s fight for more diverse boardrooms, with policy-makers that will fervently campaign for the rights of all to be respected. Let’s remind stakeholders that nobody is born illegal, but made illegal by  policies that decide who has a right to live and prosper.

Juncker’s plan is a promise but, as the Mediterranean graveyard grows, we must take action to ensure these common European principles and this historical responsibility are implemented on the ground.

Cover photo: European Parliament; Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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    Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, but grew up in London, Rome and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London studying Language and Culture, with a focus on German and Arabic. She spent the past year working for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in Brussels and London. Now, she is studying MSc Global Europe: Culture and Conflict at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow her on twitter at @NicolettaEnria.

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