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EU asylum reform: A rocky start, and a stony path ahead

Helena Hahn

Date: 09/06/0023
In an 11th-hour deal, EU interior ministers yesterday reached an agreement on two key reforms to the EU asylum system: harmonised asylum procedures and rules for responsibility-sharing and solidarity. However, the politics surrounding the vote do not offer much optimism, given that several countries abstained and two voted against it. With negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament about to begin, co-legislators are off to a rocky start.

For one, the compromise texts tried to find the widest possible support in this vote, appeasing Southern states’ mandatory solidarity demands while quelling North-western states’ concerns around secondary movements and keeping Eastern countries on board. Some changes concern mandatory border procedures and mandatory but flexible solidarity, either in the form of relocations or financial contributions. A total of 30,000 relocations per year are foreseen, a relatively small figure considering the number of asylum applications last year (966,000).

In the course of the day, it had become increasingly unclear whether and how divides between member states would be resolved. The Presidency managed to unblock the negotiations through some backroom politicking: Italy obtained greater flexibility in determining safe third countries, potentially paving the way for returns to transit countries. Germany, which held onto the exemption for children from the accelerated border procedure, ultimately caved. Other concessions, and the cost at which they were made, will become known soon.

Hungary and Poland, the only two countries rejecting the compromise, voiced staunch opposition to the financial figure agreed as an alternative to relocations. The €20,000 sum was considered too high, and one of the reasons they voted against the proposals. Their opposition highlights a long-standing problem: while migration and asylum policy do not require unanimity, past experience has shown that a qualified majority likely will not suffice to ensure commitment and compliance in the long run.

Negotiations with the Parliament will begin in earnest to reach an agreement by spring 2024. Possible sticking points are the balance of relocations versus financial compensation, the risk of detention-like conditions at external borders, and grounds for admitting people to the border procedure. The Council’s view is that all solidarity contributions are of equal value, while the Parliament has called for an 80-20 ratio between relocations and other measures. But questions remain as to whether the majority of states will remain on board with the solidarity mechanism, both regarding the financial figures, but also situations where relocation pledges fall short of the needed amount and compensatory measures are to be put into place. The ad-hoc voluntary solidarity mechanism established under the French Presidency, meant as a trial run, has seen weak implementation. With just 435 arrivals out of 8,000 in April 2023, there is a risk that even when it becomes mandatory, waning commitment and non-compliance might hamper implementation.  

If the past week was any indication, co-legislators are faced with a stony path ahead. The Council will enter talks without full backing, while the Parliament will be faced with rectifying changes that water-down solidarity protections.

Helena Hahn is a Policy Analyst in the European Migration and Diversity programme at the European Policy Centre.

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