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Political agreement on the New Pact – a cause célèbre?

Helena Hahn

Date: 21/12/2023
After end-of-the-year negotiations that lasted well into the night, the European Parliament and member states clinched a political agreement on the five remaining files of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, removing a final hurdle to turning the proposed reforms into law still in the current legislative cycle. But is it a cause célèbre? And for whom?

The pressure leading up to this decision was undoubtedly high on all fronts. The Spanish Presidency worked hard to ensure that Council priorities remained intact across the different files under debate, securing a win that will become part of its legacy before handing the baton to Belgium in the new year. 

Following early indications that the European Parliament was increasingly willing to make concessions on many points, ostensibly due to the little time left to smooth out differences in opinion, the agreement confirms that its overriding concern was to maintain the package approach. This approach called for all reforms to be adopted or none at all. 

Pursued in light of the many interlinkages between the reforms, such as the screening and asylum procedures, the allocation of responsibility, and a mandatory but flexible solidarity mechanism, the insistence on it ultimately contributed to a more rushed decision. The texts will only be finalised in 2024. Earlier versions reveal clear traces of Council demands, such as the codification of the controversial concept of ‘instrumentalisation’ into EU law, a situation wherein adversarial governments or hostile non-state actors use migration for (geo)political purposes against the EU. 

Centre-right voices also feature more broadly, leading to a flexible view of solidarity with no primacy of relocations, the long-preferred option for the Parliament, over other forms of solidarity. These include funding for projects in non-EU countries and possibly even border surveillance, a long-time demand by Austria, Greece, Hungary, Denmark, and the Baltics. 

Parliament’s efforts to ensure access to a protection tool in the Crisis Regulation, for instance, pale in comparison to the many more restrictive elements and weakened safeguards to be codified. While the display of unity between the three main political groups – the EPP, S&D, and Renew – and their justifications for the “historical” outcome may be noticed in Brussels, the promise that the “EU can deliver” on migration and asylum may amount to putting the cart before the horse. Once the dust has settled, the centre-right may – predictably – continue to see cause for celebration. In contrast, the Social Democrats, in particular, may struggle to defend the compromise and be blamed for not holding its fort.

As migration will no doubt feature prominently in the run-up to the EU elections, EU leaders now face five vital tasks:

  1. Managing expectations: It is unrealistic to expect the New Pact to manifest visible changes by the time of the EU elections in June 2024. The Pact is aimed at medium- to long-term reform. Provided the necessary efforts are made, the first results are expected to materialise as of 2025, when Poland and Denmark assume the Council Presidency. This needs to be proactively conveyed to the electorate to avoid unfilled expectations.
  2. Communicating the results: Policymakers must focus on objectively communicating the results of the negotiations and reforms to broaden the public’s understanding of this achievement and to clarify what the New Pact will change and its limits. Arguments in favour of this ‘pragmatic’ agreement, ostensibly made to avoid electorate punishment for inaction or failure to deliver, will otherwise be lost in the public debate.
  3. Maintaining political will: Signs of fickle unity among member states already materialised earlier this year when Hungary and Poland both voted against the Council mandate on solidarity and responsibility-sharing as well as asylum rules, and several other states abstained. The EU-27 will have to maintain the political will to see the Pact through and to ensure proper implementation. While the showdown with Prime Minister Victor Orbán in the final meeting of the European Council in 2023 was yet another reminder of Hungary’s steadfast contrarianism, Poland’s recent change in political leadership could prove a game-changer in shifting the balance towards a stronger majority. However, trust and accountability among member states under the new system require moving away from nationalistic stances to collective ownership and responsibility.
  4. Moving from a negotiating to an implementation mindset: Successful implementation plays a crucial role in establishing greater reliability and ownership. But time is short, and previous attempts to test how the rules would function in practice have been limited to specific elements of the system (e.g. border procedures). Member states should start preparing for this next phase in consultation with each other, and the Commission should, from the outset, ensure greater harmonisation.
  5. Mobilising resources and investing in preparedness: The new architecture will require heavy investments in infrastructure and public administration. Some financial support may come from the EU. However, this remains subject to a final agreement as part of the revision of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) expected for early 2024 because member states are divided on how to combine Ukraine support with external action and migratory funding. Thus, it is unclear whether the agreed sums would be enough to implement the New Pact until 2027 and how much national governments will pay without extra EU financing.

Politically speaking, the agreement is historical as it follows many years of botched and inconclusive reform efforts. It also opens up space for policymakers to turn to neglected files, such as Schengen or legal migration. It must also be recalled that negotiations occurred against the backdrop of the permacrisis and unprecedented geopolitical changes in the EU’s neighbourhood and beyond. However, there will also come a time for reflection on the lead-up to and ramifications of this agreement. Member states are increasingly focused on restricting access to territorial asylum and externalising responsibilities through migration agreements and could use the Pact to further their efforts. Meanwhile, the Parliament fulfilled its commitments but has yet to contend with an ongoing shift of the middle to the right and its ability to act as a watchdog. The upcoming elections in June 2024 may well put this to a test.

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

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