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Post-Brexit EU–UK cooperation on migration and asylum: How to live apart, together

Alberto-Horst Neidhardt

Date: 20/06/2022
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has created a policy, legal and operational vacuum in migration and asylum matters which undermines the interests of both sides. There is no more binding framework which defines responsibility for asylum seekers and facilitates transfers between the EU and the UK. Brexit also made it harder to devise and implement effective anti-smuggling strategies with European partners.

Despite these gaps, a post-Brexit cooperation agreement is not on the horizon, with structural reforms pursued by each side reflecting conflicting priorities and a growing political disconnect. Following the 2020 proposals of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, EU member states are still negotiating a mandatory responsibility-sharing mechanism. Meanwhile, in April 2022, the UK overhauled its asylum and immigration law, undercutting safeguards for asylum seekers reaching the country irregularly. The same month, the UK government signed a deal with Rwanda to deport all asylum seekers arriving via the Channel – a move even the European Commission has criticised.

Recent post-Brexit tensions over other policy areas, most prominently the Northern Ireland Protocol, have reduced mutual trust to a historic minimum. This makes an ambitious and comprehensive agreement over asylum and migration matters an unlikely prospect for the time being. Yet, as neighbours, the EU and the UK will continue to depend on each other to pursue their respective policy objectives in migration and asylum. 

So, despite living separately and facing numerous unresolved tensions, the EU and the UK can and should pursue a post-Brexit cooperation framework in these matters. Otherwise, they will both be worse off.

As a first step, the two sides should focus on rebuilding trust. This can be achieved by pursuing less contentious goals within immediate reach, such as enhanced anti-smuggling efforts, while also diffusing political tensions across the board. Once an atmosphere of sincere cooperation is restored, as a second step, the EU and the UK should define a broader and more ambitious partnership. Safe and legal channels from the EU to the UK should be re-established. 

At the same time, equitable solutions for facilitating the return of third-country nationals from the UK to the EU, in full respect of procedural safeguards, should also be found. Although reciprocity would have to be at the heart of this new arrangement, the EU and the UK should go beyond a transactional approach, particularly by strengthening protection pathways and burden-sharing solutions, including with third countries, in line with their international commitments.

The European Commission should take the lead in the negotiation of a post-Brexit EU–UK cooperation framework. This would allow the EU to speak with one voice and pursue clear and coherent objectives across the different policy areas concerned. The newly established EU–UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly should also be involved in the negotiations, helping to democratise the process and achieve a more balanced relationship in the interests of both sides.

Read the full paper here.
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