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The New Pact on Migration and Asylum: Necessary progress, but not a magic bullet

Migration / COMMENTARY
Lena Düpont

Date: 25/03/2024
An all-encompassing strategy for migration and asylum has long been absent from the European Union (EU). Without ambition and political steering, the EU has stumbled from one emergency solution to the next while becoming more vulnerable to polarised and overheated debates. The New Pact provides a solid basis to strengthen the EU’s migration and asylum system, in turn boosting its resilience to future migration challenges.

A political agreement on the New Pact reforms was reached by the European Parliament and Council in December 2023, paving the way for their adoption by the June 2024 European Elections. So, what had made it so difficult to reach a deal, and what finally led to a breakthrough in the negotiations?


Despite well-known deficiencies in its Common European Asylum System (CEAS), the EU has been unable to comprehensively reform its migration and asylum policies for almost two legislative terms. Within the Council, the existence of four groups with conflicting priorities - frontline countries, states concerned with secondary movements, those opposing any meaningful reform, and those that remained indifferent - made it too difficult for member states to reach common positions. Practically, this led to over-stretched capacities and weak coordination between national authorities, the EU, and the agencies involved. It also rendered access to protection more difficult for asylum seekers. The lack of adequate responses resulted in polarisation and overheated political debates. In turn, Europe became more vulnerable to exploitation by inside actors and instrumentalisation by actors outside the EU. On account of all this, the EU failed to cherish its very own values and was unable to achieve an appropriate balance between protecting fundamental rights and effectively managing borders. Instead of tackling chaotic circumstances, it operated in emergency mode.


After many years of fruitless debates and negotiations, the context dramatically changed in 2022. Russia’s unacceptable, devastating and illegal invasion of Ukraine confronted the Union with a new geopolitical reality and the realisation that it urgently needed to buckle up for an extended period of insecurity and instability. It also led to a shift in migration and asylum policy-making, as it coincided with the largest refugee movement in Europe since World War II. Showing pragmatism and unprecedented unity, the EU managed to find the political will to activate the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time, welcoming millions of persons fleeing the war in Ukraine. This unity was to pave the way for more historic agreements. The response to Ukrainian arrivals demonstrated that the divisions between member states within the Council could be overcome.


It is in these new and unprecedented circumstances that the EU reached a much-needed agreement on the New Pact reforms. But is the Pact then a magic bullet to solve all the structural and political issues the EU has been and will be facing in the future in relation to migration and asylum? Despite what it sets out to achieve, the Pact never was and never will be the solution to all challenges. For this reason, expectations around the Pact’s goals and limitations must be managed. But could the EU also do without the Pact? Not at all. This is because the reforms will address key shortcomings in existing migration and asylum policies and strengthen the EU’s preparedness for a future of geopolitical uncertainty.


The Building Blocks of the new CEAS after the Pact


What are the novelties brought about by the Pact and, in a nutshell, how will the EU benefit from them? The reforms will, first of all, introduce a new mechanism to share responsibility and solidarity better, considering that the lack of balance between the two is one the fundamental weaknesses of the current system. Under the new rules, following the request of a member state under pressure, including in the context of arrivals by sea, other member states will be expected to provide solidarity through a variety of measures, including relocations of asylum seekers and financial and material support. Asylum seekers, both those relocated and those not, will benefit from this mechanism and other measures, too. Crucially, member states will receive greater EU financial and operational support to strengthen their reception capacities and thus avoid overcrowded facilities, while complying with the higher standards set out under the recast Reception Conditions Directive (RCD).


Secondly, the Pact concentrates on preventing secondary movements. Upon arrival, a check in the Eurodac database will establish whether a person had previously lodged an asylum application. A mandatory screening procedure will also enable authorities to identify those in need of international protection and those less likely to be eligible. The latter category would be directed to a border asylum and possibly a border return procedure, should they be deemed ineligible for protection, speeding up the execution of procedures and diminishing backlogs in asylum processes, another weakness in the current system. At the same time, the reforms contain safeguards for vulnerable people, including due consideration of the best interest of the child among others, when families with children and unaccompanied minors arrive irregularly to the EU.


Meanwhile, as a third key novelty, the Safe Third Country concept, integrated into the Asylum Procedure Regulation, will enable member states to reject asylum applications where there is effective protection and no risk of persecution or removal, in a third country. This measure addresses another bottleneck: low return rates compared to the number of rejected applications.


A fourth important novelty is the concept of instrumentalisation, which is now included in the Crisis Regulation. It aims to prevent and address situations like the border tensions between Greece and Türkiye in 2020 or the sudden influx of migrants from Belarus to Eastern European countries in 2021. While the new CEAS provides tools for better crisis preparedness and resilience across the board, the flexibility provided by the Crisis Regulation by way of derogations from asylum and reception standards in crisis situations is a necessary addition. The EU must be able to react effectively to cynical attempts by states or non-state actors to exploit the vulnerability of refugees and, at the same time, destabilise the Union.


Towards a new era in migration policy?


The final vote on the Pact reforms is expected in the coming weeks, thus fulfilling the commitment made by the Parliament, Council, and Commission to adopt the reforms by the end of the legislature in time for the European elections. In line with the Treaties, the reforms will better prepare member states for future migration-related challenges. They will ensure a baseline for solidarity and responsibility-sharing within the EU as well as further harmonisation of procedural rules and protection criteria.

Despite the significance of the agreement, the reform process is far from complete. Expectably, ‘implementation, implementation, implementation’ will be the mantra, and a major priority for the next legislative cycle.  Among others, the successful implementation of the reforms will require both political goodwill and substantial resources, materially and financially. While most new rules are contained in Regulations, transposing directives into national law – as in the case of the abovementioned RCD – will be another important step. Both for transposition and implementation, member states will need to live up to what they agreed on at the European level.

However, further efforts and initiatives will still be needed, keeping short-term and longer-term priorities in mind. Given the geopolitical instability and uncertainty characterising the current period, the Pact can only act as a baseline.

Against this background, strengthening the external dimension of the Pact should be one of the priorities. Despite high political attention, this remains so far underdeveloped, and needs more work if the EU truly aspires to be a geopolitical actor – and it will likely be increasingly be called on that. To ensure effective implementation of the external dimension of migration policy, across all its possible areas – we urgently need to break the silos between development aid, neighbourhood policy, humanitarian support, and third-country cooperation. Willingness to follow a multidimensional approach and understand the reciprocal relationship between internal and external aspects of security must also be reflected in the next Commission’s work programme.

This change in modus operandi will enable the EU to pursue its efforts and strategic objectives more effectively. Fighting smuggling networks must be an integral part of that. The proposed measures in the Facilitators Package – which, among others, sets out minimum sanction rules – can only be the starting point. These measures must be followed by concrete actions enabled by cooperation with the international community and third countries.

Starting from the next political cycle, we must also double down on our efforts to update our policies on legal migration. We must find ways for member states to fill acute labour shortages across different sectors, increase the EU’s attractiveness for foreign workers, all while ensuring that legal labour migration is understood as a vector for sustaining our economies. But we must also not lose sight of the importance of partnerships, as the success of our legal migration policies depends on mutually beneficial cooperation with non-EU countries.

Work around the Talent Pool and Talent Partnerships, some of the most meaningful among the latest initiatives in this area, must, therefore, continue as a matter of priority in the next legislative cycle.

Lena Düpont has been a Member of the European Parliament (EPP Group) since 2019.

This commentary is part of an EPC series on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. To promote diverse and balanced discussions and inspire informed policy debates on the reforms, members of the European Parliament from different political groups were asked to share their views on how the reforms will help address some of the main political priorities ahead of the June 2024 European elections, as well as outline key challenges for the future. The first Commentary in the series, by Vice-President of the European Parliament Jan-Christoph Oetjen, can be accessed here.

This Commentary is part of the EPC's EP Elections Task Force


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