The Home affairs ministers and Foreign affairs ministers of EU member states met at an informal video conference on 15 March 2021 to discuss external aspects of EU migration policy. The announced theme of the meeting is the external dimension of the EU’s migration and asylum reform. The debate focused on mutually beneficial migration partnerships between the EU and non-EU countries, and enhanced coordination between the different parties.
This Jumbo Council is a really historical one. It is the first time that 54 Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs gather to discuss on a broad approach the migration issue. The meeting is co-chaired by Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Eduardo Cabrita, Minister of Internal Administration of Portugal. Ministers connect from their capitals to discuss the external dimension of the EU’s migration policy under the New Pact on Migration and Asylum and to exchange views on enhancing cooperation in the fields of Justice and Home Affairs between the EU and North African countries. Also European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson is aiming to “significantly” speed up migrant repatriations and readmissions using a EU visa policy.
In September 2020, the European Commission issued a comprehensive communication on the reform of migration and asylum policy. With respect to the external aspects of EU migration policy, the Commission aims to strengthen partnerships more strategically and more comprehensively.
Better coordination of bilateral cooperation and EU-level partnerships
The Commission has moreover noted that bilateral cooperation between Member States and non-EU countries on the one hand and EU-level partnerships on the other must be effectively coordinated to ensure the consistency of the efforts. Coordination should be intensified at the EU level, at the national level, and across these two levels.
Since the height of the migration crisis in 2015, the EU has implemented measures to control external borders and migration flows better. As a result, irregular arrivals to the EU have been reduced by more than 90%. The EU and its member states are intensifying efforts to establish an effective, humanitarian and safe European migration policy. The European Council plays an important role in this effort by setting the strategic priorities.
Based on these priorities, the Council of the EU establishes lines of action and provides the mandates for negotiations with third countries. It also adopts legislation and defines specific programmes. Over the past few years the Council and European Council have build up a strong response to migratory pressure.
Socialists reject an EU migration policy based solely on numbers
Ahead of the joint Council meeting of Foreign Affairs and Home affairs Ministers, the S&D Group urges the Council to look beyond the numbers when it comes to irregular migration and consider our humanitarian responsibilities in any partnerships with third countries.
The S&D Group is in favour of partnerships with third countries as part of the EU’s external migration policy, being discussed by Ministers this afternoon. However, S&D MEPs believe it is wrong to push for informal deals that make cooperation with third countries conditional solely on the basis of controlling the number of irregular migrants. The S&D Group wants to see agreements that are sustainable in the long-term and that fully respect international and humanitarian law.
Birgit Sippel, S&D spokesperson on home affairs, said:
“We need partnerships with third countries, but we cannot negotiate a patchwork of one-sided, unfair and informal deals with third countries and call it an effective EU migration policy. Any informal arrangements risk undermining our commitment to protecting fundamental rights, while also lacking judicial scrutiny and democratic oversight. With this approach on migration policy, we are burying our heads in the sand.
“The right to asylum is an international law that should never be under threat. Yet this is exactly what would happen as a direct result of deals made by the EU with third countries that are conditional on reducing the number of migrants on the way to the EU, either through or from these third countries. The time and energy that goes into Council discussions on returns and readmission would be much better spent on fulfilling and expanding resettlement pledges and creating new legal avenues for labour, study and business.”
Isabel Santos, S&D spokesperson on human rights, said:
“Whether it is in the field of development aid, trade, visas, security cooperation or investment, making the EU’s relations with third countries conditional on migration numbers is unacceptable. As Socialists and Democrats, we question any attempt to pursue a migration policy that puts pressure on third countries to work with the EU on the basis of a narrowly defined set of objectives that focuses too heavily on controlling migration and bringing the numbers down, and focuses too little on the protection of human rights and the respect of international and humanitarian law.
“Cooperation with third countries must be guided by the principles of equal partnership. Yet, the discussions between ministers on facilitating the return and readmission of migrants through so-called ‘mutually beneficial partnerships’ would undermine that equal footing, and risks creating tensions and conditions for serious violations of human rights. If we focus on a strict migratory dimension in these partnerships, we will lose all sight of important objectives like peace and stability, social upward mobility and development goals such as the eradication of poverty and illiteracy.”
Eastern Mediterranean route in EU migration policy
The Eastern Mediterranean route refers to irregular arrivals to Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria. In 2015, high numbers of refugees seeking shelter from Syria’s war arrived in the EU via this route. Since then the number of irregular arrivals on this route has fallen considerably thanks to the cooperation between the EU and Turkey.
Western routes in EU migration policy
Western Mediterranean route
The Western Mediterranean route refers to irregular arrivals to Spain, both by sea to mainland Spain and by land to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Northern Africa. It is mostly used by migrants from Algeria and Morocco but people from many sub-Saharan African countries also try to reach Europe via this route.
Following a peak in 2018, Spain has seen a decrease in the number of arrivals, for a variety of reasons. One major factor was the EU’s investment in a close partnership with Morocco to help strengthen border control and combat trafficking of migrants.
Western African route
The West African route refers to arrivals at the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. In 2020 it has become the most-used sea route to reach Spain, with ten times as many arrivals than in the same period last year.
This route – with departures from Morocco, the Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia – has accounted for more than half of sea arrivals to Spain.
Central Mediterranean route in EU migration policy
The Central Mediterranean route refers to irregular sea arrivals to Italy and Malta. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa transit through Tunisia and Libya on their journey to Europe. This route to the EU was the most-used route between 2015 and 2017. Following two years of low numbers of irregular migrants on the route, the number has greatly increased in 2020.
The EU has taken concrete measures to address the migration situation in Libya and to tackle the root causes of migration in Africa.
Saving lives at sea and targeting criminal networks
Migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe have embarked on life-threatening journeys, whilst smugglers have used increasingly dangerous tactics to cross the Mediterranean. The EU has deployed:
three Frontex operations in the Mediterranean to rescue migrants at risk and combat migrant smuggling
a naval military operation (IRINI) to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks
The EU also established the European migrants smuggling centre at Europol in 2016 to help member states crack down on migrant smuggling.
EU asylum reform in EU migration policy
The common European asylum system (CEAS) sets minimum standards for the treatment of all asylum seekers and asylum applications across the EU. The migration crisis highlighted the need to reform the EU’s asylum rules.
As part of a more general reform of EU migration and asylum rules, on 23 September 2020 the European Commission proposed a new pact on migration and asylum. The proposal provides for a comprehensive common European framework for migration and asylum management, including several legislative proposals.
Johansson: Speed up repatriations after EU visa code
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson is aiming to “significantly” speed up the repatriation and readmission of migrants, in part thanks to the recent adoption of the EU Code on Visas. The visa code is useful for “applying pressure”, the Swedish politician said on the sidelines of a Home Affairs Council meeting on Friday, March 12. The basis of the discussion was a report on the collaboration for readmission between 39 third countries and the EU’s 27 member states.
Johansson said that she was working to speed up repatriation and readmissions significantly, adding that she had been involved in conducting talks directly at the highest political level with partner nations. She added that, with the report, there was now a useful tool to show which third countries are cooperating and how EU member states are managing the cooperation.
The Commissioner said that she nonetheless could see the possibility for improvement on the home front as well. She noted that in 2019, some half a million decisions were made on repatriations in the EU — but only 140,000-150,000 were carried out. Thus far this number must be increased, she said.
‘Move more quickly on issue’
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson noted that she was working closely with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on the matter and that she wants the European Commission and the EU-27 to assess which countries must be prioritized to improve cooperation on readmissions, since not all 39 can be focused on.
She expressed the hope that they will be able to move more quickly on the matter and present proposals for improvement in or harsher visa policies for third countries on the basis of the result of readmission talks this summer.