By Matina Stevis-Gridneff
European countries struck a key deal Wednesday to overhaul their joint migration system, an agreement years in the making and aimed at allaying mounting pressure from ascendant far-right political parties across the continent.
The European Union migration and asylum pact took three years to negotiate and was only achieved through a patchwork of compromises. With anti-migrant sentiment rising and driving a shift to the right in Europe and beyond, negotiators were under pressure to finalize the agreement before elections this summer across the bloc’s 27 nations.
The agreement aims to make it easier to deport failed asylum-seekers and to limit entry of migrants into the bloc. It also seeks to give governments a greater sense of control over their borders while bolstering the EU’s role in migration management — treating it as a European issue, not just a national one.
“Migration is a European challenge that requires European solutions,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in written comments welcoming the deal.
“It means that Europeans will decide who comes to the EU and who can stay, not the smugglers. It means protecting those in need,” she said.
Migration has long been a source of major tension and divisions in Europe, with the belief widespread in some countries that they are unfairly carrying a greater load by nature of their geographic location.
Wednesday’s deal is an attempt to heal those rifts by creating a system that more evenly distributes migrants and the costs of receiving them. It is also an attempt to fend off the far right, which has weaponized migration to appeal to a broader audience and forced what was once a fringe issue squarely into the political mainstream — putting the right to seek asylum at risk globally.
The pact stipulates that rapid assessments of whether a person is eligible for asylum will take place at borders. It would make it harder for asylum-seekers to move on from the countries they arrive in — while offering further support to those nations through a so-called “solidarity mechanism.” That mechanism would see countries receiving fewer asylum-seekers helping countries like Greece and Italy that receive more — either by taking in some of their asylum-seekers, or offering those nations financial compensation.
The EU has bolstered its centralized agencies for border management, asylum and migration information management over the past few years, giving them billions in additional funding and more staff. Those agencies will play a central role in what politicians in Europe on Wednesday were heralding as a new era in joint migration management.
To become law, the plan must in the coming months pass through the EU’s complex approval process. That is seen as highly likely given that the plan has already been approved by negotiators from all EU institutions.
The details of the pact drew heavy criticism from all sides over the course of the negotiations, and so the ultimate compromise was a success, analysts said — especially since it protects the right to asylum at a time when many seek to limit it.
“The fact that the group of 27 countries and the EU can still attain an agreement on how to manage migration and how to offer protection jointly, that’s the big achievement — especially given that it’s taken so long,” said Hanne Beirens, the director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.
“Anti-migration is not just the selling point of the far right any more, it has seeped into mainstream parties,” she added.
The EU is far from the only place where the path to asylum is under threat. The United States, Britain and Australia have seen similarly charged debates over who can enter their countries to seek refuge.
Anti-migrant sentiment has also taken hold in the developing world, which hosts the vast majority of the world’s refugees. In Tunisia, migrants from other African countries have been described as “vermin” and pushed into the Libyan desert. Pakistan has moved to expel more than 1 million Afghans, many of whom had sought safety after the Taliban reclaimed power in 2021.
“Confronted with this shifting political landscape, you can see the EU migration pact as a last attempt to maintain the right to international protection that was enshrined in the wake of the Second World War,” Beiren said. She added, “It puts stakes in the ground for the years to come.”
Still, the deal leaves several questions unresolved, like whether it will provide adequate protections for the right to claim asylum. It is vague on how it will make time-consuming procedures at the border — reviewing asylum claims, determining if a person should be deported — go faster.
And it does not detail how anyone who does not qualify for asylum will be deported. The EU lacks return agreements with many countries, and has in the past struggled to convince some countries in Asia and Africa to accept deportees.
Human rights organizations roundly criticized the pact, saying it tramples on a number of fundamental rights, including by forcing asylum-seekers as young as 6 years old to provide biometric data. The rights groups also decried the decision to put more EU money into reinforcing borders with drones and cameras instead of toward saving lives.
“This agreement will set back European asylum law for decades to come,” Eve Geddie, the director of Amnesty International’s European institutions office, said Wednesday. “Its likely outcome is a surge in suffering on every step of a person’s journey to seek asylum.”
Critics from the left also decried the lack of policies or funding to address the thousands of asylum-seekers who die trying to reach Europe each year.
“This pact will not end the loss of lives at sea,” said Terry Reintke, the president of the Greens Party in the European Parliament, urging the creation of more legal paths to migration.
Since the deal was first proposed three years ago, the issue of migration in the EU has become more divisive as the number of people seeking asylum in the bloc has climbed. Roughly half a million people sought asylum in the EU in the first half of this year, according to the bloc’s statistics agency — an increase of 28% from the same period in 2022. On average, about 40% of asylum applicants are successful.
The overall figures are lower than at the peak of 2015, when more than 1 million Syrian refugees arrived in the EU fleeing war. But the bloc’s politics have shifted to the right since then. Voters have become more wary not just of refugees but of economic migrants, questioning their reliance on social welfare and how they alter the social landscape of their cities and communities.