Are you a government that doesn’t want to take in asylum seekers who arrived in another EU country?
The European Commission has a proposal for you: You can help that country send home migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected instead.
This “sponsorship” scheme is among measures expected to feature in the Commission’s much-postponed migration reform plan, due to be presented on Wednesday, as Brussels ventures once more into one of the most sensitive policy issues in Europe — an issue that exposed deep divisions among EU countries in the crisis of 2015 and 2016.
This time around, the Commission is hoping it has found a formula with a so-called Migration Pact that will allow every country to claim victory. From Hungary to Italy, from Greece to Poland “they all should see their redlines” respected, said an EU official.
Among other planned features of the package is an effort to return more irregular migrants to their homeland, in part by appointing an EU coordinator for such returns. Returns have been a consistent problem for EU countries. In 2018, only 36 percent of those ordered to leave because their asylum application had been rejected had actually done so.
Instead of taking in a specific number of relocated asylum seekers, member states could instead help another country to return the equivalent number of irregular migrants to their home country.
The Commission is also expected to propose beefed-up screening for new arrivals at the EU’s borders. And it will propose additional help for countries where many migrants first set foot on EU soil, which have long complained that they do not see enough solidarity from the EU and other member states.
Such countries — and others, such as Germany, which are the intended destination for many refugees and migrants — have insisted on a mandatory relocation scheme, under which asylum seekers would be distributed around the bloc. Such a scheme was at the heart of fierce disagreements during the last migration crisis, as Central and Eastern European governments flatly refused to take part in it.
The Commission’s new plan is an attempt to present new ideas while accepting that the faultlines among EU governments have barely changed since the crisis — as highlighted by three documents published by POLITICO in June. The papers, revealing the positions of various groups of governments, showed camps deeply entrenched in their respective views.
The new pact “is not about a binary choice between solidarity and responsibility, or between voluntary and mandatory relocation — we don’t want to pick up from where the discussion in 2015 left off,” the EU official said.
An obligation to take part in a solidarity scheme will be part of the proposal. That chimes with repeated comments by the two commissioners with responsibility for migration — Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson and Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas — who have insisted that solidarity cannot be optional for EU members.
But that obligation will also come with options. That’s where the sponsorship scheme comes in. Instead of taking in a specific number of relocated asylum seekers, member states could instead help another country to return the equivalent number of irregular migrants to their home country.
A country that decides to sponsor returns would have eight months to implement them, and it would even be able to decide which nationality of migrants it wants to try to return. But if it fails to implement the returns, it would have to take in refugees instead — and it would not have a choice when it comes to their nationality.
The Commission also plans a revamp of the so-called Dublin regulation, under which the EU country in which an asylum seeker first arrives is responsible for processing that person’s asylum claim. While retaining that fundamental idea is expected to be among the possible options, the Commission is set to propose expanding the opportunities for asylum seekers with ties to other countries to get those countries to process their claims.
Once the Commission has set out its new plans — expected to take the form of 10 proposals, some of them for new legislation — its fate will be in the hands of EU member countries, with much at stake.
Schinas has warned multiple times that “Europe cannot allow itself to fail twice on migration.” The repercussions of failure last time included a surge in support for populists and the far right.
If this effort fails, a third attempt is unlikely — at least for some time to come. And when it comes, it may be a plan among Western European countries, exacerbating divisions in the EU with Central and Eastern Europe.
Such a failure would also leave Europe without a common policy on migration and a functioning asylum system when the number of people forcibly displaced due to war, persecution and human rights violations was 79.5 million last year, the highest number on record and almost 15 million more than in 2015.
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