Monday 12 May 2014

Candidates for Commission President: comparing and assessing their immigration policy proposals

Steve Peers

Football fans have long enjoyed playing the game of Fantasy Football, in which they imagine what might happen if a particular grouping of players actually formed a team. Equally, for the time being, aficionados of European Union politics can play Fantasy Commission President, in which they imagine what might happen if any of the particular candidates for Commission President nominated by the European political party groupings got the job.

Of course, as discussed earlier on this blog, it remains to be seen whether, after the elections finish on May 25th, the European Council would be willing to nominate the candidate of the political party which gets the most seats for President, and what the European Parliament (which has the power to ‘elect’ the President, based on the European Council’s nomination) would do if it doesn’t. For the time being, though, this attempt at a new process for selecting the Commission President has resulted in the candidates announcing some of their policies, which allows us to compare those policies.

To that end, this post first summarises the candidates’ positions on immigration policy, and then compares and assesses those policies. It should be recalled that some European parties have not named a candidate for Commission President (the ECR group including the British Conservatives, and the EFD group including UKIP), so therefore for those parties there are no candidate’s policies to assess here.

Martin Schultz

Yesterday, Martin Schultz, the candidate of the Party of European Socialists, announced his immigration policy. The main points of the policy are: saving the lives of migrants; developing a common policy; positive migration management; applying the principle of loyalty and solidarity; developing a rule-based system; and setting out a long-term vision.

In particular, he believes that countries like Malta, as well as some third countries, bear a disproportionate share of the burden as regards migration towards the European Union, and so ‘a European response is needed’. This involves: coordinating national actions; communication with North African partners about surveillance; exempting ship-masters from prosecution; respect for fundamental rights and non-refoulement; and a strong Commission position as regards evaluation and weaknesses at external borders.

As regards asylum, recognition rates differ widely, and the Dublin system for allocation of asylum-seekers is confusing courts. To address this, he wants to increase resettlement (ie bringing refugees directly from states near their country of origin), take the ‘relocation’ of the persons involved within the EU ‘to the next level’, test the joint processing of applications, increase the integration of refugees and improve the capacity of the European Asylum Support Office, to ‘monitor the quality and consistency of asylum decisions’. He will also keep the idea of temporary protection, a special system to deal with a mass influx of persons fleeing persecution, on the table. The EU should develop relationships with third countries focussed upon encouraging reforms, so as to reduce the desire to migrate in the first place.

As for migration, he wants a well-organised system, mentioning in particular the importance of skills, migrant integration, and attracting university students and researchers.  He also wants to use visa policy to encourage tourism.

Jean-Claude Juncker

The candidate nominated by the European People’s Party has set out a five-pointplan on migration. First, he wants to implement the Common European Asylum System legislation without delay, in order to reduce the wide gap in recognition rates between Member States. Second, he wants to increase the powers of the European Asylum Support Office, as regards risk assessments and tailored training for national administrations. Third, he wants the EU to help address the root causes of migration, in the countries of origin. Fourth, to reduce irregular migration and address demographic problems, he wants to address legal migration, in particular by re-examining the ‘Blue Card’ rules on highly-skilled migration. Finally, he wants to secure the EU’s borders, by boosting Frontex (the EU’s border agency) and applying EU rules on punishing traffickers of persons.

Alexis Tsipras

The candidate of the European Left party set out some immigration policy positions in his declaration of acceptance of his candidacy. He also wants to support countries of origin, to rescue migrants on the open sea, to create reception centres, and to rethink the EU framework, in particular changing the Dublin rules on allocation of responsibility for asylum-seekers.

Ska Keller and Jose Bove

There is no immigration policy position paper as such for the Green Party candidates for Commission President (or at least, none that can easily be found on the Internet). However, an indication of their policy can be found in Ska Keller’s YouTube video. She also criticises the EU’s Dublin system because of its impact on human rights and burden-sharing for small countries, and calls for fairer asylum procedures, the issue of humanitarian visas to would-be refugees and legal access for economic migrants.

Guy Verhofstadt

Finally, the Liberal party candidate only briefly mentions migration policy in his Plan for Europe (note: this is a difficult document to download, and it mostly consists of diagrams). The single paragraph on this issue mentions the importance of burden-sharing and managing legal migration.

Comparing the policies

Interestingly, the Socialist and EPP positions have much in common. Both support cooperation with countries of origin, suggest a plan for legal migration, and wish to reduce the gaps in refugee recognition rates by strengthening the European Asylum Support Office. But there are nuances between them: Juncker wants the office to be more involved in risk assessments and tailored training, while Schultz wants it to monitor Member States’ implementation of EU law. However, Juncker does refer to the importance of implementation of EU asylum law generally. Schultz has further policies relating to sharing asylum burdens, as regards resettlement, relocation, temporary protection and joint processing. It might be deduced that neither candidate is calling for amending the Dublin rules on allocation of responsibility for asylum-seekers.

As for legal migration, Juncker is more specific, calling for review of the specific rules on admission of highly-skilled workers, while Schultz sets out a longer list of objectives but without offering as much detail.
Juncker lays greater stress on controlling external borders, in particular as regards strengthening Frontex and prosecuting traffickers, while Schultz stresses exempting ship captains from prosecution, Commission supervision and respect for fundamental rights.

The Green and European Left candidates’ positions have in common a demand for an overhaul of the EU’s Dublin system. For its part, the Green candidate specifically mentions the issue of humanitarian visas as a possible solution to the problem of safe access to the European Union, and (like Martin Schultz) suggests that there should be more avenues for legal migration, without setting out further details.

Unfortunately, the Verhofstadt policy on immigration is too brief to compare it meaningfully with the others, or to assess it.

Assessing the policies

There is a clear divide between the two bigger parties’ candidates’ implicit positions on the Dublin system of allocating asylum-seekers, and the explicit attack on that system by the Green and Left candidates. While there is certainly much to be said for scrapping the Dublin system entirely or profoundly reforming it, this solution is probably not politically realistic as there is a significant majority of Member States against it, and there would probably not be a majority in favour in the European Parliament either.

So if we are stuck with the Dublin system, what can be done to alleviate the problems arising from its operation? As between the two big parties’ candidates, Juncker’s specific suggestions for a bigger role for the European Asylum Support Office would not do much to alleviate those problems. However, his greater focus on ensuring timely and correct implementation of the second-phase Common European Asylum System might well have that effect – if, by that, he means a new Commission policy devoted to bringing infringement actions more aggressively against Member States.

Schultz’s policies would alleviate the problems with the system via the indirect route of greater relocation, joint processing and resettlement. However, he does not offer many details of such policies, and notably he is only promising to ‘test’ joint processing. As regards relocation of refugees between Member States, it is necessary to have a legal framework for transfer of protection, but he does not mention this expressly. But on the whole, if these policies are pursued vigorously, they might alleviate the effect of the system somewhat.

So would the suggestion to make greater use of the issue of humanitarian visas, as suggested by Ska Keller. She is right to say that this is an existing possibility; in fact, this possibility was discussed previously on this blog.  

Of course, the various suggestions to alleviate the effect of the Dublin system could be combined with each other. If so, the total impact would surely be greater than if only one of the candidates’ suggestions were adopted.

The bigger parties’ candidates’ willingness to engage with third countries is fine if it concerns solely issues such as improvements in their economy and levels of human rights protection. It would be more problematic if it involved third States as remote controllers of EU borders, as long as many of the States in question have questionable human rights records.

As for legal migration, there are already proposals under discussion to amend the EU rules on admission of students and researchers, and to amend EU visa policy to encourage more tourists. So in that respect Schultz is simply supporting legislation that has already been proposed. Juncker’s idea of reforming EU rules to admit more highly-skilled migrants makes sense, but that is likely to have only a modest impact in reducing the numbers who might be inclined to come to the EU by irregular (‘illegal’) means.

Finally, as regards irregular migration, it is striking that Juncker lays more stress on increasing control, Schultz lays more stress on Commission evaluation and the other two candidates lay more stress on saving lives. While Schultz also mentions the importance of human rights in this context, he does not link that with the Commission’s evaluation role. On this point, while there are many good examples of Member States saving hundreds of lives at sea, there are also some bad examples of push-backs or other appalling treatment of migrants at borders. The Commission’s failure to respond to the latter cases has likely given Member States the idea that they can act with impunity.


This is the first time that the policy platforms of individual candidates for Commission President could be compared and assessed before citizens cast a vote for the European Parliament. In 2009, Barroso only produced a policy platform after he was nominated for the job by the European Council – and even that was a development compared to previous practice. The possibility to produce such an analysis, and for the candidates to debate, campaign on and answer public questions regarding immigration (and other) policies, shows the capacity of this new system of advance nominations to improve the democratic functioning of the European Union.

It is, of course, doubtful whether much of this debate has resonated with the general public. And as noted at the outset, it remains to be seen whether the European Council will accept the result of the process at the end of the day. But even if it does not (and the European Parliament accedes to a ‘backroom deal’ on appointment of the Commission President), the process of developing and debating policy might still be relevant when it comes to the Parliament obtaining policy commitments from the next Commission and the next Home Affairs Commissioner on these important issues.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 3, chapter 26

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