Why the Commission's migration role should go to a new agency

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt draws on his new book to suggest that a powerful EU migration authority should be created to relieve the Commission of this thankless task.

With the year-long Future of Europe conference getting into full swing, the streamlining of EU institutions and decision-making is once more in the spotlight. So now seems a good moment to suggest that the European Commission should be relieved of its responsibilities for shaping and implementing immigration policies.

I must declare an interest: My book “People Power – Why We Need More Migrants” will be published in London on June 3 by Bloomsbury under its I. B. Taurus non-fiction imprint. As the title suggests, it argues that shrinking, ageing Europe needs new blood. Without understating the difficulties, it seeks to explain why we have no choice but to heed warnings that by mid-century 100 million newcomers are a demographic imperative.

Researching and writing about migration’s complex issues brought home to me the full extent of the Commission’s impotence in the face of inter-governmental disagreements. Brussels has failed to make significant headway against mounting migrant and refugee pressures, so the EU should cut the Gordian knot and set up a new and much more powerful agency solely mandated to fix migration.

EU member states have been riven by their very different attitudes to migration

For two decades, the EU has been flailing helplessly in quicksands of its own making. In October 1999, a European Council summit in the Finnish industrial town of Tampere agreed on the need for a common asylum and migration policy “open to those led justifiably to seek access in our territory”. It has floundered ever since.

In the wake of the 2015-16 refugee crisis that brought over a million Syrians and Iraqis to Europe, EU member states have been riven by their very different attitudes to migration. The Commission finally unveiled a proposed solution last September. Called the ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’, it has met with hostility from all sides.

It emphasises ‘solidarity’ and ‘responsibility’, which NGOs and a good many think tanks deride as code for an even tougher detention and deportation regime. Ranged against them are hardliners who will resist any attempts to water it down. The result is deadlock.

Eurocrats comfort themselves that such all-round opposition means they’ve struck the right compromise. But the truth lies deeper than that, for the Commission is itself more the problem than the solution.

Although some five years ago the Commission handled the practicalities of the refugee crisis with speed and efficiency, it has little credibility when proposing new rules and laws governing migration. Member states jealously guard their rights to national procedures, bewilderingly different though they are. That’s why the planned ‘pact’ is largely voluntary despite being presented as EU-wide.

The right size, shape and authority for a dedicated migration agency is anyone’s guess

The Commission’s authority is waning in several areas, particularly migration. Southern and eastern European governments reject measures seen as saddling them with expensive migrant inflows, while richer member states refuse to write blank cheques for unmonitored ‘burden sharing’. The stand-off has remained broadly unchanged since the 2015-16 crisis.

Much of the flak the Commission gets is unmerited, yet it certainly deserves criticism for its poor messaging to public opinion. Perhaps it’s because of a silo mentality that discourages directorates-general from closer collaboration, but EU officials seem incapable of presenting a holistic picture combining humanitarian arguments and Europe’s economic interests. With the ratio of taxpaying workers to pensioners rapidly slipping towards 2:1 from today’s 3.5:1, the need to invest in a bigger migrant workforce is plain.

The right size, shape and authority for a dedicated migration agency is anyone’s guess. Stripping such a growth area out of the Commission’s portfolio would certainly spark storms of protest from europhiles on the lookout for any weakening of the EU executive. They would, however, probably acknowledge that things cannot continue as they are.

The idea of a separate body at very least trigger furious debate and would smoke out those governments and interest groups clinging to the present ill-fated muddle. Although politically highly-charged, immigration is fairly low on the EU’s crowded agenda.

The Commission’s proposed pact is widely seen as a weak response to a 20-year impasse. So without a surprise breakthrough it will soon be the newest tombstone in the migration policy graveyard. The Commission should therefore issue a “back me or sack me” ultimatum, saying that either it gets new powers to knock heads together, or its migration responsibilities should be passed to an autonomous agency. Migration may be a slow-burning crisis, but it’s also increasingly explosive.

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