IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2019


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Refugees and Migration As a Factor of EU Transformation

Ruth Ferrero-Turrión

Associate professor at the Complutense University of Madrid
Complutense Institute for International Studies, Madrid

The humanitarian crisis that originated from the Syrian conflict has posed a great challenge for the countries of the EU. It is undoubtedly a milestone in the mandates of the Juncker Commission and Donald Tusk’s EU Council Presidency and has been marked by the varying responses of the Member States.

In all likelihood, the result of these responses will be partially reflected in the result of the May 2019 European elections[1]. Almost all the signs suggest that both the composition of the Parliament and that of the Commission will be marked by the consequences of the management of refugees and the discourses on identity that are resounding around European ministries with gathering strength.

It is widely understood that the European Union’s development has been based on successive crises and reforms and counter-reforms of the treaties which enable Europe’s trustworthy governance. However, it is perhaps since the Constitutional Treaty failed in 2005 until the present day when European institutionality has most had to deal with multiple crises occurring at the same time. The approval of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 was the recognition of a failure and attempt to rescue a federalizing project reeling from a mortal wound inflicted by the French and Dutch rejection. The incorporation of the central and eastern European states into the community space did nothing to help things progress, due to the number of countries and the problems associated with a complicated transition.

After, or rather in parallel with, Lisbon, during the last three months of 2007, the effects of the eurozone crisis began to be felt. The global economic crisis had a considerable impact on all the Member States, but especially those of southern Europe, particularly Spain and Greece, and, to a lesser extent, Portugal. Bailouts of different natures were implemented, along with the so-called “austerity” policies, which left deep wounds in the societies they affected and produced levels of social inequalities on the Old Continent unheard of since the Second World War. Welfare states began to languish, endangering a social peace that had miraculously been maintained for more than 30 years. And then came Tahrir, 15M, Occupy Wall Street and many other citizen movements demanding democratic regeneration.

In the EU’s neighbourhood these have been years of intense political and social upheaval. The Maidan protests and the end of cooperation with Russia on the eastern border. The misleadingly-named Arab springs, from Tunisia to Syria, Libya to Egypt on the southern border and the arrival of people fleeing the conflicts. These conflicts in the east and the south of the community borders brought into question how the neighbourhood was being managed from Brussels and the European capitals.

And it was in this context, with a notably absent strategic and geopolitical reading of both the internal and external dimension of the situation, that the EU found itself with masses of people waiting at the entrance to the oasis to enjoy the rights symbolized by the 12 gold stars on a blue background. The humanitarian crisis reached Europe in 2015, following a long and convoluted journey which began in 2011 and passed through countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Libya and Turkey, while Brussels and its leaders looked on with apathy and inaction.

The Dilemmas of the Development of a Common European Immigration and Asylum Policy

So it was after 2015 that the debate on how migration and asylum policies should be coordinated from the EU began to intensify. Although it is true that 2019 marks 20 years since the beginning of the development of a European policy on this matter, it would also be true to say that little progress has been made in that time (Pinyol-Jiménez, 2019).

The issue of managing human mobility is, perhaps, one of the most complex of all. It is a phenomenon which is difficult to tackle insomuch that it directly affects the basic principle of states’ sovereignty over access to their territory. This logic holds true for voluntary migration, but not for forced migration, such as for asylum seekers and refugees. In this second case, signatory states to the Geneva Convention have the obligation to manage asylum applications as laid down in international law.

These conflicts in the east and the south of the community borders brought into question how the neighbourhood was being managed from Brussels and the European capitals

In the case of the EU, the problem is even more complicated, since certain competences in the area of migration and asylum have been shifted from the Member States towards the supranational body, the Commission. This situation generates a certain amount of  confusion regarding the clarity of competences in specific areas, since these are shared between the states and the Commission. Europe’s regulatory capacity is limited to the design of a legislative framework which is later developed and implemented by each one of the Member States.

It is in this context of unclear competences, ill-defined concepts and obligations, an EU in institutional and political crisis, in which major north/south and east/west divides have been opened, and masses of refugees arriving at the Schengen borders seeking international protection, that the question has had to be addressed of what to do and how to do it.

Faced with the dilemma of managing refugees from the heart of the EU, different approaches have been proposed, each accompanied by its respective implementation plan. To date, however, none of them have approached the phenomenon of human mobility as an inevitable fact in the context of globalization. The different ideas that have been put on the table have opted for offering partial responses. These, should they be put into practice, will not only fail to resolve the problem of managing people in movement, but will also fuel anti-immigration and populist discourses, as none of them resolve the central issue, which is how to manage mobility.

It is likely that the different positions in relation to the European Agenda on Migration (2015), and the subsequent proposal for refugee quotas adopted by the Member States, has been the clearest sign of the procedural crisis and the crisis in the political direction to follow in the context of the EU (Ferrero-Turrión, 2016).

The different approaches to the humanitarian crisis allow an almost Cartesian division of the EU today, bringing us face to face with the real diversity of Europe. Not only can the traditional divide still be observed between the countries of the North and those of the South, or, effectively, host and asylum countries, but there is also a new group of countries offering a new interpretation on how to manage the migratory phenomenon; those which have joined the EU since 2004. So it seems reasonable to assume that to advance in the development of a European migratory architecture, it is crucial to reach an agreement between what we might call the Europes of Migration. These Europes can be defined both by their historical approaches to the migratory phenomenon, and by their geographical distribution (Ferrero-Turrión, 2018).

Central Europe has been the traditional destination for foreign workers, but also for asylum seekers. A large part of its economic development depends on them. The Scandinavian countries, for their part, have historically received asylum seekers and have the capacities, infrastructure and civic culture needed to manage this. Then, we have the countries of the South, traditionally countries of emigration, converted much more recently into reception countries due to the economic boom in the early 21st century. Furthermore, these countries are located at the EU’s external borders. Lastly, are the eastern European countries, which have become the EU’s eastern border following their EU accession in 2004. Despite the fact that in this geographic area there have always been internal migratory movements, diversity is seen as being linked with national and transnational minorities which originate from the same region. This is the fundamental reason behind the presence of large numbers of economic migrants of Slavic origin in the Visegrad countries. Like the case of central Europe, these Slavic migrants are their economic drivers and are what they call “our migrants.”

In this context, the only way of reaching an agreement on the development of a truly European migration policy is finding consensus between these four approaches and all-encompassing ways of understanding migratory processes. Considering this as our premise, it is also essential that clear limits are established for the negotiations, which can only be those laid down by international and European law, in other words, the rule of law, as approved by all EU Member States on accession. Once these limits have been recognized, as in any negotiation, the different interests must be put on the table of the European Council, so whoever is sitting around that table and whatever balances of power arise from this will be decisive for the future.

Today, what we have observed has been the constant dodges of the Member States regarding the implementation of a real solution to managing migratory flows and the reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) (Sanahuja, 2016). The agreements they have managed to reach rest exclusively on the premise that migration is a phenomenon that affects the security of host societies. This approach overlooks other essential questions, such as the ordered management of migratory flows or holistic and inclusive integration policies.

For the time being, attention has been focused on just one of the components of migratory policy: border control and the persecution of irregularities. The underlying aim is to halt the flows of migrants and refugees heading for the EU, an aim approached through different areas: border externalization and securitization and the criminalization of assistance. The tools that have been used to put this idea into practice are based on dialogue with the countries of origin and transit (departure) through incentives linked with development cooperation.

It is surprising to observe the regression generated by this strategy to contain flows. Traditionally, the EU has always implemented immigration policies towards third country nationals linked strictly to the control of departures from their countries of origin. The bilateral agreements signed by Spain during the first five years of this century addressed this question regarding the basis of mutual cooperation between origin, transit and destination countries, but development aid was never conditioned by this issue. In fact, the proposal to link both areas, migration and development, was put on the table during the Seville European Council held during the Spanish Presidency. The result of the vote in the Council was the proposal’s rejection.

The different ideas that have been put on the table have opted for offering partial responses. These, should they be put into practice, will not only fail to resolve the problem of managing people in movement, but will also fuel anti-immigration and populist discourses

Today, however, the decisions adopted by the Council are drifting in the opposite direction. Far from continuing with a doctrine that refused to apply positive conditionality to development policies, the path being taken leads in the opposite direction. It is staggering to see that the adoption of such an approach does not correspond with extensive empirical research that has clearly shown that far from halting migration, development cooperation policies create better conditions for departure from developing countries (OCDE; OIT).

The European Debate in the Context of the Humanitarian Crisis (2015-2016)

The debate on migration policy in the EU is nothing new, although it is true that the European Council has changed its approach to the issue. To understand the agreements adopted it is essential to understand the context in which they were reached. During 2015 and 2016, the EU was in a situation of internal collapse, partly resulting from various factors: the institutional crisis triggered by Brexit, an economic and social crisis which led to an increase in populist and Eurosceptic positions and the failing of the European Neighbourhood Policy on the eastern border as a consequence of the Ukrainian conflict. The arrivals of people seeking international protection also began to reveal the EU’s incapacity to govern its southern border.

In the different European Councils these four matters had to be dealt with at the same time, which gave rise to constant negotiations and positions in the interest of nations and regions. The Baltic states and Poland, together with Sweden, advocated strengthening the eastern border through the deployment of NATO troops; France and Germany were trying to find a solution to Brexit; the presence of Eurosceptic and anti-immigration/Islamophobic movements increased in the public arena throughout the continent; and Greece and Italy appealed to European solidarity in managing the migration flows. Tensions between the divided interests of the southern and eastern neighbourhoods increased. And, meanwhile, a group of countries, known as the Visegrad Group (Czech Rep., Slovakia, Hungary, Poland) unified their positions on how to approach the migration issue. Although the four Visegrad countries have different positions regarding how a democracy should operate and their approaches towards the EU, with different levels of confrontation with Brussels, they decided to set up a compact group to negotiate the migration issue from a strong position. They all agreed on rejecting the mandatory refugee quotas, increasing security and bolstering the EU’s external borders. They knew that if they worked together as a group they would have greater clout and enhanced capacities to lead political positions in Europe with the support of other countries. And they were right (Ferrero-Turrión, 2018).

In the June 2015 European Council, the Juncker Commission proposed a redefinition of an already existing mechanism in article 78.3 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU, which stipulated “In the event of one or more Member States being confronted by an emergency situation characterized by a sudden inflow of nationals from third countries, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may adopt provisional measures for the benefits of the Member State(s) concerned. It shall act after consulting the European Parliament.” This legal basis, therefore, allowed for the introduction of the so-called resettlement and relocation quotas, which, in any case, would already have been accepted by the group of Member States.

Far from continuing with a doctrine that refused to apply positive conditionality to development policies, the path being taken leads in the opposite direction

The conflict between the Council President Donald Tusk and the President of the Commission Jean Claude Juncker on the mandatory nature, or not, of the quotas is perhaps the episode which is most representative of the tensions between the Member States. The positions on whether or not the resettlement and relocation quotas should be voluntary polarized the debate. The June 2015 European Council will be remembered for the heated discussion between the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the Prime Minister of Latvia Laimdota Straujuma on migration and the priority between the southern and eastern borders. “If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it. Either there’s solidarity or don’t waste our time,” Renzi told his counterparts. In the end, voluntary quotas were approved as a “temporary and exceptional” mechanism to help refugees in Italy and Greece.

The Conclusions of this Council[2] laid down the conditions for the distribution in accordance with “objective, quantifiable and verifiable criteria that reflect the capacity of the Member States to absorb and integrate refugees.” The indicators used for establishing quotas were population size, absorption capacity and GDP, to ensure good integration into economic structures. With this distribution, countries like France and Germany were obliged to accept around 15-20% of the total number of refugees; while Romania and Hungary, for example, were allocated 4% and 2% respectively. The Member States committed to 40,000 resettlements of people coming from Italy, Greece and Hungary in a period of two years.

In the next informal meeting[3] of Heads of State and Government of the EU in September 2015, negotiations continued on the measures to be adopted regarding the arrivals of refugees. The number of people to be received by the Member States was increased with an additional 120,000 people, on top of the 40,000 which had already been approved in June, thereby bringing the total number of relocations (from European countries) to 160,000 and resettlements (from third countries) to 22,000. Likewise, in this meeting, the final declaration omitted any mention that might raise doubts about the mandatory nature of the quotas, which are, in fact, not mentioned at all. Furthermore, once again there was emphasis on prioritizing security and public order with regard to hosting refugees, as well as on adopting the necessary measures to avoid potential secondary movements. Despite all the concessions made, the declaration did not receive the unanymous backing of the Council, with Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania voting against it.

Again, the area of security dominated over migrant reception policy. The informal meeting’s declaration also included greater externalization of policies towards Turkey, the Balkans and Africa; the impossible reform of the European Asylum Policy, blocked on an almost permanent basis; and the strengthening of the Madad Regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian crisis. Already in 2016, added to the aforementioned securitization and externalization, came the criminalization of the voluntary sector, with accusations that the rescue missions in the Mediterranean were creating a pull effect.

In 2018, there were new proposals made, this time linked with the opening of landing platforms for migrants trying to enter the EU. This option is still being studied under two variables: that these platforms be located on European or African soil. This kind of choice merely serves to show how much distrust is being created by the current management mechanisms. In the EU, migration policies have evolved towards policies which belong to the area of national security, overlooking those areas that had always been on the political agenda, such as those related with human rights.

In addition, none of the Member States fulfilled the commitment made in 2015 on the number of relocations. In June 2017, at the end of the two-year deadline, only 34,689 relocations had been undertaken, 22% of the total agreed upon. The debate that has unfolded on the issue of the quotas paints a severe and precise picture of the different stances towards the migration policy model to be developed in Europe. This was well demonstrated by the appeals to the Court of Justice of the EU over the legality of the Council’s mandate in the distribution of refugees.

Refugee Management As a Symptom of the Political Crisis in the EU

The debate on the quotas may have been one of the triggers of the political crisis, which deepened with the increase in Eurosceptic and populist positions since the eruption of the economic and euro crisis; Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal being right in the middle of it all.

The debate of the quotas paints a severe and precise picture of the different stances towards the migration policy model to be developed in Europe

While with the debt crisis the split was not so brusque, probably because most Visegrad countries are not in the eurozone, the fracture as a consequence of the poor management of the tools outlined in the treaties has caused an unprecedented institutional and political earthquake. The unification of criteria and stronger position of the Visegrad countries on the application of the principle of solidarity among the Member States, which, they argue, is a direct attack on their sovereignty and a security threat, alongside those states that appealed for compliance with that principle as an essential element of the construction of Europe, has opened a Pandora’s box regarding the EU’s destiny.

In the new political cycle beginning in the EU as of May 2019, we will almost certainly be faced with debates and stances we could never have imagined. With the influence of social democrats and conservatives giving way to nationalist-populist parties that can only produce discourses which link security with migration, which, incidentally, they began. It is, without doubt, a decisive moment for confronting the dilemma of Europe’s destiny. It would be a grave mistake to assume that everything that so many have fought for will last forever.


Ferrero-turrión, Ruth. “Facing Migration Flows in the EU: The Cases of Spain and the Czech Republic. Different Views, Different Solutions.” in Think Visegrad, 2018.

Ferrero-turrión, Ruth. “Europa sin rumbo. El fracaso de la UE en la gestión de la crisis de refugiados.” Revista de estudios internacionales mediterráneos, nº 21, p. 159-176, 2016.

Pinyol-jiménez, Gemma. “Deconstrucción de la Política Europea de Migración.” Política Exterior, nº187, January/February 2019.

Sanahuja, José Antonio. “La Unión Europea y la crisis de los refugiados: fallas de gobernanza, securitización y ‘diplomacia de chequera.’” in Mesa, Manuel. (coord.) Retos inaplazables en el sistema internacional. Madrid: Fundación de Cultura de Paz/CeiPaz, 2016.


[1] This article was finalized in early May 2019 (Editor’s note)