The European Council conclusions on migration: what has really changed?

Migrants crossing the Greek-Macedonian border during the height of the so-called “migration crisis”.
Idomeni (Greece), September 2015. Picture by the author.

On 28-29 June the European Council (EC) convened in Brussels to discuss, inter alia, a common solution to the long-standing issue of migration and asylum in Europe. After hours of negotiations, the 28 European leaders reached an agreement, preserving the fragile political equilibrium within the EU. But is there really something to celebrate?

The conclusions of the summit

The conclusions of the EC focused on three main objectives:

  1. The voluntariness of member states to operate the identification, relocation, and resettlement of those migrants who disembark in the European territory. The recourse to the voluntary basis seems nonetheless to collide with the principle of solidarity among member states and the need to engage in complementary efforts to deal with migratory issues. The principle of voluntariness does not constitute any “prejudice to the Dublin reform”, despite its liability in producing, rather than preventing, the secondary movement of migrants within the EU. The iron-hand approach of the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), which have continuously refused any solution based on quotas or sanctions, has implicitly prevailed.
  2. The strengthening of European external borders, the externalisation of mechanisms of control of migrant flows, and the increase in returning procedures. Although flows are already diminishing, shared efforts are put in place to “stem illegal migration” fight smuggling and “eliminate the incentive to embark on perilous journeys”. This will be achieved, in turn, with the creation of newly-conceived “regional disembarkation platforms” in cooperation with third countries, UNHCR and IOM. The formulation of a new name seems to disguise the thorny problem of externalised detention centres functioning as filters for migrant mobilities.
  3. The cooperation with Turkey and African countries. The externalisation of border mechanisms cannot occur without the necessary financial and material support to the third countries involved. In this respect, the EC approves the second tranche of funding to Turkey as part of the 2016 deal and increases the reserves of the EU Trust Fund for Africa “aiming at a substantial socio-economic transformation of the African continent”. Presented as a plan for African economic development, the political-economic cooperation seems to conceal European colonial aspirations on the continent, while compelling third countries to deal with or take back their migrants. Apart from a generic reference to the necessity of “Tackling the migration problem at its core” through the increase in public and private investments, the structural inequalities producing migration movements seem once again overlooked.

Towards a paradigm shift for migration

The EC has consolidated, rather than modified or overturned, the general structure that has regulated migration and asylum in the EU for the past two decades, with all its problems and controversies. A paradigm shift in the way of thinking of, comprehending and governing migration movements appears necessary if the EU aims to develop a migration and asylum system capable of overcoming its structural deficiencies and upholding its fundamental values of respect for human dignity and human rights.

Three main ideas are here articulated:

  1. The opening of legal channels to access the EU for humanitarian and work reasons. The increasing illegalisation of migration movements has actually jeopardised migrants’ journeys and expanded smuggling and trafficking networks. As channels for regular entry have been progressively curtailed, those who managed to access the EU have either remained in the illegality or applied for asylum to prolong their stay, overburdening asylum procedures. Undocumented migrants, in turn, reinforce a perceived sense of social insecurity among the native population and enhance a vicious cycle of economic invisibility and precariousness. The activation of legal channels for humanitarian and work reasons would curb smuggling routes and benefit the whole society, providing protection for those in need and meeting the requirements of the European labour market.
  2. The overcoming of the CEAS. The current Common European Asylum System actually combines 28 different procedures for the reception and identification of refugees and the qualification of their status. Besides, it often delegates European border countries with the examination of asylum claims, compelling the asylum seekers to remain in the first country of arrival while waiting for a response. The multiplicity of asylum systems, however, generates secondary movements within the EU, as asylum seekers tend to move to those countries where they can obtain asylum more easily. The harmonisation of asylum procedures throughout the EU would guarantee a fairer system, enabling the freedom of movement for all within the EU.
  3. An alternative counter-action to tackle the root causes of migration. The political and economic interventions in third countries, with the support to authoritarian regimes among them, have often responded to European or national strategic interests, rather than facing the structural inequalities and the humanitarian crises that migrants are escaping. Only a stronger engagement towards social justice, peace and empowerment can effectively prevent the uprooting of people and contribute to create a better society.

The conclusions of the summit paved the way for the new Austrian Presidency of the EC driven by the motto “A Europe that protects”. The hope is that it will be able to protect not just its external borders, but also all the people living within it and attempting to reach it.


After consolidating a human ri

ghts background at the University of Bologna, Marco Mogiani is now a University Assistant at the University of Vienna and PhD candidate in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. His research looks at borders and migration issues in Europe, with particular interest in how processes of neoliberalism, securitisation and migrants’ autonomy intersect across borders. He previously worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Migration and Development at SOAS, and in International Economics at King’s College London.