The European Union is inching closer to reforming its migration policy, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish consistent rules for all member states. But there's still work to do before reaching the finish line.
The reform is an intricate set of five interlinked pieces of legislation known as the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Despite its name, the Pact is barely new: it was presented by the European Commission in September 2020 as one of the flagship proposals of President Ursula von der Leyen and quickly became the subject of intense media scrutiny, both due to its innovative nature and the acrimonious debate it has prompted among EU leaders.
The Pact is intended to be a holistic, all-encompassing legal framework that can turn the page on the ad-hoc crisis management of the past decade, which saw countries take unilateral and uncoordinated measures to cope with the arrival of asylum seekers.
These go-it-alone policies severely undermined the Union's collective decision-making and often made Brussels look like an inconsequential bystander in what is arguably the most politically explosive issue on the agenda.
"Migration is a European challenge that requires a European response," Ursula von der Leyen has said numerous times.
The Pact envisions precise and predictable rules that lay out the tasks for member states and the EU institutions in normal and exceptional conditions so that nobody has the need to ask "what now?" every time an external border comes under pressure.
The ultimate goal is to strike the perfect balance between the responsibility of frontline nations, like Italy, Greece and Spain, which are the ones that receive the bulk of asylum seekers, and the principle of solidarity that other countries should uphold.
The five main pieces of the Pact are:
- The Screening Regulation
- The amended Eurodac Regulation
- The amended Asylum Procedures Regulation (APR)
- The Asylum and Migration Management Regulation (AMMR)
- The Crisis and Force Majeure Regulation
The draft laws undergo the ordinary legislative procedure: the European Parliament and the EU Council first agree on their separate positions and then meet together to thrash out a compromise text. After that, the new text has to be approved by the two institutions: first lawmakers and later, member states.
Following a "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" mantra, progress has been painfully slow. But a fresh political impetus earlier this year has reinvigorated hopes that the whole package could be concluded before the 2024 European elections.
Here's what you need to know about the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
The Screening and Eurodac regulations
These two are the most technical pieces of legislation and are generally considered the "least controversial" of the Pact, making them the likeliest to be wrapped up first.
The Screening Regulation envisages a pre-entry procedure for a rapid examination of an asylum seeker's profile. It will apply to non-EU nationals who irregularly cross into the bloc's territory, who are brought ashore as part of a search-and-rescue operation, or who are detained after having eluded border controls.
The procedure will collect information about the migrant's identity, fingerprints and facial image, together with health, security and vulnerability checks. It should not last more than five days. Once all the details are gathered, the national authorities will be able to decide the next step in the asylum process.
The biometric evidence will be stored in European Dactyloscopy (Eurodac), the EU's large-scale database that allows countries to verify new asylum requests against those that have been registered in the past. Eurodac has been in place since 2003 and is used by the 27 member states, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The main change under the amended Eurodac Regulation is a shift in focus from counting individual applications to counting individual applicants. In theory, this will help authorities recognise previous claimants, prevent refugees from moving across countries, and speed up the return of those whose requests are rejected.
State of play: the Council endorsed its mandate on both regulations on 22 June 2022, while the European Parliament reached its joint position on Eurodac on 12 December 2022 and on Screening on 20 April 2023.
Negotiations are taking place separately and are the most advanced in the five-piece package. So far, there have been four rounds of talks on Screening and six on Eurodac, the highest number under the Pact.
The APR and the AMMR
Don't be fooled by the unpronounceable acronyms: these two draft laws are the crux of the migration reform and are being discussed together as the Pact's backbone. None of them, however, alter the guiding principle of the EU's migration policy: the first country of arrival becomes the country in charge of the asylum application.
The amended Asylum Procedures Regulation (APR) comes right after the screening when the migrant formally applies for international protection. It sets out two possibilities:
- The border procedure for applicants who come from a country with a low recognition rate (such as Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Pakistan), have provided fraudulent information or pose a risk to national security. Authorities will not allow these applicants to enter national territory and could resort to detention measures. The border procedure should last a maximum of 12 weeks. If the request is rejected, authorities will have another 12 weeks to return the migrant to a foreign country.
- The normal asylum procedure for the other applicants, including unaccompanied minors and families with children under 12 years of age. Countries could allow applicants to enter their territory and provide them with accommodation.
Under the regulation, all 27 member states should have, at any given moment, enough resources to process a minimum number of asylum requests and return decisions. The Council has set out this "adequate capacity" at 30,000 per year for the entire bloc.
Next, it is the Asylum and Migration Management Regulation (AMMR), which establishes the Pact's most ground-breaking element: a system of "mandatory solidarity" that will be triggered when one or more member states are under "migratory pressure."
The system will compel other countries to help out through three different options:
- Relocate a number of asylum seekers within their territory.
- Pay a contribution for each asylum seeker that they refuse to relocate.
- Finance operational support, such as staff, facilities and technical equipment.
The pledges will be channelled into a "solidarity pool" which countries under pressure can tap into. The European Commission insists that no member state will be forced to relocate migrants if they assist through any of the two other options.
State of play: the European Parliament agreed on a joint position on the APR on 28 March this year and on the AMMR a month later, on 20 April.
For member states, the long-awaited breakthrough came on 8 June following marathon talks in Luxembourg, where they established a compulsory target of 30,000 annual relocations and a contribution of €20,000 per asylum seeker. They also proposed making more migrants, including those rescued at sea, eligible for the border procedure.
The co-legislators have so far held four rounds of negotiations on the two critical files.
The Crisis Regulation
This is the last piece of the labyrinthine puzzle.
The Crisis Regulation outlines exceptional rules that will apply only when the bloc's asylum system is threatened by a sudden and massive arrival of refugees, as was the case during the 2015-2016 migration crisis, or by a situation of force majeure, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
In these circumstances, national authorities will be allowed to apply tougher measures, such as extending the border procedure and the detention period of rejected applicants from 12 to 20 weeks.
NGOs have criticised these derogations, warning they could lead to large-scale confinement, degrade the review of asylum requests, and increase the risk of refoulement (sending migrants back to countries where they face serious harm).
The Crisis Regulation builds upon the AMMR and foresees a faster deployment of the three solidarity measures, including the transfer of asylum claims between member states to alleviate the burden placed on a country of arrival.
State of play: the European Parliament approved its joint position on 20 April this year while the Council green-lighted its mandate on 4 October, completing its to-do list. In a notable change, the Council removed the possibility of granting "immediate protection" to refugees who are fleeing a situation of extraordinary danger, such as an armed conflict.
The first round of negotiations took place in the second week of October.
This piece has been updated to include the latest political developments of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.