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European Parliament narrowly endorses EU migration reform, moving it closer to the finish line

The New Pact aims to introduce common and predictable rules to manage irregular migration.
The New Pact aims to introduce common and predictable rules to manage irregular migration. Copyright Petros Karadjias/Copyright 2017 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Petros Karadjias/Copyright 2017 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Jorge LiboreiroVincenzo Genovese
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The European Parliament has narrowly approved the wide-reaching reform of the European Union's migration and asylum policy.


The move was preceded by uncertainty due to a growing chorus of dissent from the right and the left, which, despite gaining traction, failed to derail the momentous vote on Wednesday afternoon. 

"We have listened, we have acted and we have delivered on one of the main concerns of people across Europe," said Roberta Metsola, the Parliament's president.

"This is a historic day," she declared.

The so-called New Pact on Migration and Asylum, an elaborate set of five separate but intertwined pieces of legislation, only needs the final green light from member states, which is expected at the end of the month. 

The New Pact envisions collective and predictable rules to manage the reception and relocation of asylum seekers, a politically explosive issue that has been a recurring source of tension since the 2015-2016 migration crisis, frustrating continued attempts to achieve a common understanding at the European level.

The reform, first unveiled in September 2020, aims to turn the page on this go-it-alone era by bringing together all aspects of migration management, including the identification of asylum seekers, accelerated border procedures and the resettlement of refugees. Its main novelty is a system of "mandatory solidarity" to ensure all countries, regardless of their size and location, contribute to alleviating the pressure on Southern Europe.

The ambitious proposal by the European Commission ran for hundreds of pages and involved a myriad of complex issues, such as fundamental rights, unaccompanied minors, data privacy, financial contributions, detention periods and national security, which slowed down the legislative process.

The Parliament and member states in the Council spent years debating and amending the New Pact, deepening the intricacy of an already intricate legislation. The talks were particularly arduous in the Council, where countries espoused opposing views according to geography, economy and ideology.

Mindful of the high stakes, MEPs took the lead and unified their position while impatiently waiting for the Council to follow suit. The hard-fought negotiations between the two institutions stretched for several rounds and concluded as the sun rose on 20 December.

Parliament endorsed this compromise on Wednesday, albeit by a margin smaller than initially expected owing to the brewing dissent. The five laws received, on average, 300 votes in favour and 270 against.

The votes were slightly delayed by a few minutes as protesters threw paper planes at the sitting MEPs and chanted "This pact kills, vote no."

The result allows mainstream parties to breathe a sigh of relief, as they are keen to flaunt the reform in their campaign for June's EU parliament elections, believing it can show citizens that "the EU delivers." But whether it lives up to the high expectations is a question that will take time to be answered: the laws will take about two years to enter into full force.

Metsola promised the New Pact would be "fair" with those entitled to international protection, "firm" with those who are ineligible, and "strong" against smugglers. But, she added, it would not "magically solve every issue overnight."

"We must make sure that what has been agreed to is fully implemented in all our member states, and that implementation goes hand-in-hand with the respect for our shared humanity," Metsola said.

Speaking by her side, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the reform would make a "real difference for all Europeans" by improving border security, speeding up asylum procedures and cracking down on abusive practices.

"I am proud to say we delivered a European solution. But our work is not done yet," von der Leyen told reporters. "It must be the same determination and unity that has led us to this day that has to guide us to make the Pact a true success in Europe."

A momentous yet controversial reform

At its core, the New Pact is an all-encompassing overhaul of all the internal aspects of migration, meaning everything that happens once an asylum seeker reaches the bloc's territory. The external dimension is, by contrast, covered by tailor-made agreements with neighbouring countries, such as Tunisia, Mauritania and Egypt, to prevent the irregular departures from happening in the first place.

Last year, the EU received 1.14 million applications for international protection, a seven-year high, and registered 380,000 irregular border crossings, half of them through the Central Mediterranean route.


Crucially, the reform does not alter the long-standing "Dublin principle," which says the responsibility for an asylum application lies first with the first country of arrival. 

The five laws contained in the New Pact and approved on Wednesday by MEPs are:

  • The Screening Regulation envisions a pre-entry procedure to swiftly examine an asylum seeker's profile and collect basic information such as nationality, age, fingerprints and facial image. Health and security checks will also be carried out.
  • The amended Eurodac Regulation updates Eurodac, a large-scale database that will store the biometric evidence collected during the screening process. The database will shift from counting applications to counting applicants and prevent the same person from filing multiple claims. The minimal age for collecting fingerprints will be lowered from 14 to 6 years.
  • The amended Asylum Procedures Regulation (APR) sets two possible steps for claimants: the traditional asylum procedure, which is lengthy, and a fast-tracked border procedure, meant to last a maximum of 12 weeks. The border procedure will apply to migrants who pose a risk to national security, provide misleading information or come from countries with low recognition rates, such as Morocco, Pakistan and India. These migrants will not be allowed to enter the country's territory and instead be kept at facilities on the border, creating a "legal fiction of non-entry."
  • The Asylum and Migration Management Regulation (AMMR) establishes a system of "mandatory solidarity" that will offer member states three options to manage migration flows: relocate a certain number of asylum seekers, pay €20,000 for each claimant they refuse to relocate, or finance operational support. Brussels aims at 30,000 relocations per year but insists the system will not force any country to accept refugees as long as they contribute through any of the other two options.
  • The Crisis Regulation foresees exceptional rules that will be triggered when the bloc's asylum system is threatened by a sudden and massive arrival of refugees, as was the case during the 2015-2016 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, including longer periods of registration and detention, and the Commission will be empowered to request additional "solidarity" measures.

From the onset of the debate, the New Pact has been the target of criticism by NGOs, human rights advocates and legal experts, who warn the strong push to have common, predictable rules could come at the expense of fundamental rights.

"After years of negotiations, EU institutions are now shamefully co-signing an agreement that they know will lead to greater human suffering," Amnesty International said in a statement in reaction to Wednesday's vote. "For people escaping conflict, persecution, or economic insecurity, these reforms will mean less protection and a greater risk of facing human rights violations across Europe – including illegal and violent pushbacks, arbitrary detention, and discriminatory policing."

One of the main points of concern has been the fast-tracked border procedure: although EU officials argue this shorter procedure will set clear timelines for applicants and decrease the administrative backlog for authorities, humanitarian organisations contest it will deny asylum seekers a fair and full assessment, raising the odds for deportation.


Deportation, however, is by no means straightforward as it depends on the goodwill of other countries to welcome back the migrants whose requests are turned down. In the last quarter of 2023, out of the 105,00 non-EU citizens who were ordered to leave the bloc only 28,900 were sent back.

This article has been updated with more information.

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