Fostering Canada-Europe Transatlantic Dialogues

May 13, 2015 - by Dagmar Soennecken, York University

Today the European Commission announces its "European Agenda on Migration" – will new policy guidelines help to address the refiugee crisis in Europe? Dagmar Soennecken comments on the present situation.  

“Spring has arrived and so has the deadly journey of migrants across the Mediterranean. After 900 to 1,200 people died in two separate incidents in one week in early April alone, European leaders met in an emergency meeting on April 23 to agree to not much of anything new. Although the EU Council’s statement opened with an acknowledgment of the tragedy and in it, leaders at least agreed to triple the funding of the Triton and Poseidon programme, the EU’s maritime operations run by FRONTEX, for the remainder 2015 and 2016, the remainder of the 10 point plan continue the EU’s well-worn path of defining these migrants flows as “irregular” requiring deterrence and heightened border control given their reliance on smugglers to attempt the crossing.


Where could a change in direction come from? Although the EU Commission is to put forward its “European Agenda on Migration” today, it in fact holds relatively little power when it comes to changing the course of the EU’s migration and asylum policy. Civil society actors and international organizations, such as the Global Migration Group, together with numerous academic commentaries on the subject have long been calling for a more proactive and indeed, creative approach that would include member state’s re-evaluating their rigid visa regimes that by prevent most refugees from entering the EU that way and developing more flexible and legal ways of migrating to the European Union, not to mention implementing a burden-sharing system that would distribute refugees across Europe via a quota system.

Although some of these policy options are rumoured to be included in the EU Commission’s forthcoming migration agenda, it is unclear who will actually push for them politically given that they are not as easily packaged as migration “control” policies favoured by most key European leaders. Not only that, among those who have traditionally controlled the EU’s political direction, domestic reverberations of migration and integration issues seem to once again dominate the agenda, making it unlikely that Europe will endorse a more open border policy.

Among the Commission’s rumoured proposals, the refugee quota system has the most chances of seeing the light of day, given that both Germany and France have publically supported the idea in the past. However, given that David Cameron surprised pollsters and won a slim majority in the recent UK election, a 2017 EU referendum now seems more and more likely, together with an increase in Cameron’s already “tough on immigration” stance, both domestically and at the EU negotiating table come referendum time, which could pose challenging to say the least for the adoption of a refugee quota system any time soon. Cameron, however, is on board regarding the EU’s proposal to more aggressively combat traffickers and smugglers off the Libyan coast using military vessels, which will be presented to the UN on Monday by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign and security policy coordinator.

Across the pond, France, unlike the UK though, seems willing to not only back a quota system for refugees in the EU and even claims a leadership position. At the same time, France is still working on putting the Charlie Hebdo attacks behind it while cautiously watching the growing popularity of the anti-EU and anti-immigrant Front National, making it less likely that France would be willing to support EU policies that could legally open its borders to more immigrants. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the Front’s long-term, past leader and co-founder Jean Marie Le Pen, has made it her mission to make the party more attractive to mainstream voters, even going so far as suspending her own father from the party last week over renewed anti-Semitic comments. Internationally, France’s Interior Minister is about to begin a tour of friendly African countries, chiefly Cameron, Niger and Chad, this week to not only talk trade but also migration. Among them, Niger is considered a transit country for European-bound migrants from Africa.

France’s neighbour to the East, Germany, is also willing to support European quotas for incoming refugees, but has been silent with respect to other proposals to open the EU’s borders. Germany’s motives for supporting an EU-wide refugee quota are obvious – the country is struggling with a huge jump in domestic refugee arrivals on top of having voluntarily taken on one of the EU’s largest share of Syrian refugees together with Sweden. However, it too, is dealing with a number of domestic issues ranging from renewed violence against refugees to adequate housing in light of the dramatic increase in refugee numbers, not to mention persistent protest marches organized by PEGIDA, a populist anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic movement and its supporters. Lately, attendance at the marches had been waning. Even a much-anticipated speech by Geert Wilders, the Netherland’s right-wing demagogue, in mid-April failed to revive attendance and anti-PEGIDA demonstrations have been consistently strong.

While the most likely outcome of a future showdown between Angela Merkel and David Cameron over EU wide refugee quotas is a UK opt-out of sorts, it is questionable whether such a quota will prove to be the best solution for refugees and for the future of the EU’s migration agenda in the long term. Although a quota may sound reasonable in the short term given the pressures placed on only a few member states, the Dublin agreement has exposed the many challenges that come with forcefully moving refugees between member states. Not only that, without lifting the freedom of movement and employment restrictions currently in place for refugees, an EU quota will further delay and complicate the integration of these newcomers into European society, which should be the ultimate goal of a European migration agenda.” 

Dr. Dagmar Soennecken is an Associate Professor at the York University and at the moment 2015 Canadian Guest Professor at the University of Kiel, Germany. Her latest publication is "Shifting Back and Up: The European Turn in Canadian Refugee Policy,” Comparative Migration Studies April (2014) 101-122. For more watch her "Refugees, Law & the Courts" talk (part of “York's Migration Matters” series).



Centre for Global Studies, PO Box 3050 STN CSC, Victoria, BC V2W 3P5 CANADA
(250) 721 7490