Schengen, asylum reform and Europe's migration diplomacy: Has COVID-19 changed everything?
The Vienna Migration Conference 2020 took place in a unique and dramatic year. The systemic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic on migration and mobility worldwide — as well as a renewed focus on security issues — absorbed the attention and energies of policy-makers. Meanwhile international cooperation became harder than ever on such matters. The year also saw the arrival of the Von der Leyen Commission with bold new ideas for reform of European border and refugee policy.
ICMPD responded to this challenging situation with an innovative 5th edition of the Vienna Migration Conference broadcast live under restricted conditions from a special studio in Vienna and bolstered by a richly varied series of contributions from ICMPD duty stations around the world. With an online viewership of over 2,000 registered participants that saw people tune in from locations as disparate as Stockholm, Kabul, Lagos or Praia, the conference was also notable for the increased participation of Germany, then the EU presidency and ICMPD’s newest Member State.
The VMC2020 opened on 16 November with a discussion on the impact of the pandemic on migration and mobility with ministers from Switzerland, the current ICMPD Steering Group Chair, and Portugal, the incoming EU presidency. Then followed a memorable keynote debate between renowned author Ivan Krastev and former Secretary General of the European Commission, Martin Selmayr, on the implications of COVID-19 for the world, Europe and migration.
Over the following three days of the conference, ministers, senior officials and experts from Turkey, Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Western Balkans and Eastern Europe came together under ICMPD’s banner for a series of in-depth exchanges on everything from the multi-faceted impact of the pandemic to the prospects for reform of the EU’s asylum rules and strengthening Schengen.
Daily focus sessions highlighted a broad range of voices and allowed participants to delve deeper into priority topics. These included the reasons for divergent border management responses to COVID-19; the challenge to overcome logistical problems inherent in return of irregular migrants; the inspiring work being done by communities in countries like Spain to facilitate refugee resettlement; and the rising role of cities in migration policy. A high level political panel on Tuesday featured lively exchanges that helped clarify the current geo-political context. This was complimented with two senior panels, looking at strategies for progress in the area of EU asylum and Schengen, and how to advance international migration partnerships in the context of post-COVID economic reconstruction.
ICMPD’s Director General, Dr Michael Spindelegger, concluded the VMC2020 on an optimistic note, pointing out that the sheer range and granularity of work ongoing, even in such difficult circumstances, could only bode well for the future. Reflecting on current negotiations on a proposed new Pact for Europe on migration and asylum, Dr Spindelegger said, “Europe will not fail over migration. Less ideology and more pragmatism is the only way forward.”