Expert Voice

The 'European Agenda on Migration': quotas and external action

11 June 2015


The European Agenda on Migration presented last month went beyond ‘business as usual’ and demonstrated the will of the Juncker Commission to set the course for migration and asylum issues within the EU and for its relations with countries outside the EU.

By Ralph Genetzke

It is too early to say whether the agenda will be referred to as a milestone in addressing short-term migration crisis situations as well as longer-term needs. Despite this uncertainty, several points of the European Agenda on Migration (EAM) are worthy of note.

Whether the agenda is ‘new’ (as it was long referred to) or not, the European Commission (EC) sent a signal both in terms of timing and content that it was ready to provide more than short-term answers to the current crisis in the Mediterranean. The EC is ready to antagonize a good number of European Member States (EUMS) with its proposals on mandatory quota for relocation and resettlement. The next test case for the EC’s proposals will be the Justice and Home Affairs Council and the European Council, both taking place in June. The Juncker Commission shows a political rather than a technocratic approach, in other words: President Juncker implements what he had announced in his ‘political guidelines’ at the beginning of his mandate. 

This bolder approach to agenda setting in this still very sensitive area of European politics is reflected in the fact that Juncker anchored migration within the EC’s core work programme and institutional set-up. The Home Affairs Commissioner is no longer left alone with the migration portfolio as was the case in the past. Instead, President Juncker, vice-President Timmermans and vice-President and High Representative (HR) Mogherini are driving this agenda together. The latter’s involvement is a fundamental change from the time of HR Ashton, when migration was never part of the agenda of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Many parts of the EAM are not unexpected. The clear political will can be felt in the proposals with regard to driving the asylum agenda ahead and the plans linked to the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). 

Relocation and resettlement

The former follows an increase in momentum caused by certain EU MS arguing that more intra-EU solidarity is necessary and extensive discussions and publications on distribution keys and quotas for asylum seekers and refugees in  recent  months. The question was whether the EC would go as far as to suggest a mandatory scheme for relocation and resettlement. The EC's approach of mandatory quota has provoked most of the reactions to the EAM and the EU 28 have to reach agreement as a precondition for a further harmonised EU asylum policy. In order to reach the target of a mandatory scheme, the EC’s proposals follow a familiar approach suggesting  pilot initiatives and additional allocation of budgetary resources.

Legal migration

Proposals in the area of legal migration were largely predictable and mainly focus on the review of the blue card directive for highly skilled migrants as the most tangible proposal. Having said that, a measure such as the proposed strengthening of dialogue and cooperation with social partners deserves attention and can have impact in the mid-term. The sense of urgency of European citizens is still too low when it comes to likely demographic scenarios of ageing and declining European populations and its impact on labour markets and social security systems. We will see adjustments here and there or the development of new tools where sensitivities won’t be hurt too much with regard to highly skilled migrants and visa policy, but it is clear that the Juncker Commission reserves its energy for negotiations on asylum with MS.

Involvement of the European External Action Service

When it comes to the second notable part of the EAM, i.e. the relations with countries outside the EU, the involvement of HR Mogherini makes the difference and brings a whole range of new instruments to the table. Whether the emphasis of CSDP measures to the detriment of broader foreign policy measures is the right approach remains to be seen. Their applicability and efficiency still have to be proven and the sense of urgency should not prevent from careful scenario and impact assessment, especially when it comes to the EU’s relations with its neighbouring countries. In the end the ultimate objective of stabilizing the EU’s neighbouring region should not be undermined by short-term objectives.

With a pilot initiative on resettlement to the EU as part of the core of proposals on asylum, a proposal for a global effort on resettlement, especially with regard to Syrian refugees, could have been another important EU foreign policy initiative with immediate impact on the situation in Syria's neighbouring countries , which are also located in the southern neighbourhood of the EU.

The EAM wants to show the new involvement of the EEAS with a broader scope of instruments. This new involvement of one of the key EU institutions can and has to build upon the initiatives taken over the past years within the double policy framework of the ‘Global Approach to Migration and Mobility’ (GAMM) and the ‘Agenda for Change’ (for development policy).

There is no alternative to dialogue with partner countries and sound capacity building. Ownership and state responsibility are still the best guarantee for sound policies – in Europe and in Africa. The section on border management has an interesting wording of encouraging partner countries to find their own approaches to manage their borders. This is not a usual formulation of EC policy documents. But, that is what is needed and where ICMPD supports e.g. Lebanon and Tunisia.

Whereas at first sight the approach to not have a separate chapter on relations with third countries appears reasonable in order to bring the external dimension to the core of the agenda, the relevance of parts of the existing comprehensive external dimension agenda would still have to be much more clearly underlined. The migration and development nexus, for instance, must be a core part of any balanced cooperation agenda with partner countries, especially in Africa and is not exclusively linked to legal migration as the EAM suggests.

This is not about focusing on the ‘positive’ rather than the ‘negative’ aspects of migration, but to provide a comprehensive answer to a complex phenomenon. In this context, it seems a missed opportunity to not have stressed the multi-faceted contributions of the diaspora – a crucial aspect if we want to look at the human face of migration.

Tackling root causes

We will see if the EAM is the starting point for a renewed discussion on root causes. This debate is important but is not a linear response to all evils. It has to be differentiated and informed on motivations for displacement, on complex links in a globalized world and needs a critical view on easy solutions such as increasing funding for development cooperation (which is a legitimate goal in itself!).

In the end the discussion will well be on an old topic – ‘Policy Coherence for Development’, an issue which is totally absent in the EAM. Thus the question is not how to address root causes through 'EU development cooperation' but through 'EU policies': development policy, trade, agriculture, fishery, along with general foreign policy, all offer a part of the answer.

Finally, the EC and the EU will only be in a position to implement an external agenda if dedicated human resources are available and internal EU coordination is ensured. Reinforcing EU Delegations in partner countries with regard to migration issues has been a recurrent feature of policy documents for the past years, but the issue goes mainly unnoticed, and was certainly not the priority. Foreign policy and external action need to be supported with sufficient internal resources.


The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of ICMPD. 

Photo: European Commission Audiovisual Services. Ref: P-028293/00-01