Immigration reform in Europe needs external border controls, respect for sovereignty, and shared costs
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Immigration reform in Europe needs external border controls, respect for sovereignty, and shared costs

A coherent reform of asylum-based EU immigration must embody two main components: control over external borders and a new set of internal EU rules. EU leaders have made some progress on the first part, but the outlook concerning the second remains vague. In this post, Olivier Blanchard and Jacob Funk Kirkegaard make some suggestions for the way forward.

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PIIE Realtime Economic Issues Watch, 2 July 2018


Faced with an existential threat to EU cohesion, not to mention the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, European leaders fashioned a last-minute compromise in Brussels on 29 June to deal with their immigration crisis. Announced at 5am after marathon negotiations, the agreement set in motion potentially crucial reforms of the EU’s rickety and fragile immigration framework in the coming months – an achievement that has of course eluded lawmakers in the US.

EU leaders agreed that immigration is a common challenge requiring a multifaceted European response. They introduced potentially far-reaching proposals for so-called regional disembarkation platforms to expedite the controlled screening of asylum seekers and repatriation of rejected ones, agreed to deepen their cooperation with African immigration origin states, and signalled their willingness to dedicate more resources to external border control. Important details, however, of how the accord will be implemented remain to be decided.

Where does this late-night compromise leave Europe at this crucial moment?

Since 2015–16, Europe has struggled to deal with the flood of inward migration and to reconcile national sovereignty with public concerns about immigration. And the regionwide internal freedom of movement implemented through the Schengen Agreement in the early 1990s, enabling Europeans to travel anywhere they want, has come under severe threat. Anti-immigrant sentiment has flared with a new government in Italy and restiveness over the issue in Germany ahead of the Bavarian regional elections in October 2018.

To understand the tensions, it is important to recognise that three main groups of immigrants are involved: economic migrants looking for work and a better life; family-based migrants reuniting with loved ones; and humanitarian asylum-based migration of recognised refugees. EU member states are within their rights to regulate the number of economic and family-based non-EU migrants they take in according to national preferences. Because these two groups account for the vast majority of migration, immigration remains mostly a member state responsibility.

The latest crisis sprang not from immigrants in the first two categories but from refugees fleeing armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, posing a test to Europe’s longstanding obligation to provide asylum based on the humanitarian principles in the UN Refugee Convention. The number of asylum seekers in 2015–16 was very large, threatening both the capacity of individual member states and Europe’s open internal borders. It has since come down significantly again, but the risk remains of another wave of refugees to Europe from political instability in its neighbouring countries and nearby regions. Hence a European-level policy response is essential to address this challenge in a legitimate and politically sustainable way, while respecting member states’ sovereignty over immigration in the process.

A coherent reform of asylum-based EU immigration must embody two main components: control over external borders and a new set of internal EU rules. As reflected in the Brussels announcement, EU leaders have made some progress on the first part, but the outlook concerning the second remains vague.

This blog post makes some suggestions, in particular on internal EU rules.

Controlling external borders

To achieve this goal EU leaders must greatly expand Frontex, the embryonic European border control and coast guard agency. Offshore processing centres should be established in several African countries or on islands or in other geographically separated locations inside the EU. The centres would determine if asylum seekers are genuine, including persons intercepted on European territorial waters in the Mediterranean Sea. This common approach necessitates one set of harmonised EU rules for granting asylum to refugees at the processing centres.

The processing centres would not prevent individual member states from continuing to administer their own national asylum rules, however. Nor would they bar member states from granting asylum according to national rules governing applications made directly in each member state.

In Brussels, EU leaders went some of the distance to align themselves with these principles. They agreed to (1) establish “regional disembarkation platforms” outside the EU and “controlled centres…[for] rapid and secure processing” of asylum seekers inside the EU; (2) grant Frontex “increased resources and an enhanced mandate”; and (3) call for a “speedy solution” in the search for a common EU asylum procedure. These decisions introduce required elements to the EU’s immigration framework and are tangible steps forward for the EU. Still, many details will have to be filled by the incoming Austrian EU presidency in the second half of 2018.

Internal EU rules

To ensure that rules on refugee intake succeed, the EU should have a new set of internal rules. We believe two components are needed.

First, EU leaders must adopt a bottom-up approach to national quotas. The existing system of top-down mandatory national quotas for resettlement in the EU of refugees who arrived first in Greece and Italy has been failing since 2016. Newly established refugee quotas in the EU must work from the bottom up, not the top down.

One might wish that all countries were generous and open to people in need. But EU members have the right to decide how many refugees they can accept. Recent political developments illustrate how imposing more refugees on a country than it wants is a recipe for backlash. The only politically feasible approach is to add up at the EU level the member states’ voluntary commitments to accept asylum seekers admitted through offshore asylum centres. In this spirit, the European Council has explicitly reiterated that member state commitments must be voluntary.

The number of asylum seekers in Europe has been volatile, however, and it is important to further distinguish between periods of “normal inward humanitarian migration” and “crisis episodes”. The latter includes 2015–16, when a very large number of people genuinely needed protection due to the armed conflict in Syria. The bottom-up quota for asylum seekers accepted through offshore processing centres can realistically address asylum demand only during normal periods of inward migration. In periods of crisis migration, just as is the case during the most severe financial downturns when losses have to be allocated, EU members will have to reach a new political settlement reflecting circumstances at the time.

Second, there must be full EU-level mutualisation of costs associated with refugees admitted through offshore processing centres. The European Council conclusions state that immigration is “a challenge not only for a single Member State, but for Europe as a whole”. The Council calls for “full EU support” to member states and continuing EU financing of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the EU Trust Fund for Africa, and other such vehicles. This statement represents acceptance of the principle of centralised financing of immigration-related expenses in the EU. But more resources will no doubt be needed.

All countries should contribute to the common pool, in an amount sufficient to pay for the costs of addressing Europe’s current asylum-based migration predicament. This common fund should finance the offshore processing centres, Frontex enforcement of the common border, and all administrative and relocation costs of asylees within the country, including housing, language, and labour market training. Thus, a member state that wants to close its doors to refugees could do so but would then be making a net financial contribution to the common EU immigration fund. On the other hand, a member state that is more generous and willing to accept many refugees would receive more from the common fund than it contributes. Meanwhile member states would remain fully financially responsible for any migrant – work-, family- or asylum-based – granted residency under national migration rules. 

For sure, the cost of accepting refugees will differ among member states. But the central EU budget should cover the costs for member states at a single fixed level, sufficient to provide governments with a financial incentive to accept more refugees. Relying on a single fixed reimbursement rate will also encourage poorer member states (especially in Eastern Europe) to accept more refugees. Similarly, all member states will have an incentive to make acceptance of asylum seekers more cost effective. Additional EU financing would also have to be made available to member states to pay for migration spikes during crises.

The proposals outlined here should reduce political and economic tensions in Europe, within and among EU members. At the same time, the collection and distribution of funds earmarked for immigration seem like a natural function for parts of a reformed and – given these new common responsibilities – significantly expanded EU budget.

Strong financial incentives alone will likely not overcome political bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment in some member states, but they will help adapt the EU’s immigration framework to the rising challenges in a politically realistic manner.