With its ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’, the European Commission has taken on one of the most divisive and controversial issues within the bloc. And one that puts its own human rights record most prominently on the spot. The outcome are elaborate proposals, heavy on procedure but weak on moral principles and values, and on embedding in international commitments.

The blaze that destroyed Europe’s largest asylum seekers camp, the pandemic that closed overnight the external border of the EU and the inexorable economic crisis that put tens of million European citizens out of work are the backdrop against which Ursula Von der Leyen announced on 23 September the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum.

In response to challenges posed by migration and its governance, the New Pact contains a broad array of measures aimed at restoring trust between Member States while bringing clarity to would-be migrants and asylum seekers. Just to list a few of them, measures include: speeding up asylum border procedures and decisions on protection or return, making full use of the EURODAC (European Asylum Dactyloscopy) database to deter unauthorised movements to Member States other than those where an asylum claim is filed, tracking support for voluntary departure and reintegration in origin countries. Moreover, the New Pact offers flexible options to Member States, such as a choice between relocating recently arrived migrants and sponsoring the return of a migrant with no right to stay on behalf of another Member State. It foresees the recognition of the specificities of search and rescue in EU law. It advocates increased support to Frontex and the definition of common rules for preventing unauthorised entry or residence, while preventing the criminalisation of humanitarian actors. The New Pact also reaffirms a number of existing provisions, from the fight against migrant smuggling and employers who hire migrants without the required legal status, to cooperation with the EU’s international partners in migration-related issues.

The New Pact is mostly designed to ease tensions between Member States. In particular, removing the Dublin regulation would reduce Mediterranean frontline states’ resentment to the EU, as it would make it possible to distribute migrants arrived by sea across Europe as soon as they disembark. The option to take full responsibility for returning a rejected asylum applicant on behalf of another state instead of relocating an asylum seeker on their territory could satisfy Member States that do not accept relocation. However, the Pact lacks the explicit commitment to moral principles that would increase the trust of citizens in EU institutions.

The communication on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum contains no reference to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM).

First, in its thirty pages, the Communication on a New Pact on Migration and Asylum contains no reference to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). One must remember that two years ago, when an acute crisis of the governance of migration was just closing, almost all nations of the world adopted the GCM. For the first time, universal principles to promote the well-being of migrants and ensure effective respect of all their human rights were spelled out. By ignoring the Global Compact, the EU Pact seems to send the message that EU Member States stand above the rules that the United Nations have been striving to articulate. Ironically the European pact oblivious to the GCM was announced the very day the general debate of the 75th United Nations General Assembly starts. By doing so, the EU turns a blind eye to the many human rights violations taking place on European territory.

Second, the EU Pact silences what went wrong with migration so far and therefore doesn’t solve these problems. While the Pact rightly reaffirms the EU’s need for migrants’ skills and talents, the virtues of international mobility of students and researchers, as well as the necessity to integrate migrants and their families in society, it overlooks existing obstacles to successful inclusion. More precisely, it says nothing about xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance which are critical impediments to smooth integration and the building of cohesive societies. Eliminating them is a priority, though.

Third, the Pact contains no anticipatory response to future refugee crises. One of the reasons that huge numbers of migrants arrived by sea and then stranded in Greece and Italy in 2014-2016 was the combination of two facts: the unavailability of asylum channels allowing people in search of international protection to reach Europe directly from countries in the Middle East, and the Dublin Regulation that keeps them in the country where they first entered the EU until their claim is fully processed. Amending or abolishing the Dublin Regulation as proposed by the New Pact is only half of the response. The other half must be securing legal access to Europe to file an asylum claim. For this, two instruments must be promoted: resettlement and the deliverance of asylum or humanitarian visas. By doing so, the EU would affirm its loyalty to its founding principle of protecting fundamental rights and respecting human dignity.

With the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the European Commission offers a sophisticated toolbox, but it lacks moral leadership.

With the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the European Commission offers a sophisticated toolbox, but it lacks the moral leadership European citizens would need to regain their faith in EU institutions that has been profoundly undermined by a host of issues, not least policymaking on migration.