The Justice and Home Affairs Council of the European Union has approved a package of measures which edit the functioning of the common asylum system for the first time after many years of tensions and negotiations between member states. The decision was hailed by many as a historic step for the European Union and a fundamental moment in the path towards the reform of migration policies launched by the New Pact on Migrations and Asylum. Indeed, it is an agreement on highly controversial political matters that has long seemed impossible to achieve. Since 2015, the EU has been trying unsuccessfully to change the rules on the internal dimension of its migration policies.
At the same time, the agreement reached in the Council still leaves many questions open: the agreement was not unanimousgiven that it was reached by a qualified majority and after a hectic day. Hungary and Poland they voted against the Swedish presidency’s compromise proposal, not a surprise. Four other countries (Bulgaria, Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia) they abstained. This leaves open the discussion on the effective implementation of the rules established by the agreement, a problem already encountered with the current European asylum system.
The agreement was concluded only when a key country like theItalia he gave his consent, after extracting concessions during the last day of negotiations. Without Italy – and its key role given that it receives a substantial share of irregular arrivals – the agreement would have been unenforceable. Finally, we must not forget that the agreement fits into the broader framework of the New Pact, which also covers other dimensions of migration policies, and that the negotiation process with the European Parliament.
The new obligations for Italy
The vote was taken on two very technical but politically sensitive packages of measures, which concern the combination of responsibility and solidarity. The negotiations focused on responsibility of the countries of first entry such as Italy for the management of asylum procedures and the fight against secondary movements, and more solidarity mechanisms to relieve the pressure on these countries.
From the first point of view, one of the most important innovations is the mandatory extension of the use of the so-called ‘border procedures’ to those categories of migrants whose request for international protection is immediately deemed reasonably unfounded. These procedures – now used only occasionally – require the countries of first entry to quickly manage the asylum application and possible repatriation procedures within a deadline of six months, during which applicants may also be detained in special centers on the borders of the EU. Land border procedures will automatically apply to migrants with nationalities with an asylum recognition rate of less than 20% and who entered Europe irregularly or as a result of a search and rescue operation at sea. It is evident that these forecasts will increase the compulsory responsibilities of Italy and the other Mediterranean countries.
Changes were then introduced also with regard to the functioning of the Dublin system, which regulates the responsibility of member states for handling asylum applications. The reform that Italy has been asking for for years – which should have relieved Rome of its responsibilities as a country of first entry – has never been within reach. On the contrary, the changes forwarded by the Council go in the opposite direction, trying to reassure countries like France who have always complained about the poor controls on secondary movements: for example, the responsibility of countries of first entry on asylum applications has been extended from 12 to 24 months. Italy – according to news sources – seems to have obtained that this extension does not apply to applicants rescued at sea: the deadline in this case should remain 12 months, within which Italy will still have to accept the transfer from other countries.
In exchange for these concessions, Italy and other Mediterranean states have received some openings on the front of solidarity, which however appear to be less structural and more flexible with respect to liability measures. Minister Piantedosi himself he recently acknowledged how the atavistic Italian request for mandatory relocations was unattainable. We speak instead of forms of mandatory solidarity that they can take various forms: relocations (the goal is 30,000 a year at European level); financial contributions to a European fund which should finance actions in the external dimension not yet specified (€20,000 for each rejected outplacement); or support in terms of personnel and capacity-building for the most exposed states
To accept a compromise that on paper still seems unbalanced, Italy is betting on ability to easily repatriate migrants who are not entitled to international protection. For this reason, the government did not give the green light to the proposal until the rules for identifying “safe third countries” to which repatriations can be carried out were relaxed, overcoming opposition from Germany. It will no longer be just the countries of origin, but also those of transit. To complete the return, it will be necessary to verify that there is a connection between the migrant and that country (e.g a period of residence or a family relationship), but this criterion will be set independently by each Member State. This concession is crucial for Italy, which thus acquires greater flexibility in identifying safe countries. One case that will soon be tackled is certainly that of Tunisia, probably already during the visit of Meloni, Rutte and Von der Leyen scheduled for 11 June.
Asylum and the external dimension
The system resulting from the agreement involves a number of technically complicated mechanisms which will have to pass the test of their practical implementation. In this regard, at the moment, there appear to be a lack of significant control tools for the adoption of the new charges both for the countries of first entry and for the other Member States. Furthermore, the impact of the new rules on the fundamental right ofaccess to asylum: the increase in detention times at the border, the streamlining of asylum procedures and the possibility of replacing relocations with measures to support countries in EU external border can lead to a further restriction of the protective spaces.
Finally, the agreement clearly underlines the direction in which European migration policies are moving. In fact, recourse to the external dimension and to the cooperation with non-European third countries. The entire scaffolding rests on the assumption that countries like Italy will be able to repatriate irregular migrants more easily. But if the agreement regulates the internal criteria of the return system, their effective execution is based on the consent of third countries, which is by no means a given. If returns do not increase, what will happen to the rest of the measures? The risk that countries like Italy find themselves caught between the non-cooperation of third countries and the obligations of border procedures is real.
Cover photo ANSA/US DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS