A look at the EU’s response to the migrant crisis

Critically assess the effectiveness of the EU’s role in a policy area belonging to the area of freedom, security and justice.

The area of freedom, security and justice that I have opted to focus on is the EU’s policy in the wake of the recent migrant crisis. In particular what will be analysed is, the influence of the Schengen area on this crisis, and how the EU’s policy on migration and asylum has exacerbated the situation. I have elected to cover this topic as it is obviously an issue of high importance at the moment; with many framing it as the EU’s main security concern. However, the issue of the migrant crisis also has a correlation with the areas of freedom and justice. A core concept of the EU is freedom of movement of its citizens, and the fair treatment, equality and justice of these citizens. It is obvious that the migrants are not EU citizens but it is interesting to see how the EU treats these people in light of its own central values. Bache et al. (2015) state “Freedom, security and justice are areas that have traditionally been understood as the core responsibilities of the nation state.” However, an issue like the migrant crisis, coupled with the open borders of the EU (the Schengen area) throws up unique issues that require all members to act in unity. In this essay I will assess whether or not this is actually the case, I will also look at the issue of burden sharing, both in terms of numbers of asylum seekers taken and in whose putting resources towards the current migration issue. In addition to this, I will also look at the EU’s successes as well as failures in this area and how, the EU has managed to breach this area of ‘high politics’ and unite members- if indeed that is the case. Ultimately I will outline how effective the EU’s role has been in the current migrant crisis, and conclude that although, the EU has made valuable inroads in harmonising member states’ policy and responses, that unfortunately the EU’s policy on asylum and the response to the migrant crisis remains fragmented, this is largely attributed to a lack of ‘burden’ sharing by member states.

Bache et al (2015) highlight the fact that “large numbers of legal and illegal migrants, as well as asylum seekers have sought to come to the EU”, they go on to elaborate “the Arab spring posed major challenges for the area of freedom, security and justice because of the acceleration of migratory flows to the EU, to flee the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East.” Evidently, this is a situation that will only continue with the uncertainties caused by ISIS. However, the EU’s response has been fragmented at best and the issue with burden sharing has been a severe concern, this is highlighted by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (quoted in the Guardian, March 2016) “The humanitarian crisis that we currently have in Idomeni (refugee camp on the Macedonian border with Greece) is not a Greek matter, it is a European matter and we should all face it together”. Unfortunately the Greeks have been left to face the large brunt of the crisis alone, with little aid or assistance from the rest of the EU. Just 376 officers and interpreters are currently on the ground dealing with the issue (Frontex, 2015). The ongoing situation in Greece mirrors that of Italy a few years ago. Kenealy et al. (2015) summarise this “in 2013 the Italian Government established the Mare Nostrum operation to rescue migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean. Finally the Italian government ended the operation, citing a lack of support from other EU members and costs of around £9 million per month”. A reoccurring theme is present in the fact that the countries most affected by migrant flows are being left to deal with the issue alone. This emphasises the point of a lack of burden sharing between members. Bache et al. (2015) supplement this point “the broader issue of solidarity remains, since northern EU states are not immediately affected by the migratory flows and therefore have different interests from states such as Malta and Italy”. Over the past few years, assistance in terms of frontline support for the affected states has been slow, at best. However, this is not necessarily the same when it comes to the issue of asylum seekers, but this is something I will elaborate on at a later point.

Currently, some nations within the Schengen area have re-imposed border checks, including Germany and Austria (BBC, 2016). There is the potential for these checks to stand for an emergency period of two years. This supports the point that, due to the fact the northern European states have now become affected by the migrant crisis, they have actively sought changes at the EU and exploited loopholes in agreements to protect their position. Thus far the EU’s position in the migrant crisis in terms of response has been fragile and disjointed. This is acknowledged by the EU themselves, the European Commission (2015) stated that “as a first and immediate response the commission put forward a ten point plan for immediate action. The response was immediate but insufficient.” They also mentioned that “it is clear we need a new, more European approach”. The commission have recognised the EU’s shortcomings in terms of response and members not collaborating together. Caviedes (2016) summarises this perfectly “The migrant crisis of 2015, reminds us of the lack of consensus concerning burden sharing.” The EUs effectiveness at present has been minimal.

In response to the lack of cohesion and contribution by some members, it is possible to look outside of the EU’s jurisdiction for the reason behind this. A familiar scenario when it comes to the area of the security is, for many EU members to use NATO instead of acting directly through the EU. This is again a present issue when looking at the migrant crisis- with many members collaborating their efforts through another institution, undermining the EU’s effectiveness and competencies. A NATO statement (2016) says “In February 2016, on the request of Germany, Greece, and Turkey, NATO decided to join international efforts in dealing with this crisis.” EU members had sought help from another organisation, highlighting the inadequacy of the EU’s actions and responses. In addition to this, as the UK is not a member of the Schengen area, it is not obligated to provide resources to Frontex but can if it pleases. A UK government statement (Prime Minister’s Office, 2016) details that “the Royal Navy is deploying an amphibious landing ship alongside two border force cutters to join the NATO mission in the Aegean.” The UK a prominent EU member (even in light of the upcoming referendum) opted to donate resources to a NATO operation as opposed to co-ordinating alongside Frontex and the EU. This is potentially the reason behind the EU’s mediocre attempts to tackle the issue. The ability of EU members to be able to use a different organisation is situations like this undoubtedly affects the EU’s effectiveness in these instances in a negative manner. Kenealy et al. (2015) adds weight to this argument “as in the case of Europol, Frontex has been hampered by a lack of commitment and cooperation from member states, as well as by the scale of movement.”

Caviedes (2016) states “one can argue that the EU asylum policy imposes genuine obligations upon states that previously had more stringent acceptance standards.” In essence this is a valid point, and one which Geddes (2005) supports “Asylum is an area where a common EU response is evident”. On the other hand, a counter argument to this, is, although a common response is evident and that obligations have been imposed, the EU common asylum system still remains largely incoherent, with member states still having a dominion over this. Bache et al. (2015) state “the EU aims to have a fully harmonized system in which applicants for asylum would receive equivalent treatment across member states”. However, in reality this goal is still a work in progress. The Dublin system, although practical in the fact that refugees can’t apply in multiple countries has serious drawbacks. Caviedes (2016) highlights this “the Dublin system may de facto result in additional burdens on member states that have limited reception and absorption capacities and that find themselves under particular migratory pressures because of their geographical location.” This is certainly the case with Greece, who are having to deal with an influx of migrants that equates to “116,000 arrivals this year, with an average of 1,800 per day in February” (Prime Minister’s Office, 2016). However, even though the Dublin system designates migrants a host country who are then responsible for their asylum application, this is currently not the case. Many migrants are being processed in Greece (their place of arrival) but then seeking onward travel across the Schengen area, particularly targeting Germany.

When it comes to the issue of asylum acceptance and distribution, the problem with burden sharing again becomes a massive issue. Although as mentioned earlier in my argument, a lot of the northern European states are reluctant to provide significant resources to preventing and resolving the migrant issue. But when it comes to the acceptance of asylum seekers Germany bears a huge brunt. Figures from Eurostat (2016) deal with this: in terms of population size Germany, France and the UK are the three largest countries in the EU (in that order) however, Germany accepted a staggering 441,800 asylum seekers in 2015, in stark contrast to this, France, the EU’s second largest member took 70,460 asylum seekers, with the UK taking 38,370. To put France and the UK’s contribution into perspective, Sweden, the EU’s fourteenth largest member took, 156,110 asylum seekers. Greece, which is the home to the arrival of the vast majority of migrants took 11,370. These statistics reiterate the large issues the EU has when it comes to burden sharing; and also reveal that it’s not just in the commitment of resources to the operation in the Aegean- but also in the amount of asylum seekers countries are taking. The European Commission (2015) state in their communication on migration that “a redistribution key based on the criteria such as GDP, size of population, unemployment rate, past numbers of asylum seekers and of re-settled refugees.” However, it is hard to see this being implemented given the current gulf in member states intake. This is again echoed by the fact that “in 2014, 5 member states dealt with 72% of all asylum application EU-wide” (European Commission, 2015). The onus cannot simply be left on a handful of states, and the EU has to effectively legislate to prevent this, however at the moment it has been ineffective in producing a system that gives fair reception to all members, and leaves a few states heavily burdened.

The fact the EU operates under the Schengen agreement has sought to intensify the migrant crisis. Many migrants have opted to move north instead of staying in Greece, creating the issues we see today on the Macedonian Border. The free movement of people, and lack of borders has also led to the establishment of the ‘Calais Jungle Camp’- estimated to house 5,497 migrants (BBC, 2016). Many of these migrants now have no clear jurisdiction over them as neither the UK or France ‘wants them’ and both nations see them as the others problem. This a large issue, particularly for those in Calais. Another issue with the Schengen area, in the wake of the migration crisis was after the Paris terrorist attacks. The European Institute for Security Studies (2016) highlight the fact “the authorities knew he (one of the attackers) had gone to Syria but had failed to detect his return”, the open borders initiative leaves the Schengen susceptible to movement without detection. Also they highlight that “finger-prints and photos of the attackers do clearly match those taken at a refugee registration centre in Greece in October 2015”. Again illustrating the onward movement of migrants is difficult to track. During the crisis the EU has failed to grasp the relevant risks or implement relevant policies to mitigate against this. The onus has been left on member states to put in place adequate measures. The EU once again has been found lacking as an institution in the areas of freedom, security and justice. The arguments outlined, only seek to preserve the fact that many of the issues relating to the security, justice and freedom should be left to the member states and not passed on to the EU as in times of crisis they are slow to react, and put EU ideals, such as the freedom of movement- before the security of member states.

In conclusion, as outlined through the essay, the EU has been found wanting during the migrant crisis, both in terms of its response and in the adaptation of its asylum policies. The Schengen area has only worsened the crisis. The issue with burdens is, overall the main issue, with states geographically closer to the issue bearing the price, even when, in the case of Greece, this is the last thing they can afford. Member states have been inactive in committing resources to aid the operation, and this can be put down to a lack of consensus at the EU level on what the course of action should be. Instead of collaborating or donating resources to the EU’s border force, Frontex, most member states have opted to coordinate themselves under the NATO umbrella, a clear shun of the EU and a belief that it is not adequate to fulfil such a task. Although “in the areas of irregular migration and specifically asylum, there has been a greater supranational involvement, whether through EU agencies, or through legislation and court rulings.” (Caviedes, 2016) Ultimately the EU still doesn’t wield enough influence to be effective, with member nations preferring their own course of action or to act through NATO. Though immigration and asylum were not initially situated in the first pillar, the EU has done a good job in creating a relative cohesion, however, it’s far from the finished product. The European Commission (2015) highlights “migration will become a specific component of on-going common security and defence policy” but whether the EU will become more effective in its execution remains to be seen, as it has a long way to go.
















Bache, I., George, S. and Bulmer, S. (2015) Politics in the European Union. 4th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

BBC (2016) EU migrant crisis: Calais ‘Jungle’ clearance work resumes. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-35693882 (Accessed: 05/03/2016).

BBC (2016) Schengen: Controversial EU free movement deal explained. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13194723 (Accessed: 12/03/2016).

Caviedes, A. (2016) ‘European Integration and Governance of Migration’, Journal of Contemporary European Research, 12 (1), pp. 552-565.

European Commission (2015) A European agenda on migration. Brussels: Communication from the Commission.

European Union Institute for Security Studies (2016) Refugees versus Terrorists. DOI: 10.2815/469903

Eurostat (2016) Five main citizenships of (non-EU) asylum applicants, 2015 (number of first time applicants, rounded figures). Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/File:Five_main_citizenships_of_(non-EU)_asylum_applicants,_2015_(number_of_first_time_applicants,_rounded_figures)_YB16.png (Accessed: 07/03/2016)

Frontex (2015) Frontex and Greece agree on operational plan for Poseidon rapid intervention. Brussels: European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union.

Geddes, A. (2005) ‘Europe’s Border Relationships and International Migration Relations’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 43 (4), pp. 787-806.

Kenealy, D., Peterson, J. and Corbett, R. (2015) The European Union: How does it work? United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

NATO (2016) Assistance for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe. Available at: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_128746.htm?selectedLocale=en (Accessed: 06/03/2016).

Prime Minister’s Office (2016) PM announces UK deployment for NATO mission in Aegean Sea to tackle migrant crisis. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-announces-uk-deployment-for-nato-mission-in-aegean-sea-to-tackle-migrant-crisis  (Accessed: 06/03/2016).

The Guardian (2016) Greece rules out using force against migrants. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/11/greece-rules-out-using-force-against-migrants-and-refugees (Accessed: 12/03/2016).


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