In the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis caused by Syria’s civil war that had destabilising effects on politics across Europe, EU countries began talks on how to reform migration law.
Under the long-standing Dublin regulation, asylum claims must be processed by the first member state in which an asylum seeker arrives.
Due to their geographic location, this placed a disproportionate burden on frontline states such as Italy and Greece, even if migrants had actually come to Europe hoping to reach countries farther north. It caused deep popular bitterness in the south as tent cities formed in train stations and underpasses and financially pressed states struggled to cope.
The dynamic shifted when countries such as Poland and Lithuania began receiving an influx of people from the Middle East and Africa who were being flown from airport hubs into neighbouring Belarus in the summer of 2021
The also law obliged such countries to accept back asylum seekers deported back to them from other EU countries. These systems broke down amid the acrimony, while a lack of information-sharing led to migrants repeatedly applying in different countries.
The idea of introducing quotas, whereby each EU country would accept a portion of asylum seekers who arrive in frontline states according to their means or population size, ran into stiff opposition in central and eastern Europe, which at the time received few refugees. The idea of Brussels “forcing” them to take in foreigners was a political non-starter.
But the dynamic shifted when countries such as Poland and Lithuania began receiving an influx of people from the Middle East and Africa, who were being flown from airport hubs into neighbouring Belarus in the summer of 2021.
The Baltic states accused Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, a rare ally of Vladimir Putin, of engineering the crisis deliberately to destabilise them as a hybrid war technique. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the influx of refugees progressed the case for pan-EU co-operation on migration.
Hard-right Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni vowed to secure migration reform when she was elected last autumn, and Sweden made achieving a breakthrough on the talks a priority when it took up the responsibility of chairing negotiations by assuming the rotating EU presidency in January.
The deal was reached late on Thursday night in Brussels in talks between the 27 national ministers responsible for migration, breaking a seven-year deadlock.
“To be honest, I didn’t really believe I would be sitting here saying this, but here we are,” Sweden’s migration minister Maria Malmer Stenergard told reporters, describing the deal as “a historic step”.
Under the agreement all EU countries must help frontline border states to cope, but they can choose how to do so, either by financial contributions, sending personnel or other capacity-building, or accepting some asylum seekers themselves. The minimum number of people who should be relocated from frontline states to have their asylum claims processed elsewhere is set as 30,000 annually.
The agreement anticipates that not enough countries will volunteer to take in these people to process their asylum claims, however. If that happens, the people could remain physically in the frontline border state, but their asylum claims could be processed by another member state.
Other aspects include streamlining the asylum procedure and making it uniform through the EU, allowing migrants to be rapidly assessed at the border before they enter the EU. They can be quickly rejected if their applications are deemed unfounded or inadmissible, and asylum and deportation procedures should be limited to a duration of six months.
The deal was clinched by a last-minute concession to holdout Italy, to allow national governments more discretion over choosing which countries are considered “safe”, so that rejected asylum seekers can be deported there
States are responsible for ensuring they have the capacity to carry out these procedures. The deal would also streamline returns of asylum seekers to the EU states they first arrived in, and seek to dissuade abuse of the system and migrants from moving between EU countries to lodge various claims.
The deal was clinched by a last-minute concession to holdout Italy, to allow national governments more discretion over choosing which countries are considered “safe”, so that rejected asylum seekers can be deported there. Rejected asylum seekers can be returned to a country they have a link with, such as a place they stayed in for a long period or where they have family members, even if they were born somewhere else.
The agreement represents a deal in principle between the national governments of the 27 EU member states, but much work lies ahead. The technical detail must now be worked through, and negotiations must take place with the European Parliament and European Commission. The aim is to have it finalised before European elections take place next June.
Due to Ireland’s geographic isolation as an island and because it is not in the Schengen free travel area it has been less affected by pan-European migration trends and has not been a central player in these debates
Following the deal, the European Commission announced that president Ursula von der Leyen would visit Tunisia on Sunday along with Meloni and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, with migration a key topic on the agenda.
Tunisia is a key point of departure for many people who arrive in Italy over the Mediterranean. The joint visit symbolises EU unity on tackling the issue, bringing together countries that represented polarised sides in the migration debate: the Netherlands as a country inundated with asylum applications from people who travelled through frontline border states, and Italy as a country that long demanded more help from the north.
Due to Ireland’s geographic isolation as an island and because it is not in the Schengen free travel area it has been less affected by pan-European migration trends and has not been a central player in these debates.
But the deal raises the prospect of reducing the number of people who enter the EU as a whole from its southern and eastern borders, and will be closely watched as it comes at a time when migration has soared up the political agenda in Ireland, at a delay of several years since it came to dominate the politics of many countries on the European continent.