At the recent summit, EU Council President Donald Tusk stated the obvious: compulsory distribution of asylum seekers to all EU member states using a fixed quota system will not meet with the broad political support it needs from member states, nor will it work for various other reasons. The time has come to end this unproductive discussion and reimagine EU asylum policy. Instead of arguing over quotas, we should seek to agree on individual contributions on a country-by-country basis in order to reach an equitable solution to the problems involved.
The situation in Greece and Italy demonstrates that quota-based redistribution of asylum seekers does not solve today’s acute problems. The Greek government could readily improve the disastrous living conditions of asylum seekers on the Aegean Islands—the problem is not international aid, but rather an apparent lack of will. In addition, the EU urgently needs clarification from the Turkish government as to how it intends to protect the human rights of returning refugees. This would enable the EU to lawfully return asylum seekers to Turkey in the medium term.
Similarly, Italy’s problems cannot be solved by quotas, since most of the migrants arriving from Libya have virtually no prospect of being recognized as refugees in Europe. That reason alone explains why far fewer asylum seekers than planned have been moved on from Italy to date. With support from the EU and individual member states, Italy needs to drastically speed up its asylum process and return rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin more quickly. That would make irregular migration to Italy unattractive. At the same time, when engaging with the Libyan coast guard and other Libyan authorities, the EU could place greater emphasis on ensuring that migrants’ human rights are protected, thus enabling safe return to their countries of origin.
Another reason why compulsory redistribution of asylum seekers from Italy and Greece has not worked is because refugees have chosen not to remain in poorer EU member states. Portugal, for example, adopted a very immigrant-friendly approach and, despite having limited financial resources, provides new arrivals with generous support for up to eighteen months. Nevertheless, only a few “redistributed” refugees have stayed in Portugal. They lacked a network of fellow nationals to assist them, income-earning opportunities were too limited, and support for refugees was more generous elsewhere in the EU. Compulsory redistribution to still poorer EU member states in Eastern Europe would work out even less well than in Portugal.
Instead of sticking to quotas, the EU should focus on the concept of flexible solidarity, with all EU member states accepting the refugee situation as a shared challenge that needs to be tackled through coordinated efforts. This approach allows variation in the type of contribution made by individual countries toward resolving the situation. The specific ways in which EU member states can best support a common EU asylum policy differ as widely as the countries themselves.
Countries with a strong demand for labor, for instance, can integrate refugees into the labor market more easily than countries with high unemployment. Countries with low numbers of asylum applications can assign specialized staff to assist member states on the external borders by providing support with border security, registration of asylum seekers, and processing asylum claims. Member states with extensive experience in the social integration of immigrants will face less difficulty taking in vulnerable refugees from overburdened non-member states—not least from Turkey, as expressly provided for in the agreement with the EU.
Finally, all member states can commit additional resources to the EU budget appropriate to their economic capacity, which would then be used for partnership agreements with countries of origin, external border security, migration management, and the reception and integration of refugees. More assistance from the EU budget could relieve much of the pressure faced by member states that take on a particularly significant role due to their geographical location or for humanitarian reason.
Flexible solidarity among EU member states requires, first of all, a cooperative culture of dialogue and collective monitoring of efforts at the national level. There must be a strong focus on solidarity, of course, not just on flexibility. EU member states are already voluntarily contributing in various ways toward dealing with refugee situations. Poland, for example, has awarded several hundred thousand work visas to Ukrainians; this helps stabilize the economic situation in Ukraine and offers people who might otherwise flee to Western Europe a perspective. Many EU member states finance UNHCR, thereby protecting refugees worldwide. Flexible solidarity is a sound basis for a future EU asylum policy, with its many responsibilities and needs, which member states then implement in a manner appropriate to their resources and capabilities.
(Translated and slightly revised version of an op ed on ZEIT ONLINE of December 28, 2017, titled “Flexible Solidarität statt Quote”.)