Migration and the EU Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism: A Failed Attempt to Address the Impasse?

by Lorenzo Trasca

Lorenzo graduated in International Relations MSc. at LUISS Guido Carli in Rome, Italy. He is a very ambitious person and aims to work for Italian diplomacy by promoting Italy’s political, economic, social, and cultural relations with other countries. He is passionate about foreign languages and speaks Italian, English, and French.

The reluctance of EU Member States to adopt common policies, the political clashes in the European institutions, and national policies at the limits of international law: migration and asylum policy is undoubtedly one of the most controversial and dividing topics in the EU. This article considers the latest attempt by Member States to face the recent increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers and ends with considerations of its effectiveness. In doing so, the article first analyses current data published by both Frontex and Eurostat on migration flows towards Europe and subsequently takes a closer look at the Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism which was first introduced in July 2022.

Data on Migration Flows

Data is crucial to monitor and understand the impact of migration flows and adopt relevant policies. On January 13, 2023, the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) published a report on the number of irregular border crossings in 2022, estimating it to surpass 330,000, the highest number since 2016. Considering the amount of asylum applications is another crucial variable for data-oriented policies. As reported by Eurostat, the number of asylum applicants peaked in 2015 with 1,282,690 asylum seekers. From 2017 until 2021 the number stabilised somewhat, but in 2022, a rise has been detected again. The latest Eurostat data do not cover the entire year, but there were about 874,320 applications from January to November 2022. As Frontex registered about 330,000 irregular arrivals in 2022, this suggests that more than half of asylum-seekers arrived via legal and safe routes. 

However, this data is not necessarily worrying: even if arrivals increased, the number of asylum seekers remains low. Only 632,405 people applied for asylum in the EU in 2021, corresponding to only 0.14% of the population of the 27 EU Member States, constituting 447,207,489 people, according to the most recently released Eurostat data on population. Nevertheless, the EU has equipped Frontex with a larger budget in past years, and a recent regulation granted Frontex new and more effective powers. Moreover, in February 2022, the Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer asked the EU to set up a fence around the Bulgarian-Turkish border to limit irregular migration. Meanwhile, the Italian government recently imposed a code of conduct on NGO-ships rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean sea to limit their activity. 

Although the Member States seem to agree that a stricter external border control policy is necessary, bringing all European States together to develop a common asylum and migration policy has proven to be a difficult feat. For this reason, the European Commission proposed a common approach in 2020, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which aims to manage and normalise migration towards Europe. Indeed, the Pact intends to build more effective procedures, optimise the management of Schengen and EU external borders, and define clear responsibilities between Member States. But how can this be accomplished? According to Article 67 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the EU “… shall frame a common policy on asylum, immigration and external border control, based on solidarity between Member States…”. Therefore, it is not surprising that Member States’ first move was to strengthen the value of solidarity by introducing a Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism.

The Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism

To provide an initial and rapid response to the increasing number of asylum seekers, and to reassure the countries most concerned about the arrival of migrants, the Council of the EU issued a Declaration of Solidarity in June 2022. This Declaration aims to implement a Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism (VSM) intended to provide a concrete response to the migratory difficulties of the Mediterranean Member States of first entry. The Mechanism foresees a relocation system based on the commitments of the concerned States. Thereby, asylum applicants and beneficiaries of international protection are transferred from the Member State that they are currently located in, normally this is the country of entry, to another Member State, which takes over the examination of the asylum application. Moreover, the Solidarity Mechanism encourages Member States to provide financial contributions if they do not want to participate in the VSM by handling asylum application procedures of other EU-countries. 

As aforementioned, the VSM is a first step for the implementation of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which is only possible through the reform of the Dublin System: the set of criteria and rules for determining which Member State is responsible for considering an asylum application or international protection. However, the process will presumably be long: the European Parliament and the Presidency of the EU Council issued a joint roadmap, outlining that they will finish negotiating the proposals to reform the Dublin Mechanism by February 2024. 

Even if it can be considered just a prototype, the VSM has been criticised. Almost eight months have passed since the mechanism was agreed upon, but there have been difficulties concerning implementation. Only 435 migrants have been moved from Mediterranean front-line Member States to other EU-destinations since its launch. That is not enough considering that the Mechanism aims to reach 8,000 relocations per year, which is still relatively unambitious considering that more than 874,320 people applied for asylum in 2022. Moreover, out of twenty-three VSM participating states, only thirteen committed to relocation pledges, with the others only providing financial operation support. 

In conclusion, it seems safe to say that the VSM will not fulfil the expectations of  Member States waiting for the long-hoped-for reform of the Dublin System. If anything can be learnt from the VSM, it is that it is not possible to carry out a migrant management mechanism based on the voluntary consent of Member States and without the active intervention of the European institutions. Thereby, the EU should put at the top of its agenda the reform of the Dublin System, which currently finds itself at an impasse. This will not only be crucial for the sake of first-entry Member States but particularly for migrants, who are paying the highest price for a disorganised EU asylum and migration policy.

Moreover, the VSM must encourage us to rethink the level of integration among the Member States. Indeed, the poor results of the Mechanism highlight how the value of solidarity, which should guide the actions of Member States regarding the common policy on asylum, immigration and external border control, looks like a mere word in the treaties with no real implications. The failure of the VSM teaches us that Member States are not yet able to think in unison about topics like migration and asylum, which continue to raise conflicting opinions. However, hope should not be lost. Solidarity flows from empathy, which allows us to internalise and experience others’ feelings. Promoting this on an EU-level requires both effort and time, but as more awareness is being raised about migrants and their experiences as well as about the difficulties of front-line Member States, progress is likely to follow.

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