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Why is the EU unable to adopt a binding solidarity mechanism for the distribution of asylum seekers?

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Under the so called ‘Dublin Regulation’, asylum seekers are usually deemed to be the responsibility of the country where they first entered the EU. But following the migration crisis that began in 2015, there have been efforts to reform this system given it places greater strain on countries such as Italy and Greece, who faced large inflows due to their location. Natascha Zaun explains why these efforts have so far failed to produce a solution. The EU is currently revising its Common European Asylum System (CEAS), but the negotiations have barely progressed lately, given the lack of agreement on the Dublin IV Regulation. The Dublin Regulation defines the responsibility for dealing with an asylum application. If asylum seekers don’t have close family in or a visa issued by another EU member

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Why is the EU unable to adopt a binding solidarity mechanism for the distribution of asylum seekers?Under the so called ‘Dublin Regulation’, asylum seekers are usually deemed to be the responsibility of the country where they first entered the EU. But following the migration crisis that began in 2015, there have been efforts to reform this system given it places greater strain on countries such as Italy and Greece, who faced large inflows due to their location. Natascha Zaun explains why these efforts have so far failed to produce a solution.

The EU is currently revising its Common European Asylum System (CEAS), but the negotiations have barely progressed lately, given the lack of agreement on the Dublin IV Regulation.

The Dublin Regulation defines the responsibility for dealing with an asylum application. If asylum seekers don’t have close family in or a visa issued by another EU member state, first countries of entry are usually in charge of processing their asylum application. This puts a heavy strain on the asylum systems of border countries such as Italy and Greece which faced large inflows of immigrants in 2015/16 when flows to Europe peaked. As these countries were overwhelmed, they often did not enforce the Dublin Regulation but ‘waved’ asylum seekers through. Most of these would move on to Germany, Austria or Sweden, which at the time received the highest share of asylum applications in Europe.

Reforming the Dublin Regulation

Given the dysfunctionality of Dublin, both South-Eastern border countries and the top recipient countries in Northern Europe were keen to introduce solidarity mechanisms that would distribute asylum seekers more evenly across the EU. This resulted in the 2015 Relocation Decisions, according to which 160,000 asylum seekers should be relocated from Greece and Italy to other EU member states. Initial attempts to turn this into a permanent scheme as part of a stand-alone piece of legislation failed quickly and most member states agreed that this should be instead dealt with in a more comprehensive reform of the CEAS.

Yet, the CEAS reform is in a stalemate and the Dublin Regulation and especially the idea of a corrective allocation mechanism remain highly contested. Initially, the European Commission had proposed the application of a corrective allocation for the benefit of countries that have asylum applications exceeding 150% of their share under a reference key. The key considers the size of the population of the host country (50%) and the total GDP (50%). In December 2018, it became clear that the mandatory redistribution according to a reference key was not going to be adopted and since then member states have been discussing more voluntary forms of redistribution.

The positions of member states

Although arrivals of migrants in the Mediterranean have decreased to below the level they were at before the 2015 situation, with 138,882 migrants in 2018 as compared to 216,054 in 2014 and 1,015,078 migrants in 2015, the topic remains highly controversial at the EU level. Those that receive larger numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers, either as first countries of entry or as traditional refugee destinations, have a strong interest in stronger responsibility-sharing and intra-EU solidarity through a corrective allocation mechanism. Countries with low levels of asylum seekers on the other hand, such as the Visegrad countries, are opposed to the introduction of this kind of solidarity mechanism, as this would increase their share.

Why is the EU unable to adopt a binding solidarity mechanism for the distribution of asylum seekers?

Röszke, Hungary, 2015, Credit: Bőr Benedek photo (CC BY 2.0)

Since top recipients both at the border and in Northern Europe need the support of countries with low levels of asylum applications, they are facing a situation of asymmetric interdependence which makes cooperation very unlikely. If the Visegrad countries and others with low application shares are unwilling to help them, the corrective mechanism does not get the support of the necessary qualified majority. It certainly does not help that only countries that are immediately affected call for more solidarity, which makes this call seem purely strategic.

Also, in the past, only countries with high inflows of asylum seekers called for more integration and solidarity in the area. For instance, Germany had already proposed a refugee distribution key in 1994, after it had faced large refugee inflows following the end of the Cold War. In 2013, however, both Germany and Sweden strongly opposed the inclusion of a solidarity mechanism in the Dublin III Regulation to support overwhelmed border countries through a suspension of Dublin transfers in situations of high pressure on border countries. Both countries only supported it again in 2015, when they were immediately affected themselves by higher inflows and self-relocation.

Why are states unwilling to receive additional asylum seekers?

Scholars have shown that hosting asylum seekers is often perceived as involving costs and is therefore unwanted by both publics and policy-makers. This trend is further aggravated in Europe through the rise of populism. Populist parties have capitalised on the increased inflow of asylum seekers in 2015/16 and have put pressure on governments to adopt more restrictive immigration and asylum policies. Cases in point are Sweden and Germany, two previously comparatively liberal asylum countries.

With the Sweden Democrats gaining substantial ground and 25.2% in opinion polls in 2015, the Swedish government introduced a number of restrictions to be more in line with the European minimum standards. Likewise, with growing pressure from the Alternative for Germany which had previously gained electoral power in regional elections, the German government introduced a series of restrictions to its asylum law in early 2016.

To alleviate pressures from populist parties, their governments have looked for a European solution to decrease numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers through introducing a corrective allocation mechanism and thus stopping self-relocation from Italy and Greece. Italy, where the populist Lega is in government, has recently taken an especially strong position on the issue and has even denied the embarkation of boats which have rescued refugees.

On the other hand, the Visegard countries, the main blockers of the corrective allocation mechanism, also have strong populist parties, which in some cases form part of the government. For instance, the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban or the Czech President Zeman have regularly depicted migrants as a threat to Western societies.

While there are generally few incentives for states to show solidarity with top recipient countries, given the asymmetric interdependence, the politicisation of the issue since 2015 makes the adoption of a binding solidarity mechanism unlikely. This has clear implications for the Schengen area, where border controls have been reintroduced. At the same time, it drives the EU to further externalise migration flows by agreeing on deals with third countries that sometimes clearly have a problematic human rights record.

For more information, see the author’s recent paper in the Journal of Common Market Studies

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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Natascha Zaun – LSE
Natascha Zaun is an Assistant Professor in Migration Studies at the European Institute of LSE. Her research focuses on EU and global migration and refugee policy with a special interest in EU level decision-making on human rights policies as well as responsibility-sharing.

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