After the recent tragedy in Lampedusa, we have heard a number of politicians and commentators saying that what Italy needs to face the current refugee crisis is more support from the European Union. What does this really mean? First, there is a frequent misconception concerning actual volumes of EU financial assistance. This in turn raises two further issues. What is the current state of affairs in terms of funds received by Italy compared to other Member States? How much can the EU realistically provide in support for a national migration system? In other words, to what extent can the EU substitute for a functioning national migration system? Secondly, there is, as always in EU affairs, questions of power and sovereignty. I will address each of these points in turn.

Let us first look at current EU budget expenditure for Italy in the area of migration. According to European Commission calculations, Italy has earmarked a huge share of EU funds dedicated to migration. Italy has received €112.757 million from the European Border Fund (12.99%, third among EU states for 2007-2011), €25.587 million from the European Return Fund (8.31%, ranking fifth during 2008-2011), €22.236 million from the European Refugee Fund (6.52%, again fifth during 2008-2011), and finally €77.549 million from the European Integration Fund (17.48%, the first among EU states for 2007-2011). In total, Italy has secured €238.130 million from SOLID (“Solidarity and the Management of Migration Flows”, the EU funds dedicated to migration for 2007-2011). This represents 12.12% of the total EU allocation to migration-related issues, which is second only to Spain. It should also be remembered that that figure does not include other funds which are in some cases indirectly connected to migration, such as the €6.9 billion that Italy gets from the European Social Fund.

These figures call for a number of considerations. Does Italy get a fair share of EU funding all things considered? One should firstly note that EU funds are not allocated on an ad-hoc basis but according to a number of criteria and on the basis of detailed negotiations. If we take, for instance, the European Refugee Fund, we see that on top of a fixed allocation for all Member States there is a proportional element that varies according to the absolute numbers of refugees entering a country. This formula has been disputed on the grounds that a more equitable way of allocating resources would be to consider the proportional share of refugees that a given country receives compared to its total population. Germany even proposed in the mid-1990s to take account of Member States’ Gross Domestic Product and territory, on top of the population criteria. Related considerations, such as whether the aforementioned total sum appropriately reflects Italy’s share of migrants resident in the EU could also be considered. However, if due account is given to the EU’s sectoral and piecemeal approach to migration (which is particularly apparent in labour migration, for instance), that figure actually corresponds to the criteria that have been collectively agreed. Moreover, if the EU has a sectoral and piecemeal approach here, then the responsibility lies with the Member States that chose this approach to decision-making in the early 2000s.

The question then is this: if Italy is already the second biggest recipient of migration expenditure among EU Member States, what exactly is being asked for in terms of more solidarity from the EU? In the time of crisis we live in, it has become a daily pursuit among commentators and politicians to put the blame for many policy problems on Europe. This is valid not only for Italy, but true for apparently all EU member states. In this context, it is ironic that a country on the one hand asks for more help and solidarity and, on the other, blames Europe for its current miseries. Having said that, what could be the response to this request/complaint in policy-making terms? What is Italy ready to do to change the course of EU policy on migration? Let us first look at Italy’s track record so far in implementing EU law on migration. In the field of asylum, the European Commission has opened infringement procedures against Italy for all three major directives on minimum standards on reception, qualification and procedures. The Commission issued formal notice and reasoned opinions on the matters at stake, even though none of them ended up with a referral to the Court of Justice of the EU. Since 2005, the Commission has launched more than 20 infringement procedures against Italy in the area of migration, four of them resulting in referrals to the Court. The idea that the EU should be more forthcoming with Italy, when Italy has had manifest problems at living up to its commitments with rules that have been collectively agreed, represents a serious blow to any claim for more support from Europe for this country. On what grounds can Italy claim that other countries should do more to help, when it is not able to do what is required from the laws it has agreed to incorporate in its national system?

This point notwithstanding, what would it mean here for Europe to do more? Discarding the financial issues discussed above, we are apparently left with two alternatives: either more operations on the ground or more powers to EU bodies. Concerning the first, the EU has set up a number of agencies dealing with migration in the last decade. Even though all eyes generally turn to the EU border agency, Frontex, it should be recalled that the EU has an agency dealing with asylum cooperation (EASO, located in Malta), an agency dealing with fundamental rights (FRA, based in Vienna), and recently an EU Agency for large-scale IT systems (EU-LISA, in Tallinn). At the operational level, however, the EU has limited impact. It is true that Frontex has seen its budget and personnel increase significantly from its creation in 2004, but the legal boundaries to its operations are a powerful reminder of the overall limitations of EU operational capabilities. This reflects a long tradition in EU affairs, where implementation in sensitive policy areas is left almost exclusively to the Member States. The EU simply does not have the personnel or the budget to conduct such missions on its own. That is one of the reasons why any mission coordinated by Frontex relies on national border guards. The other reasons mainly revolve around sovereignty issues, as no Member State is ready to grant to any supranational body the possibility to patrol its national borders.

If member states are not willing to cede power here might they be willing to show greater financial solidarity with Italy ? In other words, while before we considered Italy’s share of EU funds dedicated to migration, we can also wonder if those funds are sufficient or not. It is very difficult to say something meaningful about such a long-term statement. However, one way to give practical sense is to check to what extent EU funds cover national needs. Eiko Thielemann of the London School of Economics offers some interesting evidence on the European Refugee Fund here. He notes that while in 2002 the UK spent €30,000 per asylum-seeker overall, it was receiving “just over €100 ERF money per asylum application […] that year”. Taking into account also that this is the first year in which the EU’s multiannual expenditure plans have been reduced compared to previous rounds, it is clear that the EU cannot realistically substitute for national migration policies in the near feature.

Turning to specific pieces of legislation, there is now much debate in Italy about the Dublin Regulation, which provides the legal underpinning for EU asylum policy. This is perhaps connected to the great emphasis the President of the Italian Republic is granting to the issue. Past academic research has highlighted that Italy indeed fought hard to change the criteria according to which asylum-seekers are moved across Europe as a result of the Dublin Regulation. Unfortunately, much of its efforts to change the mechanisms failed. A recast version of the Dublin Regulation was adopted this June 2013, slightly less than 5 years after the Commission adopted the first proposal. The Council and the European Parliament discussed at length the legal text, reaching an agreement only after a second reading in the European Parliament and after more than three years of negotiations within the Council. It is hard to see how Member States could sit down again around the table after such protracted negotiations. Even if that were the case, it is not sure what the outcome of the negotiations would be. The fact is that such complex and difficult negotiations are likely to involve important side-payments by Italy to European counterparts, either in this policy area or in others. Is Italy ready to open that door? In addition, given the probable length of such negotiations, it will not be for the current Italian government to conclude them. Is the current Italian government ready to take the risk of handing over such negotiations to its successors? Can Europe improve its migration policy? Yes – a better system for refugee resettlement between EU countries would be a good start – but it seems unlikely that member states are ready to embrace radical change here or in relation to other aspects of EU migration policy anytime soon.

Marco Scipioni is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck. His research is on the delegation of decision-making powers to EU bodies in migration policy.