Events since the start of 2015 in the Mediterranean seem to confirm an old truth about EU migration policy, namely its reactive nature. Policy and political élites had to witness another tragedy to open a debate on how to change migration policies. If we look at the first nationalities of people entering irregularly into a European member state in 2014, we note that several of these countries of origin have been in desperate conditions for years now, as in the case of Syria or Eritrea. However, besides the feeling of discomfort about these policies, one could object that, while not bold, this set of policy measures could still be effective. This article looks at the actual novelties included in the package of measures recently released by the Commission, and discusses their likely efficacy. In a well-established pattern, EU policy and political élites seem to perceive what is happening in the Mediterranean along four dimensions: border control, irregular migration, asylum and refugee policy, and (limitedly) legal migration. This way of understanding human mobility is nothing new, as these four categories were already present in the Treaty of Maastricht signed in 1992. The Commission has divided its last package of initiatives into measures to be quickly adopted, and measures for the medium- to long-term.

Among the measures to be swiftly adopted the Commission lists new funding for Frontex’s operation in the Mediterranean until the end of 2015, emergency assistance for migrants’ reception, and a “voluntary pilot” resettlement scheme. Additional funding for Frontex is nothing new in EU border control policy. This EU agency has seen a tenfold increase in its budget between 2005 and 2011, and the Commission has proposed to push it €114 million for 2015. As a long term measure, the Commission has also proposed to reconsider the establishment of a European System of Border Guards, something advocated since the early 2000s. This could solve the ad hoc approach that has marked Frontex’s activity so far, but the very fact that member states have resisted for more than a decade to such initiative casts a long shadow on that option. In addition, the fact that Frontex’s empowerment is mentioned as part of the policy answers to as different issues as border control and asylum policy should give pause to think, rather than being part of short term solutions.  Another element which has received a funding boost is EUROSUR, the last in an ever growing list of IT tools for border surveillance. This happened despite the fact that Frontex’s deputy director has reportedly expressed doubts that EUROSUR could contribute in saving lives because of its technical limitations. The EUROSUR case illustrates a long standing trend in EU migration policy: the growing financial commitments and the extensive reliance on IT tools which purportedly make EU policy more effective and efficient. Always in this line, the Commission is to present a new proposal the “Smart Borders” package, essentially composed of two initiatives first voiced in 2008, namely an entry/exit automated system and a bona fide travellers regime.  The costs of such IT undertakings are far from negligible. In its impact assessment on the entry/exit system Regulation, the Commission stated that its proposal for the multi-annual financial framework envisaged €1.1 billion to be allocated for the development and four years of operational costs, to which €882 million had to be added for the other IT already in operation (SIS II, VIS, and EURODAC).

Turning to irregular migration, the Commission focuses its initiatives on stemming the flows coming from the outside. This is despite the fact that, for the period 2009-2014, figures for third country nationals (TCNs) found to be irregularly present within the EU have constantly been higher than those for TCNs refused entry at a land, air, or sea borders of the EU. One must note that these figures should be treated with extreme caution. Inter alia, aggregates for Europe are calculated on national data gathered with different definitions. Besides the much commented but very controversial initiative against migrant smugglers and traffickers, there seems to be little new in what the Commission is proposing. While essential, improving cooperation with countries of origin was already part of the Commission’s jargon in the early 2000s Communications on this issue. The Commission provides little detail as to how such cooperation should bring about the outcomes the Union seems to be interested into. The report on the Employer Sanctions Directive has signalled several shortcomings during its implementation, and the Commission promises infringement procedures in cases of irregularities. But some of the key problems of that Directive concern labour markets, something jealously guarded by the member states and where Commission intervention is very difficult.

Media attention has turned to the resettlement scheme aimed at bringing into Europe 20,000 people looking for protection mainly under UNHCR schemes. The Commission’s target would represent a significant increase from the current intake in Europe. According to Eurostat, between 2008 and 2014 the number of resettlement varied from about 4,000 to 7,400 for the EU28. In 2014, Italy resettled 0 people seeking protection (in the foreseen scheme, it should take in 1,989), Spain 125 (1,549 is the target), France 450 (2,375), Belgium 35 (490), Austria 390 (444), the Netherlands 790 (732), Sweden 2,045 (491), Poland 0 (962). It seems that the Commission’s initiative faces an uphill battle to get such measure through the Council, also considering that reportedly EU leaders could not find an agreement over the smaller figure of 5,000 people to be resettled. This should be coupled with a further short-term measure on “relocation” among member states of people seeking or already under international protection. The legal basis chosen by the Commission envisages only consultation with the EP and features one of the few lasting “may” clause in this cooperation Chapter. Partial statistics inform us that member states relocated 21 migrants in 2013. It is difficult to foresee how the Commission would manage to convince member states not only to adopt the measure, but also to implement it. As part of an EU pilot project, member state pledged to carry out about 90 relocations among them between 2011 and 2013, but managed to implement only 14. It is even more difficult to understand how the Commission could list this measure as a short term one, as negotiations in the Council on such controversial topic are difficult to predict. That said, and looking at the bigger picture, as of March 2015, the total asylum applications in Europe of Syrian nationals are slightly above those lodged in Iraq, less than half those in Jordan, and a fraction of those registered in Lebanon.

Among the list of the short-term action, the only initiative that touches upon legal migration seems to the about a “pilot multi-purpose centre” to be set up in Niger. The only difference from the “Migration Information and Management Centres”, which were heralded with the Global Approach to Migration, seems to be an even lower emphasis on legal migration channels. Further, commentators highlighted how the only centre opened in 2008 had limited if any success. For the long term, the Commission pledges to reshape the Blue Card Directive aimed at attracting highly skilled migrants. The Commission is aware that such scheme has failed on a number of fronts, ranging from filling the skill gaps in member states’ economies, to allow Europe to compete on a global scale in attracting migrants, and to break into member states’ chasse gardée of labour migration.  However, even there, what the Commission actually promises nothing more than starting a public consultation. While such Green Papers usually end up with a legislative proposal, in the case of the Family Reunification Directive that did not occur, and there are no signs of a better context for the labour migration.

As this brief overview has shown, many of the initiatives that the Commission has tabled are not new. What is even more problematic is that many of them have not been effective, let alone efficient. For instance, the relocation initiative further elaborates on Chapter VI of the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive. However, and not because of lack of occasions, such Directive has never been used in more than a decade, and it is not clear to what extent member states have changed their mind regarding physical burden-sharing. In sum, besides the rhetoric, the tragedies that have marked this first half of 2015 do not seem to have led to a radical policy rethinking of EU migration policy. And despite mounting evidence of policy failures, policy and political élites seem incapable or unwilling to change tack.

Marco Scipioni is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, working on EU migration policies. He is also a researcher at University College Cork (UCC), where he is investigating the role of the Commission during the 2007/2008 economic and financial crises.