Regional Mobility Trends: Europe
In 2018, migration continued to be a polarizing and salient issue in Europe. The EU persisted in negotiating the reform of its migration and asylum policies, initiated in the wake of the refugee crisis that started in 2015. The strengthening of Frontex, the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, was a key element of the EU’s move to curb unwanted migration. The EU intends to increase the agency’s staff count from 1,500 in 2018 to 10,000 border guards by 2020.
Reinforced EU border controls, in addition to intensified cooperation with transit countries such as Turkey and Libya, have made it more difficult for undocumented migrants to arrive on European soil. With about 40,000 to 50,000 asylum applications being submitted per month, the EU has reached numbers comparable to the years prior to the refugee crisis.
Irrespective of the decreasing numbers of applications, the question of how to distribute asylum seekers within the EU has regularly caused controversy. According to Eurostat data for the first six months of 2018, three out of four asylum applications in the EU-28 were made in only five countries (Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany). The European Commission sought to tackle this imbalance by adding a mandatory relocation quota for asylum seekers to the EU’s Dublin system. However, this proposal was met with fierce political opposition, in particular in Eastern Europe.
The reform of the Dublin system proved difficult to achieve in 2018, even if the issue of European burden-sharing continued to be relevant in national elections. Populist and anti-migration parties gained electoral support in the Italian general and German regional elections, contributing to German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down as party leader of the Christian Democratic Union in December. In Italy, the anti-migrant party known as ‘the League’ formed a coalition government with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, embarked on a number of controversial policies, including the denial of docking rights to vessels carrying rescued migrants. The conditions in Greece, with seriously overcrowded refugee camps on some Greek islands, also caused public concern.
The prospect of European Parliament elections in May 2019 will make the reform of EU asylum and migration policies even more difficult to achieve.
Throughout 2018, the EU’s emphasis was more on controlling irregular migration than on developing pathways for legal migration. Supported by the Commission, some member states developed legal migration pilot projects with selected African countries, albeit on a modest scale. Other efforts by the Commission to enhance legal pathways into the EU — for instance, by reforming the EU’s Blue Card Directive — were not supported by member states. The political climate for developing a proactive EU migration policy was, overall, unfavorable.
The trends observed in 2018 are likely to continue in 2019. The next elections to the European Parliament will take place in May 2019. The prospect of an election will make the reform of EU asylum and migration policies even more difficult to achieve. As a matter of fact, the EU will most likely focus on stopping irregular migration, in order to prevent migration from becoming the overbearing issue of the campaign.