Since the 2015 crisis, migration has become the biggest Achilles heel of the EU’s solidarity as the discrepancy in the impact of migration on the southern, northern, and central and eastern European (CEE) countries steadily challenges a common action.
In 2022, around 330 000 irregular crossings were detected on the EU’s external border, representing the highest number since 2016 and an increase of 64% compared with 2021. With the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the weaponisation of migration on the eastern borders has also expanded since 24 February, affecting humanitarian responsibilities and national security resilience.
Also in 2022, two key documents highlighted the importance of balancing the southern and eastern flank – the European Union’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s Strategic Concept – acknowledging migration as a complex and multidimensional challenge that threatened the current security environment. Consequently, the management of migration flows, the burden-sharing among EU member states, and the cooperation with third countries require a political, economic, and humanitarian rationale in order to improve the economic, cultural, and social benefits to both migrants and host countries.
The Balancing Act
Migration stands as a substantial challenge for Southern European countries since Italy, Spain, and Greece are the entry point for large numbers of migrants and refugees. Coming from Africa and the Middle East, they try to escape from poverty, political instability, and conflict in their home countries and seek better economic opportunities and a higher standard of living in Europe.
The numbers illustrate how much pressure there is on the southern border, as well as point to the many vulnerabilities and risks for the border management services. As of the end of April 2023, nearly 50 000 arrived at the EU’s external borders (95% by sea and 5% by land). The trends show that the most pressured sea route is the one via central Mediterranean into Italy, with arrivals through the western Mediterranean route from Morocco and Algeria – both by sea to mainland Spain and by land to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Northern Africa – also going up.
Addressing migration thus requires a coordinated and collaborative approach that must involve the EU institutions and member states working together towards common goals and principles. However, due to the absence of such approach to migration and asylum, divergent migration policies between EU countries have an impact on the internal security of Southern European countries, as social integration, radicalisation, and organised crime may be simultaneously the cause and the consequence of population flows.
Some countries may choose to close their borders and introduce stricter controls, while others may opt for more open policies. In addition, the uneven distribution of migrants and refugees across the southern front line of EU countries can create tensions and disagreements between member states as some feel that they bear an unfair burden of the crisis, while other countries may have different priorities for migration. Countries that are seen as more open or welcoming are perceived as progressive (e.g., Portugal and Spain). Whereas countries that are seen as more restrictive gain the reputation of being conservative or nationalistic (e.g., Italy and Greece).
The regional security implications are also evident. The civil war in Syria and the destabilisation in Libya have sent migration waves towards Southern Europe, which has created tensions and risks that “remain unresolved, with lasting and pervasive regional consequences,” according to the 2022 Strategic Compass. Balancing humanitarian concerns with security and migration management, too, contributes to tensions as some countries prioritise the protection and integration of refugees.
The special meeting of the European Council on 9 February 2023 condemned the attempts to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes, particularly when used as leverage or hybrid destabilising actions.
The weaponisation of migrants was pushed to the front of the EU’s agenda in 2021 when Poland accused Belarus of deliberately sending thousands of migrants to its – and the EU’s – Eastern border. At the European Council meeting of 2021, EU leaders condemned the attempts by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes. Restrictive measures were adopted against Belarus.
The Southern Flank – under stress at the same time – was not viewed as Europe’s problem but a bilateral issue to be solved between Spain and Morocco. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, expressed solidarity with Spain and emphasised the need for “common EU solutions to migration management.” In practice, the bloc’s attention was focused on EU’s eastern borders.
The instrumentalisation of migration has since been recognised as a threat at the highest level. NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept associates it with authoritarian actors and strategic competitors that “test our resilience and seek to exploit the openness, interconnectedness, and digitalisation of our nations, [….] interfere in our democratic processes and institutions and target the security of our citizens through hybrid tactics, both directly and through proxies, [and] undermine multilateral norms and institutions.”
Preventing the weaponisation of migration requires a holistic approach that addresses the root causes of migration, strengthens border controls and law enforcement, and upholds the rights and dignity of migrants. In addition to effective border control and monitoring systems able to detect security threats, countries should invest in border infrastructure, personnel, and technology (e.g., biometric identification and surveillance tools). They should also increase information sharing, mutual assistance, and policy coordination. As the EU’s Strategic Compass further explains:
“In the southern neighbourhood, global and regional challenges have increased and highlighted our mutual interdependence and the need to establish closer partnerships on security and defence. We underline in particular that terrorism, violent extremism, radicalisation, cyber and hybrid threats, as well as organised crime and increasing challenges regarding irregular migration, are major threats that affect both shores of the Mediterranean and are often interlinked.”
Solidarity in Action
Following Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the EU activated, for the first time in its history, the Temporary Protection Directive. In only six weeks, it managed to establish the Temporary Registration Platform to rapidly respond and show solidarity in action with the Ukrainian people. One year on, the nations bordering Ukraine still host over 2.6 million people.
Yet, Europe’s unprecedented solidarity with Ukrainian refugees exposed some double standards based on the nationality of the asylum seekers. It also revealed nationalist uprisings that might threaten the EU’s common action. Building walls and fences is just one example of the many challenges in balancing the need to protect borders with humanitarian responsibilities towards refugees and migrants, to uphold its humanitarian values while ensuring the safety and security of its citizens.
Triggered by the migration crisis in 2015, the EU has implemented several measures to improve the management of external borders. It started with the Agenda on Migration that listed both short- and long-term measures, as well as incentives for legal flows and disincentives for irregular migration. The European Council’s efforts to establish an effective, humanitarian, and safe migration policy aimed to “develop a comprehensive approach to migration which combines increased external action, more effective control of EU external borders, and internal aspects, in compliance with international law, EU principles and values, and the protection of fundamental rights and its member states.”
During his most recent visit to Hungary, Pope Francis emphasised the importance of compassion, solidarity, and welcoming those who are forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution. Aware of the long-lasting legal disputes between the EU institutions and Hungary’s nationalist government, the Pope urged to “open the gates” and “try to be gates that are not slammed in front of anyone, through which everyone can enter.” Will the European Union and its Member States – both in the southern and eastern flank – be up to this task? Or are we doomed to see the disintegration of our European solidarity and unity in the face of the migration trap?
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.