Migration-related issues among tough challenges to face EU

In addition to seeking closer cooperation with regional countries over migrant smuggling, the next EU parliament will have to reform its asylum system.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Supporters of the far-right party Alternative for Germany shout slogans in Torgau, Germany.                (Reuters)
Politics of fury. Supporters of the far-right party Alternative for Germany shout slogans in Torgau, Germany. (Reuters)

LONDON - 2019 is set to be a crucial year for the European Union, with European parliamentary elections taking place in May against the backdrop of rising populism stoked by widespread migration fears.

Participation in European parliamentary elections — the biggest electoral contest in Europe — has been declining since the first vote in 1979. In most European countries, European parliament elections are viewed as a sideshow. Turnout at the previous election averaged 42% and was as low as 25% in Hungary and 18% in the Czech Republic.

Turnout is not expected to be significantly higher in May, even though the vote will see the election of a parliament tasked with addressing issues crucial to the future of the European Union, not least reforming migration and asylum systems.

The results of the European parliament elections will have a say in determining the division of senior EU posts, with the presidencies of the powerful European Commission and European Council to change hands in 2019.

Forecasting the results of the May elections is almost impossible, although it seems certain that the dominance enjoyed by rival centre-left and centre-right “grand coalitions” will be broken, with most predicting the rise of nontraditional and populist parties.

Anti-migration and anti-EU parties are polling strongly, with far-right parties such as Italy’s League, Germany’s Alternative for German and France’s National Rally expected to make significant gains.

“The number of disillusioned voters has increased, with many people frustrated about the powerlessness of national governments in a globalised world,” warned Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “A much larger number of voters are putting their faith in anti-establishment parties that promise change.”

Writing for Carnegie’s Reshaping European Democracy Project, Lehne said there had been a similar and counter-balancing force in pro-EU politics, pointing to French President Emmanuel Macron’s electoral victory in France as part of an unexpected “third-way” politics and the Green party’s strong position in Bavarian elections in October.

“The dominant dividing line of the new parliament could become a contest between politicians who want to find common EU-level solutions to current challenges and those who favour safeguarding and reaffirming national sovereignty. The parliament could turn into a major battleground between competing visions for the future of Europe,” Lehne added.

The European Union will look to continue discussions with Arab countries, particularly in North Africa, to resolve the migrant crisis. While a move to set-up “regional disembarkation centres” in the region for migrants and refugees seeking entry into Europe has been roundly rejected, greater cooperation between the European Union and Arab governments could help deal with unwanted migration.

“Through our partnerships, we have helped more than 34,000 people to voluntarily return to their homes with reintegration assistance and we evacuated more than 2,000 refugees from Libya for further resettlement,” EU Foreign Affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a European Commission release last month. “We will continue to work to protect stranded migrants, to put an end to the system of detention in Libya together with the United Nations and the African Union.”

Following the announcement of the UN migration pact in December, the European Union said it would provide additional support for Morocco to address irregular migration.

“The additional funding adopted under the EU emergency Trust Fund for Africa will bring the overall migration-related assistance to Morocco to [$170 million] in 2018,” a European Commission statement said. “This will help step up the fight against migrant smuggling and trafficking of human beings, including through reinforced integrated border management.”

In addition to seeking closer cooperation with regional countries over migrant smuggling, the next EU parliament will have to reform its asylum system known as the Dublin Regulation. The system necessitates asylum seekers apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter, something that so-called front-line countries — Italy, Spain and Greece — say places an unfair burden on them.

“After four years, it is now essential to consolidate this comprehensive approach [to migration management] by switching from reactive ad hoc responses to completing the reform for a sustainable future-proof migration and asylum system,” EU First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in a release last month.

While Timmermans has called on the European Union to push ahead with this reform before the next elections, few say this is possible with the task almost certainly going to be left for the next European parliament to deal with.

Whether a likely more divided European parliament will reach agreement on the issue remains to be seen.

“The EU as an institution needs reform,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the Financial Times. “When I speak to prime ministers from other countries, most of them agree that a serious revamp of procedures and institutions is needed but everyone is waiting for the European elections.”