A common asylum policy in the EU is still the biggest political hurdle in Brussels. After member states made relatively good progress in 2022, the new year begins with a setback. Responsible for this are not the usual suspects like Italy with its post-fascist government or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, but a country in Scandinavia that holds the EU Council Presidency for the next six months.
Ironically, Sweden, which has long stood for the most liberal migration policy in Europe, is unlikely to be very enthusiastic about the common migration policy. In September, the social-democratic minority government was thrown out of office by a right-wing conservative alliance tolerated by the right-wing nationalist Sweden Democrats (SD).
Although they are not part of the new government, the right with their strong result of 20 percent made the change of government possible – and with it the new moderate Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. The role as kingmaker – they tolerate the government in parliament – is paid for by the Sweden Democrats, who have a major influence on asylum and migration policy in particular, and also have concrete effects on the European Union.
The EU Commission now seems to have declared itself ready to at least partially go along with this new course. In addition to the populist attitude from Stockholm, this is also due to the current statistics: the number of irregular entries rose to 308,000 last year by the end of November – an increase of 68 percent compared to the same period last year. At the same time, there are far too few returns of illegal migrants to their home countries. According to preliminary figures, in 2022 only 23.3 percent less than every fourth asylum seeker who was required to leave the country was deported; in 2021 it was 24 percent. The debate about an effective asylum policy based on solidarity has occupied the EU for years, but in view of the increasing number of refugees, the pressure is growing in Brussels to find a joint solution to the problem. According to UN refugee aid, 150,177 refugees and migrants reached the coasts of Europe in the past year alone – although years earlier there were fewer than 100,000.
Brussels now wants to take countermeasures: this year the focus should be more on deporting migrants who have no right to asylum than in previous years. To this end, the EU Commission wants to further improve cooperation with countries of transit and origin. “I expect that by the end of 2023 we will have turned things around in terms of repatriations. This of course depends on the member states, as well as on the EU. We have to combine political determination with administrative capacity,” said the responsible EU Commissioner for Home Affairs.
She knows that laws alone, such as the 2009 EU Returns Directive – which is intended to guarantee a fair process, but also provides for detention pending deportation and bans on re-entry – cannot solve the problem. She also promises that the EU border protection agency Frontex “will significantly increase its support for return operations”. But the real reasons for the low deportation rates lie deeper.
For example, the repatriation rates between individual EU countries sometimes vary greatly. The reason for this is that in countries with low values such as the Czech Republic, Italy or France, there is apparently a lack of political will to actively deport illegal migrants. In addition, deportations are often very time-consuming for the courts and the police. In most member states, the judicial authorities are heavily overburdened, which repeatedly leads to delays in deportations.
Another major contentious issue in Brussels is the distribution key for refugees. The Mediterranean countries are no longer willing to care for and register all newcomers from third countries, as they are actually obliged to do. The so-called Dublin rules, according to which the country of first entry is responsible, do not work. Many migrants therefore move on to northern countries, such as Germany. The German government is therefore campaigning to launch an EU program for the voluntary distribution of asylum seekers. Another reason for low repatriation rates is the unwillingness of countries of origin or transit countries to take back illegal migrants. So far, the EU Commission has negotiated binding repatriation agreements with 18 third countries and legally non-binding repatriation agreements with six countries. That is not enough, important countries such as Tunisia, Morocco or Egypt, which strictly refuse to reintegrate the refugees, are also missing.
Until the elections in September, Brussels could still hope that progress could be made under the Swedish presidency. Because the EU Commissioner responsible for migration is a Swedish social democrat. However, these hopes have been dashed with the new centre-right government, which is dependent on the support of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats.
Many in Brussels are concerned that the great influence of the Sweden Democrats could affect relations with the EU. The party is extremely critical of the international community, it was only in 2019 that they gave up their idea of a “Swexit” due to a lack of public support. The leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, Iratxe García Pérez, expressed concern about the “negative influence of the far-right Sweden Democrats” on the six-month EU presidency. Introducing the Swedish Presidency, Prime Minister Kristersson tried to allay such fears, stressing the importance of putting national interests aside in order to put the good of the EU as a whole first. “It’s not the right time to wave the big Swedish flag,” he said. The question of EU migration policy is not one of the priorities of the Swedish Council Presidency anyway, said Kristersson recently in a speech to the Riksdag in Stockholm.
Sweden’s ambassador to the EU also tried to downplay the issue, saying the agenda of Sweden’s right-wing populists “will not derail or determine EU leadership.” There are likely to be taboo issues for the Sweden Democrats, but he takes his instructions “from the government”. The fact that the EU will agree on a functioning common migration policy in this six-month period is considered unrealistic. But the discussions about it have started, and the Swedes have clear ideas about it, especially as far as cooperation with the countries of origin and transit is concerned: the EU rewards cooperation, but does not rely enough on coercion, said the EU ambassador from Stockholm recently in Brussels. Literally he spoke of “carrots and sticks”. The Swedes want to threaten other countries more and thus achieve cooperation on migration issues. The Swedish emissary mentioned the conditions for issuing visas and trade facilitation, which simplify exports to the EU for developing countries, as leverage. If these trade facilitations are abolished, it could mean an economic setback for the countries concerned. The aim is to ensure that more countries prevent people from leaving the EU and cooperate with deportations.
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