In January 2021, Portugal took the chair of the EU Council Presidency with the expectation to address several challenges the EU is currently facing. Among them, the hitherto unresolved issue of solidarity and burden sharing of migration. This article addresses these challenges and any potential prospects.
Since 2013, over 17,000 migrants have disappeared or died in the Central Mediteranean while attempting to reach EU shores. The International Organization for Migration set up the ‘Missing Migrants Project’ to track the number of incidents. The Central Mediterranean and the Mediterranean are a special focus of the project since this area is the deadliest route for migration. The official numbers are however believed to be underestimated given the limitations of tracking all occurring incidents.
Migration has been an extremely politicized issue since the start of the increased irregular migration trends to the European Union in 2015. Since the peak of the so-called ‘migration crisis’, the EU and its member states have adopted more restrictive measures in terms of entry to its territories. These restrictions include a halt of European search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, which has now led to a halt of operations conducting search and rescue to save people in distress.
Human rights organizations as well as the UNHCR have consistently called upon the EU to change its (in)actions concerning search and rescue in the Mediterranean. Particularly the cooperation between the EU and Libya has been a constant point of criticism. The Libyan Coast Guard, trained and equipped by the EU, regularly intercepts migrants at sea and returns them to Libya, a country of civil war, where they face the danger of being detained and tortured. Particularly the former Italian government and its interior minister Matteo Salvini has made it difficult for NGOs to conduct their missions by criminalizing their work. Although Salvini’s closed ports decree, which prohibited entry for vessels with rescued migrants, was amended by the new Italian government, there is still no solution for a European search and rescue approach in the Mediterranean. The most recent maritime operation of the EU, operation Irini, was launched in 2020 to enforce the arms embargo against Libya and strategically positioned in an area which is not frequented by migrants for crossing the Mediterranean.
Given the politicization of migration to the EU, some countries have taken a tougher stance on the issue than others. As such, the Visegrád Group consisting of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, has consistently declared itself unwilling to cooperate on tailoring any distribution mechanism in regards to migrants or asylum seekers seeking refuge in the EU.
Although member states differ on how to find a solution for migrants who have reached the shores of the EU, they all seem to favor restricted access for potential asylum seekers to their territory in general. This is illustrated by a number of external developments in the last year such as the lacking operations in the Mediterranean, the EU-Turkey deal, reported pushbacks operated by Frontex and the Libyan Coast Guard and externalization of migration management to third countries. Moreover, irregular migration has been presented as a security threat. This has led to blurring of the lines between the fields of development and security and manifested the opposing stance toward immigration from several member states. Accordingly, within the EU, little progress has been made concerning burden sharing among member states, making it an ongoing issue.
In January 2021, it was Portugal’s turn to host the EU Council Presidency after Germany. Portugal has presented itself as a relatively welcoming country in the past years. With the relocation and resettlement of 10,000 migrants, Portugal has increased its acceptance to more than double of the number of people that the European Commission suggested. Moreover, during the spring of 2020 Portugal relocated many unaccompanied children from the Greek islands and was among the few countries accepting unaccompanied minors from the Greek camp Moria which burned down in fall 2020. Reasons for this approach is assumed to be an active Portuguese civil society promoting to host more people, but also demographic changes in Portugal as an effect of the financial and economic crisis in 2008 and the related austerity applied by the EU.
This approach has been praised, and so has been the general tendency of Portugal not to resort to radical right populist parties. However, the latest election in January 2021 showed that although Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of the center right party was re-elected with over 60% of the votes, Portugal is not immune to the far right. With about 12%, Chega (enough), a one-man-party of André Ventura, achieved a big success, only two years from first being founded. Ventura campaigned around anti-immigration issues by linking immigrants with crime and describing them as a burden for the healthcare system and for social benefits. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Portuguese government temporarily granted migrants the status of permanent residents to guarantee access to health care, welfare benefits and other services.
Although the recent Portugese election will have no impact on the EU Council Presidency and its agenda, it confirms the general trend of popularity of radical right-wing populist parties in Europe, which have successfully campaigned on migration issues, supporting especially those EU states that are strongly opposed to immigration.
The function of the Presidency includes an agenda for the forthcoming six months and in the case of the Portugese Presidency, it will have to deal with the economic and social recovery due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Lisbon will also have to coordinate taking the Migration Pact forward, which was presented by the European Commission in September 2020. Particularly Southern member states place great hope in the Portugese Presidency concerning migration issues, expecting a better understanding of the situation at the EU’s external borders, and of the difficulty to handle migration without solidarity from other member states.
The UNHCR has called upon the EU (with an emphasis on Portugal and Slovenia, the next state to hold the Presidency), to reform the European asylum system and better support regions where the majority of forcibly displaced persons live. In this regard, violations of migrants’ fundamental rights have been addressed related to reported pushbacks. Similarly, the recommendations included a halt of the cooperation between the EU and Libya and a halt of criminalizing NGOs. In the first talks about the Migration Pact, Portugal stressed the importance of mandatory but flexible solidarity among member states.
In spring, the next summit between the EU and the African Union could potentially be held. Since the so-called ‘migration crisis’ the EU has consistently stressed the importance of the African continent as a key partner and will likely focus on improving their partnership during the next summit. However, tensions still exist with some African countries concerning migration issues such as returns and readmissions. The EU will likely bring the issues forward again in the next summit. The African Union announced it will put greater emphasis on aspects related to trade inequalities such as the Economic Partnership Agreements, showing little interest in following the interests of the EU. This in turn, could lead to the Viségrad Four remaining reluctant to become involved in a redistribution mechanism in the absence of agreements with countries of origin.
Given the backlog on solidarity and distribution in the EU, these issues seem to be the colossal challenges the Portuguese Council Presidency will be facing during its term. In the long run, it is assumed that the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences will further contribute to the tendency of increasing migration to the EU via the Mediterranean. This puts even greater emphasis on the need to finally agree upon an approach of how to deal with search and rescue.