After spending the morning working in groups to prepare for an upcoming US-EU negotiation simulation, our group headed to the Council of the European Union (formerly known as the Council of Ministers). The Council of the European Union or the “Council” is one of the main bodies of the European Union. It is a forum through which EU Member States may promote their national interests. The Council is in a unique position of creating one coherent position on policy issues out of possibly twenty eight differing opinions of Member States. The Council consists primarily of 28 ministers, one from each Member State, who are Member States’ ambassadors to the EU. It is chaired by one Member State which rotates every six months. Malta currently holds the presidency, and in July it will pass the baton to Estonia. Through the “codecision” process, the Council of the European Union works closely with the democratically elected European Parliament to revise and adopt legislation. In addition the council meets in ten different configurations, each of which specializes in a different subject area. For example, the Foreign Affairs Council configuration brings together foreign affairs ministers from the Member States who work closely with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to shape EU foreign policy.

Today we had the pleasure of hearing a presentation on migration and asylum policy from Mrs.Susanne Nielson. She has previously worked on EU enlargement policy and EU Africa policy. Mrs. Nielson now works directly with the president of the Council to get general consensus on different policies with a focus on migration. Her presentation provided insightful details about EU migration policies which we had heard a little about at the High Level Conference on Migration which we attended last week. In recent years Europe has experienced a large influx of migrants and refugees, notably from the Middle East and Africa. Migrants to Europe travel through three main routes.

Eastern Mediterranean Route:

The first migration route runs from Turkey to Greece. Due to the crisis in Syria as well as other Middle Eastern states, Turkey has received millions of refugees and migrants many of whom travel to Greece and other Balkan states. Irregular migration to Greece peaked in October 2015 with Greece receiving hundreds of thousands of migrants in one month. After various initiatives such as the EU-Turkey arrangement in 2016, irregular migration has steadily declined and is now close to zero. Migration along this route has decreased by 79%. Greece, however, continues to receive thousands of migrants legally.

Central Mediterranean Route:

The second route or the Central Mediterranean route runs from Libya and other northern African countries to Italy. Libya serves as the departure point for 90% of migrants traveling to the European Union. This has, however, proved to be problematic since it is illegal to be a migrant in Libya. Migrants discovered by the government are sent to detention centers.  Organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are often able to successfully negotiate access to detained migrants and return them to their country of origin if the person wishes to do so. The central mediterranean route is generally longer and therefore more dangerous than the Eastern Mediterranean Route with thousands of deaths already recorded in 2017. Migrants usually pay large sums of money to smugglers for passage across the Mediterranean. The smugglers put groups of migrants on rubber boats which are usually not equipped to handle large capacities. Smugglers also may not provide enough gas for the boat, and many boats sadly never make it to the European coast. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have boats waiting outside the Libyan maritime zone to help these migrants board sturdier boats and guide them to the Italian coast. Such organizations must, according to Mrs. Nielson, navigate between saving lives and helping smugglers by doing their job for them. With their profits smugglers often engage in the arms trade in Libya further contributing to the instability that causes mass migrations to Europe in the first place. They then profit from these migrations by offering passage to Europe at high prices which many are forced to pay in order to flee instability in their home countries. Migration along this route has increased by eighteen percent between 2015 and 2016.

Western Mediterranean Route:

The last route runs from Morocco and Algeria to western European countries such as Portugal, Spain, and France. This route has recorded the lowest number of irregular and regular migrants. In 2006 this route was the most common route for illegal border crossings into the EU. At its peak in 2006 over 31,000 irregular migrations occurred to the EU. Even within Western Africa, there were around 180,000 migrants in 2016.

Common migration routes to Europe

       After arriving in the EU, migrants enter the asylum process laid out by what are known as the Dublin Regulations. Dublin III which entered into force in 2013 provides the most recent laws regulating this process. Migrants must apply for asylum status once they arrive in the European Union. The state in which an asylum seeker applies for asylum is responsible for either granting or denying asylum. Until a decision is made, migrants must remain in their respective Member State. In Greece migrants must stay on the Greek islands until their application is processed. If granted asylum, the person can live in the Member State from which they were granted asylum but may not necessarily travel freely to other EU countries unless granted permanent residence or EU citizenship. If asylum is denied, the asylum seeker may not reapply for asylum in another Member State and is generally sent back to the country of origin. These regulations aim to prevent “asylum orbiting” in which asylum seekers travel to different Member States and submit multiple asylum applications until they are granted asylum. In addition to EU Member States, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Iceland also participate in the Dublin Regulations.

Though the Dublin Regulations and subsequent reforms have greatly increased the efficiency, new regulations are needed. Because the Member State in which the asylum seeker submits their application is responsible for the individual, border states such as Greece and Italy are forced to house thousands of refugees while states such as Hungary chose to close their borders. The European Commission proposed the Dublin IV to reform the current Dublin III Regulations. In an effort to relieve Italy and Greece of the large number of refugees arriving on their shores, the Council adopted Council Decision (EU) 2015/1523 and Council Decision (EU) 2015/1601 in 2015 which collectively relocate 160,000 refugees to other Member States. Decisions are legally binding, but some states have refused to accept relocated refugees or even declare how many refugees they plan to take in. The European Commission has recently begun infringement procedures against the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. If the European Union is to cope with the migration crisis, its members must be held accountable and evenly share the burden. Great progress has been made by the EU, but the migration crisis is far from over.