The EU’s Migrant Plan: A Defining Moment for Europe

Source: Associated Press

European Commission officials Frans Timmermans and Federica Mogherini discuss the EU’s Agenda on Migration.

The Story

Three weeks after a boat sinking caused the deaths of 800 people seeking to reach Europe, the European Union (EU) announced its response to the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea on May 13.The European Agenda on Migration seeks to reduce the flow of illegal migrants coming to Europe, and to share responsibility for migrants that do reach European borders across its member states. Specifically, the EU proposes to strengthen funding for search-and-rescue patrols in the Mediterranean, establish new avenues for migrants to legally reach the EU, redistributing targets for how many refugees each member country must accept, and confront the Libyan trafficking groups that are profiting from the flow of migrants to Europe.

 Reaction to the EU’s  plan revealed divisions among its member states: countries that have already been absorbing large numbers of migrants, including Italy, Germany, and Sweden, applauded the proposed collective approach; whereas newer members hailing primarily from Eastern Europe, including Hungary, Slovakia, and Estonia, expressed opposition to requirements for harbouring migrants. Other member states, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark, have historical exemptions from the EU’s asylum policies and would not be subject to the new proposed quotas.


At the same time, the EU is seeking authorization from the United Nations Security Council for a military mission to destroy boats that ferry migrants across the Mediterranean, with the intention to reduce Libyan groups’ abilities to profit from human trafficking.  On this point, however, the EU is facing resistance from Russia – one of the five permanent members of the Security Council that has the ability to veto resolutions – as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who expressed concern that the mission may unduly impact Libyan fishermen who rely on the boats for their livelihoods. Meanwhile, some migration experts question whether focusing on Libyan boats would be effective in ultimately reducing the demand from political and economic refugees in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East to flee to Europe.

Background Articles


Key Quote

What we’re seeing is a focus very much on smugglers… and that really misjudges the nature of the problem. If we think about smugglers, yes, they facilitate migration, but they don’t create migration. They respond to an underlying demand for migration.”  – Alexander Betts, Director of Centre for Refugee Studies, University of Oxford


 The EU’s migration challenge comes at a crucial time for the future of the continent-wide institution. Ever since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the solidarity amongst EU member countries has been severely tested by the unequal pace of recovery and sharp differences of opinion over the responsibilities of member countries to support each other (illustrated most clearly by deteriorating relations between Germany and Greece). As a result, struggling EU countries like Greece have openly pondered leaving the EU altogether, while other countries (including France, Italy, and Hungary) have seen anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties rise in popularity on a wave of voter insecurity and resentment towards groups they perceive  as benefitting from the EU’s policies. The challenges to the integrity of the EU intensified with the Conservative Party victory in the British elections on May 7, as it campaigned largely on a promise to hold a country-wide referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the EU within the next two years. A British exit (or “Brexit”, which has been trending in British media) could set an influential precedent for other nations contemplating their future in the EU; at a minimum, it threatens to substantially weaken the shared responsibilities that were envisioned as part of a pan-European system of government.


 Meanwhile, the EU has struggled to counter a mounting geopolitical challenge from Russia on its eastern front, as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand his country’s influence in former parts of the Soviet Union like Ukraine. Beyond a round of sanctions, EU member states haven’t yet found an effective strategy to roll back Russia’s advances while unifying its Western and Eastern members. Within this context, the success of the EU’s Agenda on Migration could play an important role in determinig the future of pan-European government. Immigration is a classic transnational issue, in which uncoordinated actions by individual countries are insufficient to address the root causes of migration patterns. Should this initiative succeed in at least imposing a more effective system to track and re-settle economic and political refugees, it could provide a sorely-needed example of why an institution such as the EU is needed, at a time when multiple countries are questioning the benefits of their membership. On the other hand, the plan risks alienating those very same countries, especially newer EU members from the eastern half of the continent, who may not have yet developed the institutions needed for successful accommodation of an influx of immigrants.


Ironically, Russia may again surface as a key challenge to the success of this plan. It has already threatened to veto a UN resolution authorizing military force to target Libyan traffickers’ ships – likely motivated in part by sour feelings over the UN’s 2011 resolution authorizing a no-fly zone against Mummar Gaddafi’s regime, which Russia feels was violated by the use of ground force to oust the dictator. And if the newer, eastern members of EU become increasingly disgruntled over requirements to accept a higher number of refugees, Russia may see an opportunity to regain some influence in the region through closer political, cultural, and economic ties.

Suggested Discussion Questions

  • Does the EU Agenda on Migration sufficiently address the root causes of migration from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East? What might be the potential unintended consequences for migrants?

  • How does the EU’s migration plan affect relations between EU member countries? Does it help to solidify relationships? Does it aggravate any rifts within the EU?

  • What interest does Russia have in the outcome of the EU migration plan, and how might it affect the plan’s success/failure?

One thought on “The EU’s Migrant Plan: A Defining Moment for Europe

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