The EU at a Migration Crossroads: Speaking With Cecilia Malmström

Migration, initially expected to take center stage at a European Union summit this week, will be pushed aside in favor of other hot-button issues despite the crisis at the bloc’s borders, Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, conceded in an interview.

But the need for action is not going away, Ms. Malmström said. If anything, it may ramp up as refugees pour in from the bitter conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
She made it clear that more far-reaching actions are not in the cards anytime soon, as a push for new initiatives collides with political and financial realities. For example, the EU won’t take over Italy’s costly search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum; set up EU-run asylum application centers at the neighborhood’s hotspots; or give more funding to Frontex, the EU border agency.
Read the interview with Ms. Malmström in this edited transcript. Emphases and notations our own.
WSJ: What are your expectations for the European Council? This was touted as the immigration-policy summit. How’s that looking?
CM: It’s looking as if institutional matters will rather take a big part of it. Then there is of course the Ukraine issue. There’s not a lot of time left. I know that our Italian friends will really insist on having a discussion on migration beyond the strategic guidelines. We need to discuss these issues all the time. We’ve had lots of discussions in the context of [the Justice and Home Affairs Council, the group of EU interior ministers]. Five or six meetings have been dedicated to this, and we had three hours of discussions last week [the week of June 9]. Every country has its own priorities, but there is a growing consensus that we need to implement what we have decided. We have taken a lot of decisions in the past years and we need to make them work.
On migration, [we need] to get the asylum system working—to make sure all the countries have the capacity, that we implement all the laws and the directives, that we have the resources available to make things work. Of course everything won’t be in place perfectly by 2015, but we’re getting there slowly. I hope that in that context we can also discuss resettlement, because the situation in Syria is becoming worse, and now we have Iraq.
We’ll have more refugees coming from Iraq starting immediately, first with family reunifications, and I know that some countries are already mobilizing their forces for analysis. We hope that the Council will agree on a list of conclusions, not too specific: listing the challenges, make it work on an operational basis, make sure that we also share the responsibilities. The immediate thing is resettlement, protected entries and so on. I don’t expect much in this field. And also we would very much welcome some language saying that we need to look at labor migration, that migration is not actually a problem. It would be an important signal to send after the European elections and all these xenophobic forces out there.
WSJ: On Iraq, there are refugee networks already in place?
CM: We just said, ‘Please start looking at this, please get everyone you have together to prepare the analysis.’ They [the networks] will be mobilized again and that’s why my guess is that it will start with family reunifications, and then we’ll have to see how the situation develops.
The biggest Iraqi population is in Sweden. Sweden took more Iraqi refugees in one city outside Stockholm than the whole of the U.S. If the situation degenerates, then member states will have to discuss that as well.
WSJ: I wanted to talk about the broader idea of protected entry, as well as the idea floated in the Task Force for the Mediterranean paper about joint processing [processing asylum applications outside EU territory]. This has been very controversial since human-rights groups have come down against it on the grounds that you can’t trust, for example, Libya to do it. The [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has also taken a slightly ambivalent and eventually controversial position on this matter. This was in your original conclusions. Where do you see it going?
CM: I think we all agree, including those you refer to, that they [the migrants] do this and they are at the mercy of traffickers and smugglers because there are no legal ways at all.We are about to construct an asylum system that will be safe and good and will work, but it’s only when you arrive at the border. If you don’t arrive at the border you have no chance. So we need to increase the legal ways. The first way is of course via resettlement. And this is why I’m like a parrot, talking about this all the time. We do see few positive signs, but we also need to discuss other ways of protected entries. That could be humanitarian visas, it could be joint processing inside the EU, where we divide the labor, or it could be the EU opening up for asylum applications outside.
I do not believe anyone is saying that the Libyans should open up camps. What we could envisage –but this is technically, legally and practically complicated- is that EU opens up asylum office somewhere outside. I think it can be done. It’s not easy… the main problem is that if you open up an EU asylum office in Benghazi, the day after you’ll have 200,000 people showing up. What do you do? You can only do that if you before have a quota, where member states have said “I’ll take 5,000 –I’ll take 10,000.” If we don’t have that they will be in limbo and we’ll have created expectations. We are looking at this, we have started different impact assessments to do this. But when we talked about it, the member states said “very interesting, but no thank you.” Nobody is interested in this. Not one single member state. But nevertheless we will do it. We realize that it is politically basically impossible today.
But this problem won’t disappear. And the Italians can’t have Mare Nostrum going on forever.
WSJ: Do you have any information about Italy scaling Mare Nostrum back?
CM: Yes, they have to. I spoke yesterday with [Italian Interior] Minister [Angelino] Alfano to see how we can help them. Because they say, “Europe is not helping,” but we are actually—a lot. We need to assess exactly how much more we can help them and what they need. Because crying for help is one thing, but you can’t sign a check—we need blankets, a reception center, a boat. They need to be more specific. They also need help with Mare Nostrum. This is something they need to discuss in the context of Frontex with the member states, to see how they can help. Mare Nosturm is a very expensive operation. I am full of admiration, it has saved thousands and thousands of lives. We have contributed a little bit from the EU but it is a very expensive operation. So to just replace it with a Frontex operation is not possible. They don’t have the money for that. The Frontex budget is €90 million and not all of that can go to operational issues. And the Mediterranean is very big. And member states have capped the budget. Maybe some member states are willing to contribute more. Outside the context of Frontex, too, we can look at how countries can help. But I don’t think they have the economic means to continue with this.
This is a discussion they’re having in Italy, they are talking about it. The big debate is that they have to scale it down, but what do we do, what do we put there, how do we make sure people don’t die like before? They’re talking about an “exit strategy.” We cannot immediately replace Mare Nostrum with Frontex Nostrum –we don’t have that money.
WSJ: The deputy head of Frontex made a point that there were those landmark situations over the past twelve months that would qualify [for] a bigger budget that they’re not getting; they’re getting the same budget as they had in the previous period. Should Frontex have a bigger budget?
CM: Member states have a lot of demands on Frontex. Frontex is a small organization. So yes, I think Frontex should have a bigger budget. The problem is that interior ministers keep on calling for different operations to be done in the context of Frontex. We’re of course happy to contribute as much as we can, but maybe they should have a talk with their finance ministers because I didn’t set the budget. They set it. And that’s one of the reasons why the Italian PM will really want to talk about it at the summit. But there is not an overwhelming enthusiasm among the heads of state to say, “Yes, why don’t we give an extra X million to Frontex.”
WSJ: All these massive numbers of people that Italy is rescuing, where are they going?
CM: It depends. Some of them that come from Syria or Eritrea will eventually be given asylum, humanitarian protection, they won’t be sent back. Some are being sent back. They have of course a problem to digest all these people. Italy has always been a very mixed picture. Some reception centers especially in the north function very well. But now with the surge, even those in the north are under such pressure that they are not functioning properly.
What we all know is that many of those people will try to leave Italy. They turn up in Stockholm or Berlin.
Italy just jumped up to place number five when it comes to countries receiving asylum seekers. Germany is still at the top, France is still second, Sweden is still third, then U.K. is fourth.
The 30,000 that come to Italy, it’s a lot. But it’s a third of those who come to Germany. It’s about half of Sweden.
What we are talking about when we say other countries need to engage, it’s the other countries that don’t take anybody, from Portugal to Estonia.
WSJ: But isn’t that trend proof of the failure of Dublin II?
You can’t say that Dublin is unfair, but you need to register in the country where you arrive. You need to give your fingerprints and register there as an asylum seeker. And if you get asylum, you can’t leave. I can understand that this is cruel if you want to go to another country, but this is the law that has been agreed by member states. Italy did not block it at the time, two years ago. We tried to make it a little bit more flexible when it comes to children and people who turn up in other countries so there’s no automaticity. I looked at the statistics recently and of those who do turn up in a second country and are requested to be sent back, only 30% are sent back. And if you were to change asylum, you could do that, but then you would have to build up a system where asylum seekers can choose the country where they want to be. It sounds like a good human idea, but you can’t make member states agree to that. But in the future if all member states have a proper functioning asylum system, people will see that ‘yes, I will have a good, transparent, fair treatment in my asylum application and I can live a good life also in Estonia or the Czech Republic.’ We won’t be there tomorrow, but in some years hopefully we’ll have a better division of responsibility.
WSJ: You wanted to talk about resettlement. That’s a disappointing picture in Europe, no?
CM: It is. There’s some good news. For instance, a country like Finland is heavily engaging. They promised 500 [refugees] and are taking 1,400 between now and the next year, which is a lot for a country like Finland. Also Austria is engaging. I was in Madrid the other day, they promised to take 150-200 people directly from Jordan. Many countries are taking them, but they are still very small numbers. I can understand if you have very little experience you can’t start with 5,000. Germany is taking 10,000 to start with and they have 30,000 already there as asylum-seekers and some Lander have promised to take even more. So Germany and Sweden are taking the most. All countries should take [refugees]. You can start with a couple of families. Many of these people, they’re asylum-seekers, traumatized by the war, but they have skills. Syrian people are generally very well-educated. They have skills that we need. They are not a burden –they can be a fantastic asset.
WSJ: It was your countryman, Swedish migration minister Tobias Bilstrom, who said to me recently, ‘Why have there not been infringement procedures’ against member states for violations? You have several times when responding to incidents in these countries said that you will not hesitate to use them. Do you think you’ve been soft on these countries?
CM: I don’t think we’ve been soft. The problem is, while you’re in the middle of a process of renegotiating asylum system laws, it’s difficult to bring countries into court. We have several infringement procedures. There’s a clear determination that we need to get to the same place and then we’ll also use infringements much more. For some of these cases, push-backs for example, it is very difficult to bring them to court because you have a story from the people who survived but you have very little proof. And if we are to bring them to court, we want to win. You can even be personally convinced that it was probably a push-back, but it’s very difficult. [A push-back is when migrants who have just crossed into a country are forcibly pushed back out.]
On the incident in Greece for example, the Farmakonissi incident, they are saying they are investigating it. I have written numerous letters. I even raised with Mr. Samaras, the prime minister. So we are watching them. But I don’t expect much to come out of it.
WSJ: On Libya, the situation there is deteriorating. Do you have any intelligence on what’s going on there? There are reports of dozens of thousands of people locked there because of the turmoil but waiting to be ferried across.
CM: This is what we hear as well. It’s a great tragedy. It’s a big country with the capacity to employ a lot of people. The [Moammar] Gadhafi regime was terrible, but it did employ millions of people who came there to work. They were paid, they could finance their families. It has the potential to become that country again, but it’s so chaotic. People say, ‘Oh, why don’t you make an agreement or a mobility partnership with Libya?’ An agreement with whom?
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