UN migration agreement leads to splits in the European Union

The issue of global migration is never far from the news. As all eyes are fixed on Tijuana and the clashes at the California-Mexico border, the debate on humanitarian migration is once again inflaming political debates on the other side of the Atlantic.

Since 2015, Europe has seen a major influx of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing violence, persecution, poverty, and war in their home countries and looking to start a new life in Europe. In 2015 alone, one million people reached the continent, mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—leaving European governments divided on how to best grapple with the issue.

Far-right nationalist parties have capitalized on concerns around migration to win votes and get in power, often bending the truth to achieve a cohesive narrative that would serve their political purposes. In reality, since the height of the migrant crisis European leaders have cut unauthorized migration by 90 percent, and UNHCR data shows that the number of arriving migrants is back to its pre-crisis level.

This drop has been the result of a series of controversial agreements signed by EU governments with countries whose human rights records are questionable at best. From the 2016 EU-Turkey deal brokered by Germany and the Netherlands, which allows the EU to return migrants crossing into Greece to Turkey, to Italy outsourcing border control to the Libyan coast guard—which stops migrant boats and forces thousands of people to return to Libya where they face grave human rights violations—the policies put in place by European governments have hardly encouraged migration.

Even worse, according to Amnesty International, the European Union strategy to keep migrants from its shores—which even included deals with Sudan and Niger to stop the migrant flows coming from the region—is responsible for the dramatic surge in deaths at sea over the past two years.

Yet, European nationalists are still claiming that Europe is under siege from migrants and are advocating for hardline stances on migration and border control. This campaign of disinformation is now harming one of the United Nations’ best efforts to promote a coordinated, humane, safe, and rights-based approach to migration—the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM).

The GCM is the result of two years of extensive intergovernmental negotiations and the first-ever agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions. A non-binding agreement, it lays out a comprehensive framework aimed at better managing migration while taking into consideration state sovereignty, responsibility-sharing, non-discrimination, and human rights—with the clear objective of maximizing the overall benefits of migration and addressing its inherent risk and challenges through a cooperative approach.

Sure, the GCM has its limitations, but its political and diplomatic salience is not to be dismissed. While not all migration-related issues have been properly resolved or addressed, the GCM agreement does provide new ideas and proposals to rethink the way we approach migration policy. It is a start, a platform for dialogue, and a significant victory in this political climate.

After a long process and in what was called a “historic moment,” UN member states finalized the text of the GCM in July 2018, and they are expected to formally endorse it during the upcoming Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration on December 10-11 in Marrakech, Morocco. But nationalist fears are getting in the way.

Although all UN member states apart from the United States participated in the negotiation process, in recent months several countries have been pulling out of the GCM—largely a result of the disinformation campaigns carried out by far-right, nationalist leaders, who have often claimed this agreement would encourage “illegal” migration and prevent individual countries from controlling their borders.

On November 28, Italy announced it would not support the GCM, becoming the tenth and latest country expected not to endorse the agreement. Strikingly, seven of these countries are members of the EU—an indicator of the divisiveness of the politically-charged topic and a clear consequence of the negative discourse surrounding migration in Europe.

Like Italy, most countries have cited national security concerns as the rationale behind their withdrawal: Hungary felt the pact was against its security interests and an encouragement for migrants; Austria fears it would lead to “a human right to migration;” Poland claimed it wouldn’t allow countries to control their own borders; the Czech Republic and Bulgaria feared it would blur the line between legal and illegal migration; and Slovakia couldn’t accept the pact’s positive connotation of migration—a decision that prompted Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak to resign in protest.

However, these claims are unfounded. As UN Special Representative on Migration Louise Arbour repeatedly stressed, the GCM does not in fact encourage or try to stop migration, does not introduce any additional obligations under international law, and fully respects the sovereignty of states. The GCM is merely a framework for action, and it is up to individual states, policymakers, and national leaders to make the most out of it. These countries’ refusal to endorse it shows their lack of appetite for international cooperation, and their unwillingness to find collective solutions to issues that no single country can effectively tackle alone.

What they fail to consider is that migration has always been part of the human experience, and that by missing this opportunity they will not only increase the incidence and impact of irregular migration, but also miss out on the long-term benefits of migration—which countries with a low population growth like Italy would greatly benefit from.

By leaving the UN migration pact and isolating themselves, these countries are showing that they don’t believe in the future of a common agenda on migration and security—whether it be European or not. They are rejecting the idea of making Europe stronger through constructive, open dialogue and effective cooperation, which is at the heart of the EU model. And if quite a few EU member states no longer believe in multilateralism as a solution to global challenges, what’s next for a union which was formed to collectively address European problems?

Miranda L. Prosdotti is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council.

Image: Migrants, intercepted off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, waited to disembark from a rescue boat after arriving at the port of Malaga, Spain, on November 29. (Reuters/Jon Nazca)