Several crises have destabilized the European Union neighborhood in recent years. Since 2022, Russia has been waging a war of aggression in Ukraine. Now the war between Israel and Hamas is threatening to flare up tensions in the entire Middle East. As a result, the EU is now home to more than four million Ukrainians, and Brussels has stepped up its aid efforts to Egypt to prevent a new refugee crisis from erupting. In addition, stubborn inflation and recurrent terrorist attacks have hardened public attitudes against welcoming the world’s “huddled masses.”
As a result, immigration is now an extremely sensitive topic both at the EU institutional and member state level, a situation fed by the rise of protectionist and far-right political parties and ideas throughout the bloc. With the 2024 European Parliament elections just around the corner, there is serious concern that a new refugee crisis could give eurosceptic political parties a significant boost in the upcoming polls. But, while everyone agrees that the current EU framework is inadequate, updating it has proven a fraught exercise. Meanwhile, France’s latest attempt to reform its own immigration laws illustrates how EU-level failings are mirrored and even compounded at the national level.
With 27 member states and 447 million people, the EU is home to 24 million non-European citizens, accounting for 5% of its population. While proportions are comparable in the United States, the EU’s approach to immigration is complicated by the fact that it must juggle the various competencies between European institutions and the bloc’s member states.
The EU has the authority to define conditions for legal immigrants, incentivize member states to take measures fostering integration, and prevent and curb illegal immigration. The EU relies on Frontex, an agency established in 2004, to monitor its external borders; internally, the Schengen Area guarantees free movement within EU member states. Member states retain their right to set limits on the number of non-EU nationals who can enter their territory to seek employment and can temporarily reintroduce border controls in the face of security threats. When dealing with asylum seekers, the Dublin III regulation determines who is responsible for asylum seekers, with the general principle being that the country of entry has to handle the asylum process.
However, the 2015 migration crisis, prompted in large part by the conflict in Syria, exposed the flaws in the EU’s approach. First, it laid bare the asymmetries in burden-sharing among member states, with southern countries made to bear the brunt of migration usually headed for EU countries further north. Secondly, the voluntary nature of the tools adopted by Brussels allowed member states such as Hungary to simply ignore them while others half-heartedly complied. For instance, while Germany welcomed almost 450,000 migrants under the EU relocation scheme in 2016, France only accepted 35,000 that same year. This prompted the EU to initiate immigration reforms, with mixed results at this stage.
Eight years on, the immigration framework reform process is still ongoing. The EU has introduced some stopgap measures, including a controversial deal with Turkey in 2016, but the 27 member states are still lacking a systematic and sustainable response to this challenge. In 2020, the European Commission introduced new rules under its “Pact on Migration and Asylum,” meant to balance border control with more humane treatment of migrants. In 2022, the Commission also announced measures meant to facilitate legal immigration to plug labor shortages.
Progress has been made as regards the Pact, for instance via the establishment of the European Asylum Agency in 2022, the appointment of a new EU Return Coordinator, and the introduction of the Voluntary Solidarity mechanism among 21 willing member states. However, negotiations are still ongoing over key issues such as implementing a common asylum procedure, initiating the first screening of migrants at EU borders, and enforcing a “solidarity mechanism” that would compel member states to choose between hosting asylum seekers or providing financial compensation.
Countries such as Hungary and Poland have warped the debate around immigration, pushing the Council in 2023 to use qualified majority voting to circumvent their obstinate opposition. While the possibility of a more pro-European government in Poland could move the needle, the return of Robert Fico to leadership in Slovakia will give Hungary another, if less influential, ally in its crusade against any and all migrants. In the meantime, the EU-level vacuum has fed the growth of anti-immigration forces such as the AfD party in Germany and carried Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party to government in Italy, the bloc’s third largest economy.
Time is of the essence as repeated crises in the EU’s neighborhood are constraining national governments’ margin for maneuver. For instance, in October 2023, Germany notified the EU that it would be re-establishing border controls with Poland, Czech Republic, and Switzerland. The previous month, Italian authorities were overwhelmed when more than 120 boats carrying around 7000 migrants – more than the island’s full-time population – arrived on the shores of Lampedusa island over a two-day period.
This might explain why there is a renewed impetus to reach an agreement before the 2024 European elections. In early November 2023, trilogues began between the Council, Commission, and European Parliament, reflecting a concerted intention to make immigration reform happen. As Commission head Von der Leyen put it in her latest State of the Union speech, the Union needs to “show that Europe can manage migration effectively and with compassion.”
Against this European backdrop, member states have had to grapple with their own internal divisions around immigration. For instance, the German Greens blocked their coalition’s position on the EU’s proposed reform until September 2023. In France, after many delays, the government has just initiated the country’s 28th immigration-related legislative initiative since 1980. President Macron’s promise to better control immigration while also improving integration of recent arrivals was a key campaign pledge in 2022.
A majority of French citizens, irrespective of political leanings, want immigration reform. A shifting demographic landscape, with 10% of the population born outside France and factors such as a steady stream of terrorist attacks, conflicts in the Middle East, and labor shortages in sectors such as elderly care, construction, and hospitality are all contributing to the importance and sensitivity of immigration in the French public opinion.
Caught in the crossfire, the Macron administration is attempting to thread the needle and has proposed a “Bill to Control Immigration and Improve Integration.” This consolidated immigration bill aims to address both labor and security considerations, while also reforming family reunification. Relying on a right-leaning majority in the Senate, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin committed to passing the bill without utilizing Article 49.3, a constitutional provision that allows the government to bypass parliamentary approval but which has proved unpopular in recent years.
Article 3 of the proposed bill in France is at the heart of debates between both sides of the aisle. It intends to create a temporary residency permit for undocumented workers in sectors facing shortages. To win over the right, Macron’s concessions include limiting free medical assistance for undocumented individuals and expanding the use of referendums on societal issues such as immigration, a fraught proposition given the steady rise of the far-right in France.
On November 14, the right-leaning Senate voted to delete the Article 3 controversial provision and replace it with a new article 4 bis. The latter provides for prefects to grant undocumented workers in shortage occupations a one-year residence permit on an “exceptional” basis. The left-wing and part of the governing party are not onboard with these restrictive changes. Now that the Senate has adopted the text, the bill will move on to the National Assembly where it is slated to be debated in mid-December.
Macron’s balancing act has strained his parliamentary majority. This is evidenced by bipartisan calls for systematic regularization of undocumented workers and by opposition from healthcare professionals against limiting state medical aid, which they deem “sanitary fault”. In the face of this opposition, and despite the Interior Minister’s commitment, the government is still considering whether to use Article 49.3 to get the text past the National Assembly. However, with the European elections just around the corner and that article being very unpopular, resorting to it could cost the government dearly, come June. With the EU still without adequate legal tools and competences to face a potential new crisis, some parties are bound to question whether Brussels is indeed best placed to oversee border control as their campaigns pick up steam.
As Europe grapples with a unified approach to immigration, France navigates the intricacies of its own national landscape with a text that tries to strike a balance to win over both sides of the aisle, but which runs the risk of satisfying neither. The simultaneous challenges at both levels underscore the centrality and sensitivity of the issue for the entire EU. Discourse on immigration, intricately woven into various domestic landscapes, is poised to play a pivotal role in the upcoming European parliamentary elections. Already buoyant far-right parties across the continent are sure to take advantage of any perceived failure from Brussels to secure the continent’s border. In this context, it is imperative that the EU’s proposed reforms garner consensus and strike a delicate balance between security concerns and humanitarian values.