EU Migration policies: doing less more efficiently

Caroline Burleigh // 17 March 2017

On Tuesday 14th March, the European Parliament committees on Foreign Affairs and Development debated the report on the role of EU external action addressing refugee and migrant movements.

This topic is of relevance, considering that the number of refugees has more than doubled in the last five years. Additionally, an increasing number of deaths have been recorded in the Mediterranean Sea (4901 in 2016 according to the International Organization for Migration), despite rescue operations.


These facts underline that migration cannot be neglected in a context where discussions of the latest European White Paper – on how to best pursue the EU project in the future – will dominate a great portion of the agenda. Regarding the migration and refugee debate, Scenario 4 of the White Paper seems viable: “Doing less more efficiently”.


This scenario would lead to the establishment of a single European Asylum Agency responsible for processing all asylum claims, as well as the full shift of responsibilities for external borders management to the European Border and Coast Guard. This would allow the EU to act quicker and more efficiently when confronted with high migratory pressures.


To assess to what extent this would improve the status quo, one needs to have a look at the current migration policies: since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, EU competencies on immigration matters have been shared with the member states. As of now, the Common European Asylum System (CEAS, completed in 2005) provides a framework of minimum standards to be upheld in the treatment of all asylum seekers and applications, supported by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Within this framework, the Asylum Procedures Directive aims at guaranteeing access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure. The Reception Conditions Directive prescribes common minimum standards of living conditions for asylum applicants (housing, food, employment and health care), to ensure that their basic needs are met during the necessary procedures. However, the fact that the CEAS consists of directives allows for significant divergence among member states, as directives inherently grant national decision-makers discretion in terms of implementation.


As a result, a number of EU states still lack fair and effective asylum mechanisms, in what may be considered a patchwork of 28 asylum systems. Therefore, the European Commission has presented proposals in May and July 2016 to counter such shortcomings by establishing a future system based on common rules, responsibility sharing and legal access channels to the EU for those in need of protection.


The reform of the Dublin Regulation should allow for a more rapid identification of the member state responsible for examining a given asylum application, and thereby promote a sense of shared responsibility within the EU. The new Dublin system consists of automatically assessing the adequate number of asylum applications to be processed by each member state, in accordance with a country’s size and wealth. This allows for asylum applicants to be relocated in case one member state receives a disproportionate amount of applications during a certain period. Ultimately, the aim of the latest proposals is to transform the existing EASO into an EU Agency for Asylum, very much in tune with the above-mentioned Scenario 4. Considering the average processing time of an asylum application (5.3 months in Germany and often much longer in other member states), a more centrally orchestrated process appears reasonable.


However, a more efficient management of borders should not be confused with more secure borders, as this tends to increase illegal migration and play into the hands of human traffickers. Whatever the outcome, decision-makers should bear in mind that migration is a human right guaranteed by Article 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and refugees fleeing war zones and/or persecution are protected by the 1951 Geneva Convention. Moreover, the socio-economic benefits of migration are to be more widely considered.


By gradually closing its borders, the EU might be turning away new opportunities for prosperity. Indeed, in their 2016 ‘Birthplace diversity and economic prosperity’ study, Alesina, Harnoss and Rapoport found that a one percentage point increase in skilled immigration – especially in developed countries – results in an approximate increase in economic output of 2%. Nonetheless, this is not a justification for turning our backs on low- or unskilled migrants. According to the Manhattan Institute, immigrants increase economic efficiency not only in high-skilled, but also in low-skilled markets, by reducing existing labor shortages.


These findings support the idea of a growth-oriented immigration policy, in which the investment in migrants is accurately understood as an investment in economic growth. Furthermore, the EU population is ageing rapidly, which has negative repercussions on both the available labor force and the sustainability of public health and pension systems in the long run. To illustrate this, by 2060 each worker in Poland will be carrying the cost of roughly three times as many pensioners as compared to 2013.

To the ageing population problem, one can add strikingly low levels of labour market participation of those close to retirement age in the EU as a whole, where only 50% of the population between 55 and 64 are active. Among those aged between 60 and 64, an overwhelming 70% do not work.


On a brighter note, further immigration could be a partial solution to this European demographic time-bomb. According to the OECD, migrants made up 70% of the total increase in the European workforce over the past decade, and 14% of the increase in the highly educated labour force since 2000, providing a significant boost to the working-age population. The fiscal contributions of both highly- and low-educated immigrants were also found to outweigh what they receive in benefits. Since employment is crucial to immigrants’ fiscal contributory capacity, a more efficient processing of asylum applications by a single European Asylum Agency would allow for their more rapid integration into the labour market. After all, most immigrants aspire to work hard in order to improve their lives and those of their families, and might be willing to work harder than many locals to achieve such improvement. In fact, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies in 2010 were founded by an immigrant or the child of one.


All in all, migratory flows to the EU are frequently overestimated, as the million new arrivals in 2015 only made up 0.2% of the EU population. In their latest report, the committees on Foreign Affairs and Development extensively highlight the historical and potential socio-economic contributions of migration, and therefore the necessity to challenge negative perceptions related to fiscal burdens, and pressing security issues alike. The aim is to regulate migration as a regular human phenomenon, instead of a fiscal burden, or even a major security issue. Removing political impediments to access the labour market would be a significant step in that direction.


EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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