Migration: Mandatory solidarity or flexible subsidiarity?

Guy Mulders // 14 August 2023

Heading into the European elections next year, voters will most likely view migration as one of their top priorities. It is one of the top three issues that citizens most associate with the EU’s everyday work as 38 per cent say they have seen, heard, and read about migration and asylum the most in the last four years. It is also the policy area with which people are the least satisfied with the EU’s handling of the issue, at only 43 per cent. Migration has been an obstacle for policymakers and citizens alike for a long time, and given the slow progression of the EU migration policy, this will probably be the case for a few elections to come.

However, the status quo might see a transformation. The Council has recently approved plans for a new regulation on migration, which is set to replace the landmark Dublin Regulation of 1990. The new proposal has moved to the Parliament, but decisive elements agreed upon by the Council already show a major shift in policy. Under the Dublin system, a migrant must start the integration process in the member state of first arrival, but the new plan now moves this to member states around the continent.

The most decisive proposal in this new legislation is the idea of ‘mandatory solidarity’. In sum, this means the establishment of quotas in every member state. A quota will determine how many migrants a member state should accept. Member states are allowed to refuse such relocations, but will subsequently have to pay an amount – reported to be €20,000 – per migrant that is barred from entry. This money will then go into a collective pot of which the destination is still unclear.

This move signals a strong desire from the EU to take the wheel when it comes to migration and to move beyond member states’ opposition, most notably Poland, Hungary, and Czechia. First, it must be said that more assistance is needed for countries along the Mediterranean, such as Italy, Spain, and Greece. They have been overburdened and left to tackle the crisis by themselves. They have also been among the member states hosting the most asylum seekers and have been receiving the highest number of requests for taking migrants back from other member states under the Dublin protocol. The overburdening puts pressure on the already suffering economies and infrastructure of these countries.

Yet, establishing Union-level legislation is too strong a move, overruling the prerogative of member states to decide what is best for their unique circumstances. As already seen by the division in the debates on this proposal, a one-size-fits-all regulation seems impossible to do justice to all the member states involved. In terms of the economy, all countries have a labour market that focuses on particular sectors. Member states are therefore in a better place to decide on what kind of immigration would be suitable for their societies, establishing policies that are not prescribed by the EU. Free movement and free choice need to be safeguarded to ensure this.

As per a paper comparing the rights of free-choice Ukrainian refugees to other groups, free movement instead of relocation would be better from a member state’s perspective, as it allows migrants to choose a labour market of their preference. Countries with a shortage of labour can see their vacancies filled. Furthermore, from the migrant’s perspective, socioeconomic integration is less complex, as people can seek asylum in countries where they might speak the language or where a family member is already a resident. Thus, preserving the individual right to free movement serves two purposes.

‘Mandatory solidarity’ instead of flexible subsidiarity might ultimately have an adverse effect on the Union itself. Since the migration crisis ramped up around 2015, public opinion polls show that a common European measure is deemed ‘totally not important’ in member states opposed to the legislation, such as Hungary (28%) and Czechia (31%), wherein the percentage is significantly higher than other countries. According to another study, on a scale of 1–10, Czechia (3.4) and Poland (4.4) are not in favour of common European measures, either in financial help or relocation. In Eastern European member states, the preference of citizens and politicians is aligned, showing that the lack of support for a common policy is widespread.

The Council proposal combining relocation and fees makes migration look like a marketplace where deals are struck regarding human lives. Rather than replacing the Dublin Regulation, the proposal should improve the existing framework. The proposal should advocate an increase in EU funds for Mediterranean countries, bringing more financial aid and infrastructural support without a mention of relocation. The new legislation would be better off scrapping the notion of ‘mandatory solidarity’ and replacing it with a form of financial and resource-based solidarity, as also discussed in another plan by the Parliament itself.

The EU can then provide certain benefits to those member states willing to contribute to help the Mediterranean crisis instead of interfering with ones that do not. This would incentivise member states to help each other. Enacting a centralised policy and demanding solidarity might make unwilling member states grow even more reluctant. In the end, they should be flexible to choose their own approach. Voluntary contribution to joint funds instead of relocation and fees maintains the subsidiarity rights of member states but will relieve the Mediterranean countries of some of the worst pressure.

The last thing the EU needs is more polarisation and a growth in populist rhetoric. Yet, pushing through this new regulation might risk alienating more and more governments and citizens. The EU needs to keep the reluctant member states on its side and reconsider risking even modest policies from being approved in the future. It would be useful for the EU to explore such an option more in the upcoming debates on this regulation.

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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