EU completes reform of migration rules, despite Poland and Hungary voting against

Brussels: The European Union has completed the reform of its migration and asylum policy, a watershed moment that for a decade proved stubbornly elusive.

The tortuous and often explosive undertaking came to an end on Tuesday afternoon, as member states gathered to give the very final green light to the five regulations that make up the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, an all-encompassing overhaul that seeks to ensure all countries, regardless of location, shoulder their fair share.

Among other things, the New Pact envisions stricter rules to expand the screening of applicants, carry out health and security checks, speed up examination procedures and provide counselling free of charge. Its main novelty is a system of “mandatory solidarity” that would give governments three options to manage asylum seekers: relocate a certain number, pay €20,000 for each one they reject, or finance operational support.

The initial goal is to have 30,000 relocations per year.

As expected, Poland and Hungary, the most ardent critics, voted against the entire package of legislation. Since the reform was presented in 2020, the two have consistently resisted the system of “mandatory solidarity,” falsely claiming it would force them to accept migrants against their will.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia, two skeptics, chose to abstain in the majority of files, while Austria voted against the Crisis Regulation.

But the New Pact only needed a qualified majority so it moved forward and was formally ratified, sealing one of the greatest accomplishments of the current mandate.

For the bloc, the path to the finish line has been all but easy: the idea of having a common, predictable rulebook to handle the irregular arrivals of asylum seekers has been on the table since the 2015-2016 migration crisis, which turned the issue into political dynamite and bitterly split countries into opposing camps.

Southern member states complained about being overwhelmed and left alone. Western and northern countries demanded stronger accountability and enforcement at the external borders while eastern states resisted any initiative that resembled a relocation quota.

Amid the commotion, far-right forces saw their chance and jumped onto the topic as a trampoline to relevance and electoral success. The shockwaves of that political seism are still felt today, with polls ahead of the June elections predicting a sharp turn to the right.

Under a sort of “if not now, when?” mantra, member states overcame their differences and gradually unblocked the five pieces of the New Pact throughout 2023 until they reached a provisional deal with the Parliament in December.

The agreement, hailed as “historic,” was narrowly endorsed by MEPs in April following a heated debate that laid bare the ideological discrepancies that remain unresolved: lawmakers on the right said the reform was too soft and lenient while lawmakers on the left said it was too harsh and punitive.

Humanitarian organisations were also split. Amnesty International denounced the New Pact, warning it would degrade the quality of the asylum process and lead to “greater suffering.” But Oxfamn said it represented a “glimmer of hope” that could provide a coordinated, protection-centred approach to the thorny question of resettlement.

“This package goes a long way,” said European Parliament President Roberta Metsola. “It will not magically solve every issue overnight, but it is ten giant leaps forward.”

Tuesday’s vote in the Council took place without drama, not even a debate as every detail that could have been negotiated had already been negotiated many times over.

The only step left for the New Pact is the publication in the EU’s official journal. After that, it will take two years to enter into full force.

Despite the sense of relief in Brussels, the thumbs down given by Poland and Hungary presage a rocky start for what comes next: making the reform work.

The European Commission will present an implementation plan in June to outline the legal and operational elements necessary to put the New Pact into practice. Then, member states will have until January to submit their own national plans.

This exercise is supposed to serve as a gap analysis to identify the resources needed on the ground, such as training, personnel, equipment and facilities.

The talks about implementation will take months and could very well revive the political acrimony that has subsided in recent months, particularly if southern nations demand an amount of money that Brussels is unable to cough up.

The budget review agreed earlier this year by EU leaders foresees €2 billion to realise the ambitions of the New Pact until 2027. But the pot could run out fast if governments come up with hefty proposals to build infrastructure and hire new staff.

Once the laws come into force, the focus will turn to enforcement and compliance. Will Poland and Hungary follow the rules they so adamantly opposed?

“The Migration Pact is another nail in the coffin of the European Union. Unity is dead, secure borders are no more. Hungary will never give in to the mass migration frenzy!” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said after the vote in the Parliament.

Donald Tusk, who has vowed to reset Warsaw-Brussels ties after eight years of tensions under the hard-right Law and Justice (PiS) party, has maintained his predecessor’s official line, denouncing the New Pact as “unacceptable” for his country.

“We will protect Poland against the relocation mechanism,” Tusk said last month.

A lack of compliance is a major threat to the reform, which was painstakingly negotiated to guarantee that all countries contribute one way or the other. If member states begin to ignore the rules, the system of “mandatory solidarity” will be quickly undermined and rendered toothless, depriving the New Pact of its centrepiece.

Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, has already warned the executive would launch legal action against rebellious countries. But that process is slow and can drag on for years before the European Court of Justice issues a ruling.

In the meantime, new asylum seekers will continue to arrive, asking for international protection. In 2023, the number of applications reached 1.14 million, a seven-year high.