Implementing the global migration compact in EU member states: A long and winding road?

In 2018, the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement on a common and holistic approach to international migration, was endorsed. While not legally binding, the GCM contains principles and practical suggestions to guide state policies and practices. Its adoption however was not without controversy – particularly in Europe, with several EU member states opting out of the framework.

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      As part of the process, signatories agreed on a series of mechanisms for implementation. Governments will exchange and share progress achieved at the International Migration Review Forum, a platform to be held every four years as of 2022.

      But given the absence of a clear global roadmap, timeline or enforcement mechanisms, what will implementation entail for EU member states?

      Three scenarios for implementation of the compact

      According to the International Organization for Migration’s deputy director, Laura Thompson, “there is no ‘one size fits all’ model for the compact: all states have to determine for themselves what approach to take. She sees three possible scenarios: (1) a methodical and thorough approach; (2) a selective approach with states choosing objectives in line with their national priorities; and (3) the status quo, with states deciding not to implement the commitments.

      Next steps for EU member states

      For those EU countries committed to exploring their own approach, the following steps are useful starting points.

      The first step is a mapping of how national policies and processes are already aligning with the framework. Such a baseline exercise – already undertaken by several EU member states, for instance the United Kingdom and Belgium – can help set priorities with support from all actors involved, including government representatives and non-state actors. States will also have to identify commitments that can be implemented through national policies and policies for which multilateral or EU-level instruments and processes are necessary.

      Second, member states committed to implementing the compact are encouraged to develop their own national action plans, develop a national monitoring process, set a timeline with indicators and identify clearly which actors are responsible and legitimate to coordinate each set of actions. To ensure that there is proper implementation, a dedicated budget for GCM-related activities may be warranted (including activities to be carried by non-state actors).

      whole-of-government approach to migration governance can foster the successful implementation of the compact through better coordination, reconciliation of interests and joint shaping of objectives, policies and responsibilities across government levels.

      Third, member states will need to examine carefully the communication strategy on their commitments to the GCM to improve its acceptance by the general public – while simultaneously ensuring they are not perceived as introducing their own bias into national debates. For instance, governments will need to prepare themselves proactively to react to false facts in migration discussions that in the past have affected public opinion on the compact.

      In December 2018, we tried to debunk some of the false facts on the migration compact:

      Facing up to hard choices: Ambitious commitments versus political priorities

      Whether national action plans will commit to the full set or only a selection of GCM objectives (or whether states will decide not to develop any action plan at all) will also depend on their own interpretation of the commitments and principles in the text of the compact.

      Some may argue that their national policies are already in line with the compact and may simply incorporate GCM language in existing policies and strategies.

      Others may deem that some GCM principles clash with current national priorities. Examples are alternatives to detention, greater availability of regular migration channels or a human-rights based approach. In the wake of the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’, several EU countries which ultimately endorsed the GCM, have adopted more restrictive asylum and reception policies in an attempt to reduce pull factors for irregular migration.

      While states have the right to determine their national migration policy, these restrictive measures create tensions with the spirit of the GCM. These countries could still decide to focus on a selection of objectives which may be less contentious. The commitment to the GCM is not cast in stone and will be dynamic. Governments will need to keep ambitions alive, as elections and shifting national interests may change the priority attached to implementing the compact.

      The role of the EU

      Given that the GCM is to be executed at the national level, it is unclear which role the EU should play in supporting its member states’ implementation process.

      Throughout the negotiation process, the EU enjoyed an observer status (meaning the EU was represented during the negotiations, but no EU institutions took part in the voting). The EU delegation to the UN represented the EU during the negotiations, enabling EU member states to speak with one voice instead of having to negotiate on their own, which enabled them to exert more leverage over other negotiating states. When some EU countries backed out of the GCM negotiation process, the EU as a whole however lost its influence at the global level.

      This lack of unanimous support for the GCM at member state level brings up two issues for the EU and its institutions.

      First, the fact that several member states opted out of the GCM raises the question of whether the official EU coordination platforms (such as the EU’s working groups on UN and migration issues) are the right platforms for coordinating its implementation. A more pragmatic approach would be to use more informal exchange settings.

      Some possibilities include workshops – gathering government representatives, or using existing thematic platforms to discuss specific GCM commitments, such as the European Migration Network or the European Return and Reintegration Network. Such platforms could facilitate a more coherent implementation across EU member states through exchanges of practices and lessons learned.

      Second, the lack of shared support among EU member states calls into question the role that the EU will play in supporting these processes in the future. Before its endorsement, several EU institutions had expressed an interest in supporting the GCM implementation, with the EU Commission strongly supporting the compact and committing to engage in its follow-up. However, under the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the EU (one of the abstaining states) not much progress was communicated on the GCM implementation at EU level.

      This is unlikely to change with the current presidency – held by Finland, generally more favourable to the GCM – because of the remaining tensions between member states. Considering the politicisation of the GCM in the past months, member states are probably not going to risk re-opening the Pandora’s box to argue for joint implementation. Instead, member states willing to make progress nationally are likely to keep a low profile to not stir unnecessary debates both nationally and at the EU level. The European Commission will leave the implementation to member states, while supporting partner countries on specific aspects (for example those serving the EU’s overall interest).

      The implementation process across EU member states is likely to result in a patchy and partial implementation of the GCM that conveniently focuses on selected EU member states’ national priorities.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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