The dawn of a new age of implementation in EU migration policymaking?

European Court of Auditors
8 min readJan 19, 2024

By Hanne Beirens, Migration Policy Institute Europe

Source: velkol /Depositphotos

We may be on the threshold of a new age, one which places implementation and impact — what happens on the ground — closer to the core of the EU’s migration policy mission. What are the signs that we may be at the dawn of a new era and what is driving this trend towards situating impact at the heart of policymaking? Hanne Beirens, the Director of Migration Policy Institute Europe, identifies several signals in Brussels and beyond, the EU now needs to deliver on a policy area with high visibility, high dependency between member states, and pressing expectations from EU voters. She describes various things that indicate a genuine desire to achieve an impact on the ground.

Widespread sense of urgency for change

Brussels, the beating heart of EU policymaking, is in a frenzy finalising negotiations on the new Pact on Migration and Asylum. With European elections due next June, and the current European Commission’s tenure ending in October 2024, the timeline for an EU-wide agreement on migration is short. The Pact needs a green light from the Commission, European Council heads of state, and the European Parliament in the first months of 2024.

Beyond the basic political calendar, Pact negotiators face other key pressures. A renewed sense of chaos — of not getting a grip on the migration situation in Europe’s neighbourhood — is causing sleepless nights in capitals across the bloc, and stirring thoughts of a drastic departure from the traditional approaches to migration and asylum. The number of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving on EU shores and at its external land borders has reached levels surpassed only by those of the 2015–2016 migration crisis, when more than two million people arrived. Member states such as Italy, Spain and Greece are sounding the alarm on boat arrivals. Other member states such as the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium have been plunged into a deep reception crisis for nearly two years now .

The presence of 4.1 million Ukrainians has increased (the perception of) competition for scarce resources in education, health care, and support in accessing the labour market. In Germany, which has been a stronghold for the right of protection in the Union, but as of June had received one-third of all EU asylum applications so far this year, proposals such as cutting benefits for asylum seekers have skyrocketed. Germany’s anti-migration party, the AfD, performed well in the 8 October state elections, coming second in Hesse and third in Bavaria. Migration proved the downfall for Mark Rutte’s government in the Netherlands in July. And in other EU member states, traditional centre-left and centre-right parties fear a bloodbath in upcoming elections if the theme of migration — and the absence of perceived action and results on the ground — dominates electoral debates.

Hence, while there is a great need for political agreement on how to tackle migration and asylum and a renewed commitment to set common standards and work together, these will not be enough on their own. Many Europeans are seeking a change in the migration situation on the ground and reassurance from their governments that the Pact holds the key to accomplishing this. It is therefore essential that political adoption of the Pact should be accompanied by a concrete and realistic plan and vision for implementing it.

In the final sprint to the agreement between member states in June, a small but important article was added: the obligation for the Commission to deliver an implementation plan within three months of the Pact being adopted, with a subsequent duty for national governments to develop their own plans.

This rather novel element in EU policymaking brings with it key questions. These include:

  • what an implementation plan should look like;
  • what elements it should cover, and at what level of detail; and
  • how soon relevant authorities can make preparations to ensure that the necessary finances, human resources, strategies and standard operating procedures can be mobilised.

That this new focus on implementation made its way into legal texts is indicative of a new school of policymaking in Brussels, i.e. an intent to close the often all-too-real gap between policy ambitions and operational outcomes. A gap that in the migration context yawns between the political commitment to fair but swift asylum procedures in support of migration, integration and return systems, and the reality of asylum decisions averaging two or more years. A growing number of stakeholders are pinning their hopes on implementation of the Pact as an essential vehicle towards addressing persisting problems (e.g. overcrowded reception centres and lengthy asylum procedures) and demonstrating to the public that European cooperation can make a difference when it comes to well-functioning migration and asylum systems.

Fitting within an emerging chasing impact trend?

This burgeoning focus on ensuring that what is codified on paper becomes an effective reality, fits within an emerging — if still covert — trend towards a chasing impact culture. There are several indicators for this trend.

Evolution of executive agencies dealing with migration

A first indicator is the growing mandate and resources reserved for executive agencies, which has gone hand in hand with the evolution from being merely a support office — think: plugging holes — to being active in upgrading, reconfiguring, and even — in some cases — gradually taking over parts of national operations. The transformation of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) into the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) was a landmark. The EUAA has seen its operational support plans for member states double over the last two years, with the agency now active in 13 countries. National governments no longer view the EUAA as a lifeline for the ailing — or even structurally underfunded — asylum systems, but as an EU-wide resource that all member states can call upon when in need of extra capacity and expertise.

The morphing of Frontex into the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG, though still typically referred to as ‘Frontex’), which has a more robust mandate and budget, also fits within this trend. The nature of the tasks that EUAA and Frontex carry out would, in some cases, have been unimaginable a few years ago. In the Frontex case, this ranges from agency staff standing alongside national border or coast guards, to offering Joint Reintegration Services for voluntary and forced returnees and replacing national reintegration programmes. In the case of the EUAA, this includes supporting the Greek Asylum Service with all steps of the asylum procedure (e.g. registration, interviews, case reviews, and recommended decisions), except for the final decision.

Will this standard mobilisation — and continuous reconfiguration of the role — of EU executive agencies be a model for the future implementation of the Pact if it crosses the finishing line? And will those stakeholders who play a key role in securing the Pact have an opportunity and sufficient time to implement the lessons learnt — and all the tools which may not have been officially identified as being in the toolbox — in crafting the Commission’s and national governments’ implementation plans?

A shift from legislation-making to securing impact on the ground

A second important marker is the creation of operational units within the Commission’s DG HOME, which originally prioritised proposing new legislation or amendments to the existing acquis. Plainly speaking, the earlier incarnation of the DG responsible for migration and home affairs could be described as reaching for legislative action and technical corrections to solve most problems. Financial instruments and the operational programmes they funded played only a secondary, enabling role in steering national migration goals and systems in the ‘right’ direction. But with the 2015–2016 crisis, a notable shift occurred. The setting-up of hotspots in Greece and Italy went hand in hand with the establishment of a Migration Management Response unit in DG HOME, where Brussels staff were tasked with supervising EU-funded and co-managed [with national administrations] operations. Since then, the number and mandate of the operations-focused units in DG HOME have grown, and one of the Deputy Directors-General has been given a clear mandate to manage this growing body of work for the organisation. Will these units eventually be reconfigured into a fully-fledged operational arm of the Directorate for Migration and Home Affairs?

Building an evidence-based culture to design impactful practices and programmes

Fostering support for operational thinking, planning and innovation represents a third marker of the emerging chasing impact culture. There is also a new recognition of the importance of building monitoring and evaluation (M&E) into asylum, resettlement, return and reintegration initiatives. A culture of M&E permits better tracking, taking stock and analysing how things work in practice, which in turn consolidates the evidence base for a given topic. The EUAA and FRONTEX, for example, have seen their monitoring role expanded recently. Similarly, regard and recognition has grown for the added value that investigations by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) generate. The ECA has kickstarted ten or so audits of migration and asylum in recent years. Special report 24/2019, which examines asylum and return procedures in Italy and Greece, constitutes a hallmark for how an investigation into operations, mechanisms, and associated financial and human resources can push the field forward. For example, the ECA’s analyses of the involvement of EU agency staff in those two countries played a crucial role in streamlining and upgrading the support they offer.

Chasing impact as a marker of successful EU migration policymaking

All of these markers and other developments may suggest that we are at the dawn of an age where implementation is no longer a back-office function and regarded as an after-thought, but runs side-by-side with policy formation and legislative text drafting.

We could even envisage the next Commission turning this up a notch by departing from the default reaction to migration crises, which is to return to the legislative drawing table. It is perhaps not too much to hope that in the years to come, implementing the key principles and laws already agreed in Brussels becomes the priority and marker of success for DG HOME.

Moving effective implementation to the heart of the conversation requires some key questions to be addressed:

  • How is effective, measurable implementation done? Via implementation plans, operational programmes and pilot projects?
  • Who are the protagonists from among a list that includes the EUAA, Frontex, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), the ECA, the Commission, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and NGOs?
  • How do we move towards better data gathering and analysis? All ECA reports on migration have, without exception, concluded that there is an absence of data, which hampers analysis of what works, where and why. Moreover, the auditors were often faced with a lack of measurable targets linked to policy ambitions and roadmaps.
  • How is this shift towards implementation adequately resourced?
  • As policymakers communicate about (new) strategic directions in the field of migration, do they accompany their statements with announcements about implementation plans?
  • To ensure realism, should discussion of implementation plans include mentions of phased approaches and multiannual work plans? And should an incremental approach build in key milestones, which are translated into smart indicators that implementing organisations and auditors alike can work with?

Finding timely answers to these questions will be crucial if the new Pact on Migration and Asylum is to stand a chance in practice. Expectations on the ground and in national capitals as to what the Pact is to achieve are highly strung. Advances achieved on paper but not reflected in practice will not be accepted by citizens who are increasingly anxious about the EU’s ability to manage migration.

This article was first published on the 2/2023 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.



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