‘The EU is really at a crossroads’

Interview with Tomas Tobé, Member of the European Parliament

European Court of Auditors
12 min readJan 18, 2024
Tomas Tobé. Source: EPP Group/Stavros Tzovaras

By Gaston Moonen

Migration policy in the EU is an area that relates to various key aspects, ranging from asylum and migration management to common asylum procedures, from arrangements in Schengen to an instrument for crises and force majeure. Within the European Parliament, Tomas Tobé, in his role as member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, was the rapporteur on the Commission’s proposals regarding asylum and migration management. He is keen to see these proposals and related amendments finalised through the adoption of a new Pact on Migration and Asylum. In the interview below, he shares his main concerns and hopes for a successful closure, which in his view is seizing an historic opportunity for a common EU migration policy, built on solidarity and shared responsibilities, that is not only effective but provides protection for those who truly need it.

A common approach

As the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the EU Regulation on Asylum and Migration Management, aimed at replacing the current Dublin Regulation and relaunching the reform of the Common European Asylum System, Tomas Tobé has been dealing with EU migration policies for years and has called the issue the Achilles heel of the EU. ‘On this topic the EU is really at a crossroads. Either we go for a more common approach to try to deal with migration and find solutions together. Or we continue with the failure we see now.’

The MEP is convinced more control is needed at the EU’s external borders. ‘We need to have a bigger difference between refugees with the right to protection in Europe, and economic migrants. That is something we are failing at today and not even every person who gets to Europe is registered. And we have a situation where smugglers are controlling a lot of migration flows into Europe. Many people die in the Mediterranean Sea, which of course is a failure in itself. We cannot continue this way.’ For him, these issues feed into the crisis feeling in this policy area. ‘For me, as a politician, it is clear we need a European solution, at EU level. Of course, it will not be perfect, and we will need to keep reforming it in the future. But to stick to the idea that this is a question that a single member state can deal with by itself…reality has shown that that does not work.’

As an MEP who is active in this area, he knows about the many different opinions on the topic. ‘We need to be pragmatic and find a balance to move forward. I think we can build a majority in the EP, but that was obvious in my view. Now we have this historic opportunity to build a majority in the Council.’ He expresses understanding that member states want to have some control over who comes into their country. ‘That is one reason why I convinced the European Parliament to forget the idea of having mandatory relocation for everyone that comes. This will only lead to political failure because the member states will never accept it.’ He thinks you have to be more flexible to find workable solutions.

This flexible approach is reflected in the agreement the Council reached on 8 June 2023 regarding their negotiation position on the new Pact on Migration and Asylum. While Tomas Tobé still sees various differences with the parliament’s position, he also sees opportunities for agreement. ‘On the big issues (should we have ‘first country’ criteria), on mandatory relocation, working on the external dimension to try to tackle the root causes, on more cooperation with third countries — on all these big issues I see that the parliament is moving in that direction, and the Council as well.’

He identifies real assurance that every country actually contributes to making the new pact work as very important for parliamentarians. ‘Because if we don’t have meaningful solidarity…then it will not work and remains some perfect model on paper.’ He is understanding of the challenges many member state governments face internally. ‘They are pressured from voters who say they want less migration. And even if you perhaps could say that this new migration pact will in the end lead to more economic migrants to be returned…of course it remains a challenge. But sometimes you just have to do what is right. And hopefully, in the future, you can prove to the people out there that it was right.’

Reducing migration

While the new pact aims to tackle several aspects of a common EU migration policy, the MEP identifies the question of refugees coming to Europe as the key issue to tackle, more than, for example, issues relating to the EU need for skilled labour. ‘How can we solve, among ourselves, the issue of a swifter procedure for refugees? How can we increase returns? How can we decrease the number of migrants coming solely for economic reasons? These are the big questions in the migration pact.’

However, from his role as Chair of DEVE, the parliament’s Committee on Development, he sees that the pact can also offer opportunities to attract more skilled workers to the EU. ‘We work a lot with our partner countries in Africa. In strengthening that cooperation, we are willing to invest more in development cooperation, offer more visas, more opportunities for young people to come to Europe to work. But of course, we also expect cooperation when it comes to other “hard” issues, for example, on returns.’ While obtaining skilled workers from elsewhere may be one solution for member states, he points to another opportunity to reinforce the labour population. ‘For example, if I take my home country, Sweden, we have many people who came from other countries but have not really integrated into society and are out of work.’ He sees opportunities for them to seize through education.

As Chair of DEVE he considers EU’s external development policies as a key instrument for addressing migration issues, particularly when it comes to tackling the root causes of migration. ‘For example, we have Global Europe, which is our instrument for development cooperation. We have said that 10 % of the budget related to that should go to tackling the root causes of migration. That is a big shift.’ He realises that one needs to tread carefully when creating such conditionality provisions because of political sensitivity. ‘But everybody understands that we need to do more on the spot to make sure that we offer opportunities, especially for young people in Africa. Often, they are seeking a better future when they go on these dangerous boats to Europe. And even when they reach Europe, many are disappointed, for example by a negative answer to their asylum request, their efforts to live in the shadows of society in the EU. It is not a good life either.’


One of the issues Tomas Tobé identifies that needs to be further elaborated on in any new migration agreement is a long-term EU strategy for migration management. ‘This is not yet supported by the Council, but I think it is very important to have such a strategy. Because you need to have an idea of the migration flows. And you need better preparedness, we need to support member states that are under migratory pressure at an earlier stage.’ For him this means advance warnings of higher migration flows to EU member states through intelligence information, for example from Frontex. ‘I find it surprising that this is not structurally done. It could help sometimes to reduce the flows and we could have better conditions in sometimes very hard situations for a single member state to cope with.’ He is disappointed that the Council has not gone in that direction. ‘I am pushing the idea that we need to tackle migration as much as any of the main political questions we have. And try to have a more long-term view on it, a real strategy to work towards.’

Another key issue in the proposals for him is that every member state has to contribute but can do so in different ways. ‘This is a big thing.’ He observes that for the parliament it will be essential to have meaningful solidarity that actually works. ‘Because everybody understands that the question of border control, registration — that is a question we can solve.’ In his view, with sufficient resources. ‘But the question of solidarity is another thing, that is, member states stepping up their support. Regarding the numbers, I think we can cope with them if we don’t leave it to a few member states to tackle such flows.’

One of the key elements often mentioned to make such solidarity work is trust between the different partners, including member states — specifically those located at the EU border. Tomas Tobé is not convinced this trust is totally there yet. ‘If the “MED 5 countries”, as we call them, those located around the Mediterranean Sea and dealing with big migration numbers, if we don’t offer them solidarity it basically means that they have to solve the whole migration question, or most of it. They hear from other member states in the north: “You need to protect the border; you need to register everybody who comes to Europe.” I think this is understandable and I agree. But when you see the numbers really going up, somehow people are not registered anymore.’

Some of his colleagues have pointed out to him that migration policy is also a tough, if not harsh policy. ‘But in Europe we are not in a situation where everybody who wants to come to Europe can come and stay here. That is the reality. And then we have to choose. Should you protect people that have a right to asylum? Then we have to focus on that.’ For him, this means one has to accept fewer economic migrants. ‘That is a hard message for people to hear. Because they just want a better life. I fully understand that, but we have to take responsibility. Because we are losing the trust of many citizens who feel that many politicians do not handle the migration issue. And we need to because otherwise political forces in Europe will grow which basically want to destroy the EU.’

For Tomas Tobé, this means that we need to be strict and use border infrastructure options where needed. ‘Europe is not open to everyone. But we want to be a continent that can actually protect people who are fleeing from war. It is quite clear what we are seeing with Ukraine. And it was a positive thing to see many Europeans opening up their homes for Ukrainians. But I think that this lack of trust, that there is something wrong with migration policy…it causes tensions in our societies which are very dangerous.’

Cooperation for success

In his view, the new Pact also offers opportunities in relation to the implementation of returns. ‘Here we will have a very swift procedure and determine whether you will have a high chance of getting asylum or a low one.’ He considers this shift important because with the current long procedures many asylum seekers just go somewhere else in the EU. ‘And then it is very hard to trace them. With this, we will have more control. If we succeed, it basically means that people will go back almost directly after coming to Europe.’ He expects that if people realise they will be paying a lot of money to smugglers simply to go straight back to the country they just came from, ‘this should decrease the appetite to come. It is controversial and there are many political views on this issue. But I and my political group, the EEP, we think that we also need to have more control over the people who actually don’t have the right to be in Europe.’

To tackle migration flows in the future, the MEP thinks it will also be important to work more with third countries. ‘For example, to crack down on the smugglers and the criminal networks who somehow control the volume of people coming to Europe.’ He knows that this sometimes means working with governments with which the EU has, or has historically had, a difficult relationship. ‘We can have opinions on how they work with human rights, with the media, the rule of law. But we cannot choose our neighbours, they are there.’ For him, this is a key reason to support work with Türkiye, for example when it comes to migration. ‘Because I don’t really see an alternative. Of course, we should not just hand out money, and there need to be tough discussions to improve things. Many populists, from the left to the right, basically say “Don’t send any money to Türkiye, don’t work with them”.’ Tomas Tobé does not think this is very responsible. ‘The EU is very attractive for many people to come to, and we need to work with these countries to try to control the volume.’

Having dealt with this policy area for several years now, Tomas Tobé thinks it crucial to get independent, fact-based information on which measures really work and which do not. ‘Take the aspect we covered earlier, on the root causes of migration. Which measures are actually effective? To audit that, that would be extremely interesting. Because we don’t really know. Another question to assess and really see is how efficient and effective the procedures relating to applications etc. are. We know that there are various problems, but perhaps to have an audit on that would be extremely helpful.’

Time pressure

As the MEP has indicated, getting the political partners to come to an agreement, in time, will be a challenge. ‘But we have an historic opportunity to come together. And we need to have the whole migration pact adopted before the end of this term, so before June 2024. As to the timing, it would be good for the people managing the files to be ready around Christmas.’ He does not exclude the possibility of the final issues being solved under the next Presidency, under Belgian leadership. ‘But we need to have time to have a proper vote in early 2024, we need to have the confirmation from all the member states.’ Despite this time pressure, he thinks it should not be too much of an issue. ‘Because we have been waiting for a long time for this to start and we know the positions already. We know all the arguments from the left to the right and likewise for those of the member states.’

The MEP believes that the Pact can be agreed upon. ‘It will be hard, but we can do it. But if it were to fail, it would be a disaster! Because then it would not be in the interests of many countries to actually maintain the external border of the EU. And that will also cause problems for countries like Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, countries that are very attractive to go to for many migrants.’

He sees the main task now being work on building a majority. ‘In parliament, the big shift making this all possible is that we have now taken a more responsible position avoiding a political deadlock. We show that you can work with us.’ On the Council side, he sees the willingness to work with a qualified majority. ‘Not every member state has to agree, which is of course crucial.’ Regarding the balance between responsibility at EU level and responsibility at national level, he observes: ‘That will be the big question. We need to build a migration policy that is flexible and voluntary so that you can use relocation or capacity building.’ Again, he ponders the need to ensure that every member state contributes. ‘If you leave a big opportunity for countries to say that they opt out, then it will not work!’

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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