The Future of European Migration Policy - Motivations, Obstacles, and Opportunities

Demonstratiin in Hamburg am 2.11.2013 - "Rights for the Libyan Refugees"
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Demonstratiin in Hamburg am 2.11.2013 - "Rights for the Libyan Refugees"


by Steffen Angenendt

Executive Summary

Europe faces major migration policy challenges. In many regions of the world, the pressure to emigrate is increasing, and more people than ever are attempting to escape political violence, oppression, lack of economic prospects and environmental changes and seeking a better future for themselves and their families in the EU member states. At the same time, due to aging and shrinking European populations, the need for immigration is growing. To date, however, there is no societal or political consensus on the management of this migration and the growing ethnic and cultural diversity. Uncertainty prevails in regard to the number of immigrants that are needed or wanted, the tools to be used to guide this migration, and the ways in which immigrants should be integrated.

These national uncertainties add up at the European level. In addition, member states still differ considerably, despite growing similarities, with regard to their immigration histories, the extent and structure of immigration, and countries of origin of their immigrants. Reaching an agreement on a common migration policy is therefore difficult. 

Nevertheless, over ten years ago, with the Treaty of Amsterdam, the member states already agreed upon a common migration policy. Since then, numerous immigration projects have begun, with completion progressing at different rates. Great advancements have been made towards a common policy on asylum and on joint control of the EU’s external borders - with agreement in each case on the restrictive elements of the common policy.  However, in regard to the management of immigration, especially labour migration, the governments have been unable to agree upon a common policy. This is where the fear of losing the national capacity to act is most pronounced: for many governments, the decision on who should be allowed to immigrate, under what conditions, and for what reasons, continues to be a core aspect of national sovereignty and state governance.

The member states will not be able to afford such hesitation much longer; the pressure of the problem is increasing too quickly. It can be expected that common asylum and migration policy will remain a balancing act: on the one hand, national powers must be protected, because only in this way can policy do justice to the major differences between national, regional and local levels in the EU.  On the other hand, due to the common European Single Market, the EU member states must agree upon a binding legal framework for immigration and common concepts and tools. Only then can they achieve a coherent, efficient and legitimate asylum and migration policy.

An analysis of current migration trends in the member states, the potential for migration from areas neighboring the EU, the challenges and opportunities connected with migration movements, and the development and current state of European migration policy, allows identification of many thematic areas that the governance of European migration policy must urgently address.

In principle, it must now be understood that there is no alternative to more intensive European cooperation. A problem-oriented, realistic European migration policy must anticipate the economic and demographic need for immigration, frame socially acceptable immigration policies, consider obligations to international humanitarian law and the European states’ integration  into world politics, and offer a contribution to the fight against the causes of forced migration.

EU humanitarian aid and development cooperation must aim more directly at these issues,; member states must further develop international protections for refugees and improve the financial, infrastructural and personnel capacities of international governmental and non-governmental organizations involved in this work.

In order to achieve this, coherent and comprehensive approaches must be pursued in migration and asylum policy. Coherency in this context means three things:

  • Collaborative policies need to be established at different levels of government (federal, regional and local), in which civil society (especially non-governmental organizations) is included (vertical coherence).

  • Steering tools in different political fields need to be combined; that is, migration policy tools must be more closely linked with the tools of foreign, development, social, and economic policies (horizontal coherence). 

  • EU member states need to develop and pursue common goals, on the basis of ideas about burden-sharing and solidarity (inner coherence). In addition, in its “Global Approach to Migration,” the member states determined that an overall policy should include not only a reduction in irregular migration, but also long-term solutions for refugees and better management of legal migration.


The current European asylum and migration policy is still far from such a coherent and broad policy. What predominates is still an ad hoc policy that is uncoordinated, partially contradictory, not very strategic, and yields to short term necessities . In order to make progress toward a common policy, the coherency on all three levels must be improved.

In designing future policy, the following principles should be central:

  • Recognition of the shortcomings of previous management tools: In most of the EU member states, the regulations on labor migration lack transparency, legitimacy and efficiency. They are usually the result not of strategic planning, but of decades of reactions to current circumstances. National regulations are not designed to manage labor migration in such a way as to use its economic and social potential optimally. Also, the differences prevent member states from using the advantages of the EU market for recruitment – which becomes a disadvantage in regard to highly qualified immigrants, given the international competition. These shortcomings must be recognized.

  • Demonstrate the need for a foreign work force: In many member states, fighting unemployment remains a central political topic, and many voters judge their government on its ability to handle this problem. This is true even when the government’s possible courses of action are limited, given economic globalization and the political and economic integration of the EU. Public acceptance of new regulations for labor migration can only be achieved if the respective workers can be shown to be necessary and not to displace the domestic workforce.
  • Make labor migration dependent on qualifications: The management of migration should begin with the qualifications of immigrants and should distinguish between three groups: There should be no immigration hurdles for highly qualified immigrants. A human capital oriented approach should be taken, a generous quota should be chosen, and they should be actively recruited. For skilled workers, in contrast, the danger of displacing the domestic work force exists. Here an approach should be chosen that depends on the labor market and permits immigration only if it can be shown that the need cannot be filled by the domestic workforce. For low-skilled workers, only short-term (though not one-time-only) job opportunities should be offered, with domestic workers again taking precedence.
  • Consider future sources of immigration: Since the new EU member states will lose significance as sending countries due to previous emigration, economic growth and demographic development, the source of future labor migration should be considered now. Future potential lies in Africa and Asia. In order to use this effectively, strategic decisions and correspondingly broad agreements are necessary. 
  • Consider consequences for development policy: As part of labor migration, the ambivalent development policy outcomes for the sending countries must be considered. Options for improving the effects on development are already being discussed, for example by refraining from recruiting badly needed workers in sending countries (for example in the health care field) or easing remittances.  In order to prevent the mistakes of earlier recruitment of guest workers, practices must be developed that ease the process of return for immigrants (reintegration programs) and counteract loss of qualifications while abroad (training and continuing education measures by businesses and governments).
  • Strengthen integration efforts and develop concepts for temporary immigrants: Consequences must be drawn from the integration problems, especially in the second and third generations. In the early phase of recruitment of guest workers, no integration measures were taken in many countries. Today this mistake can only be offset with great effort, and often it does not succeed at all. Nevertheless, these shortcomings need to be fought with even greater effort than has been the case thus far, because none of the member states can afford, over the long term, to have a portion of its population that is marginalized (and growing). Integration measures cannot be limited to language teaching, but rather should aim to improve opportunities on the job market, and particularly better access to the job market. Additionally, given the increasing significance of temporary migration, assistance in integrating these immigrants must be considered. So far, no such concepts exist for “temporary integration,” but they are indispensable for a broad approach.
  • Strengthen protection of refugees through managed migration: The fragmented and unsystematic migration policy of the member states and the lack of opportunities for legal immigration contribute to the abuse of asylum rights and the increase in irregular migration. The current proposal to reduce irregular migration by offering limited immigration quotas (mobility partnerships) should be tested as soon as possible. The number of pilot projects should be increased and all EU member-states should participate in them, since quotas that are too small will most likely have no measurable effect on irregular migration and the abuse of asylum rights. Protection of refugees, which currently barely exists, should be strengthened in the upcoming “second phase” of the EU asylum system; in particular, access to the asylum process should be improved. The EU member states should take their responsibility for international protection of refugees seriously and create new opportunities for the absorption of quota refugee, to avoid the destabilization of fragile countries in sending regions through mass exodus, which could itself contribute to refugee movements. In addition, EU member states should take in more refugees as part of resettlement programs by the UNHCR. All of these measures could contribute to a reduction in irregular migration, and they would strengthen the credibility of the EU, which it will need if it expects other countries to take in more refugees. 


Dr. Steffen Angenendt is Senior Associate at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. Within the Global Issues Division he is responsible for research on demography, migration and security.

Download the Policy Paper Die Zukunft der europäischen Migrationspolitik - Triebkräfte, Hemmnisse und Handlungsmöglichkeiten Bild entfernt. (72 S., 2 MB, PDF, German)

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