Migration is still a critical concern for the bloc and one where citizens expect a strong response, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged heads of state in a letter on Thursday (26 January) ahead of a crucial leaders’ summit next month.
In the letter, seen by EURACTIV, Von der Leyen asked EU governments to work together to strengthen controls at the EU’s external borders along with return procedures, reducing incentives for secondary movement and promoting effective solidarity.
EU Commission chief believes these are measures that can be immediately implemented while EU institutions are working to create a framework of migration policies.
“The EU saw a major rise in irregular arrivals on routes across the Mediterranean and Western Balkans, the highest figures since 2016. Migration management is also high on the list of issues where citizens expect a strong EU response,” said Von der Leyen in the letter.
According to the latest data from the EU borders and coast guard agency Frontex, around 330,000 irregular border crossings were detected at the EU’s external border in 2022, “an increase of 64% from the previous year,” a press release shared with the media stated.
Furthermore, a total of 924,000 asylum applications were made across the EU27 last year, three times more than the number of irregular arrivals, with most cases in Germany, France, Spain and Austria.
Meanwhile, capacities have been further stretched by four million Ukrainian refugees currently being hosted in the EU.
“The imperative of agreeing on a structural solution does not mean that we cannot act now”, she added, launching a set of proposals to member states that will be under discussion at the next EU Summit in early February.
The draft conclusions for the EU summit, seen by EURACTIV, state that “swift action is needed to ensure effective returns from the European Union to countries of origin using as leverage all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development, trade and visas as well as opportunities for legal migration, such as Talent Partnerships.”
The letter from the Commission president urges national authorities to work together to address abuses of the system where applicants with asylum in one member state apply in another.
She also asks governments to address “delays and gaps in border and return procedures”, reduce incentives for secondary movements, and use the Voluntary Relocation Mechanism to support frontline countries.
The letter also stresses the importance of brokering new agreements with third countries “to improve migration and return management”.
She stressed the importance of concluding the so-called roadmap, a set of legislative files on migration that the EU institutions have committed to finalising before the next EU elections in Spring 2024.
These included the Pact on Migration and Asylum, on which there has been “good progress”, wrote the Commission president.
Similar points were touched upon by the Swedish Presidency during a press conference on Thursday after the first day of the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting.
“We started off the discussions with a working session on migration and asylum, with a focus on reducing the pressure of illegal migration to the EU through effective cooperation with countries on return,” said Swedish Minister for Migration Maria Malmer Stenergard during the press conference.
“Ensuring effective return or irregular migrants is essential to ensure the credibility of EU policies in the field of international protection and legal migration,” she added.
Earlier this week, the EU executive unveiled a new strategy to increase migrant returns, which asks governments to ensure that a return decision should immediately follow a decision ending a stay.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]