The chapter of the coalition agreement of the new German government on integration, migration and flight is highly ambitious. What changes does it set out at EU policy level?
“We want to usher in a new start for a migration and integration policy that is worthy of a modern immigration country”
The very first sentence of the chapter of the German federal governments' coalition agreement [in German] dealing with integration, migration and flight introduces the paradigm shift promised in the second. It describes migration as exactly what it is: something that is completely normal and no cause for alarm. In view of the German migration policy of recent years, which has consistently tightened up asylum law and introduced new defensive measures, particularly since 2015, this return to normality is enormous progress.
If they are implemented, the wide-reaching changes now proposed to the legislation governing nationality, residence and asylum will significantly and tangibly improve the situation for many refugees and migrants in Germany. These positive changes include simplification of the naturalisation process, allowing unsuccessful asylum seekers to get a residence permit based on integration efforts and the expansion of family reunification.
A political message to the EU
But that is not all. These elements of German asylum and migration policy have the potential to provide a strong counter-point and send out a political message to current EU migration policy. They could potentially even break the ongoing blockade of the long overdue reform of the Common Asylum System and halt the progressive dismantling of protections for refugees in the EU. Because even, and especially, at European level, the recognition of migration as part of our reality is by no means self-evident. On the contrary, the debate on asylum and migration policy across the whole of the EU has been strongly characterised by the narrative of migration as an exceptional phenomenon of crisis and threat over the last six years.
The spiral of securitisation and brutalisation of the debate is reflected not only in the European Commission’s reform proposal of 2020, but also in the conduct of the EU Member States, particularly on the external borders of the EU. The situation on the border between Poland and Belarus that has been escalating for several weeks now means unimaginable suffering for the migrants and refugees concerned, who have been stuck there with no provisions at sub-zero temperatures, and has already cost several human lives.
The fact that the European Commission, which is supposed to be the guardian of EU law, is responding to this situation by offering the very states that are blatantly flouting EU law funds for stronger border management and proposing an “asylum procedure light” is emblematic of the current state of refugee protection in the EU. The commitment of the Traffic Light coalition to “end illegal push-backs and stop human suffering at the external borders” and demands for the “asylum applications of people who arrive in the EU or who are already here (…) [to] be examined” is therefore of no small importance. At the same time, in view of the dramatic situation on the eastern EU borders at this moment in time, this begs the question as to how the new German federal government plans to fulfil this objective.
Bringing about a paradigm change at EU level will be very hard nuts to crack. Far-right politicians, such as the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have already responded by declaring war on the ambitious plans of the new German federal government. The question this raises is what positive effects the new start in German federal politics can concretely mean at the European level. .
Saving lives at sea is not a crime
For almost three years now - since March 2019 - there have been no national or European sea rescue missions in the Mediterranean. The discontinuation of the Italian sea rescue mission Mare Nostrum in 2014 due to a lack of support from other EU Member States left a vacuum in the Mediterranean. As a devastating result, nearly 23,000 people have since died trying to flee across the Mediterranean. In response, numerous voluntary sea rescue missions have popped up to fill this vacuum, taking on the humanitarian responsibility to rescue people from drowning, which should lie with the state. Yet civilian sea rescue organisations are increasingly exposed to systematic obstruction and criminalisation of their work. . An Amnesty International report documents how police and prosecutors in eight European states have harassed human rights defenders trying to help refugees. Criminal proceedings, such as those against the crew of the rescue ship Iuventa in Italy and against volunteers Sara Mardini and Sean Binder on Lesbos, are thus part of a broader European trend. Even the outgoing German federal transport minister, Andreas Scheuer, made his own contribution to the deliberate obstruction of voluntary sea rescue activities with questionable requirements for sea rescue vessels and corresponding changes of rules (article available in German only).
If the new German government has now set itself the objective of establishing a state-controlled sea rescue mission within a European framework and explicitly taken position against obstructing civil sea rescue missions, this is not simply a departure from the previous German position. If implemented, it would mean taking responsibility for protecting human lives in European waters at the European level. . A European sea rescue mission of this kind would take the wind out of the sails of right-wing populist attacks on at sea rescue crews. No less a person than the Executive Director of the EU border protection agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, suggested in 2018 that sea rescue organisations are no better than traffickers and smugglers. In addition to the commitment to State sea rescue missions, the Traffic Light coalition would also like to see Frontex’s mandate specifically extended to include sea rescue obligations make the EU agency subjected to parliamentary controls.
Bolstering reform of the European asylum system and rule of law
What the coalition members would like to see is existing EU law enforced, for instance with an end to so-called pushbacks. This phrase might sound like a platitude were it not for the fact that EU law is being broken every day at the external borders of the EU. While the law is being flouted by EU Member States such as Greece with such regularity that they no longer feel the need even to bother pretending to respect the rule of law, the obvious question is how a German federal government might influence compliance with international and EU law on the external borders of the European Union. Here again, the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border and Poland’s refusal to implement even the asylum procedure light proposed by the European Commission show just how difficult the overall situation in the EU is.
As long ago as 2016, the European Commission tabled a proposal for a reform of the European Asylum System, which foundered over a blockade of Member States. Negotiations at the European Council on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum are also making very slow headway. Meanwhile, the new German coalition government agreement contains a commitment in favour of a root-and-branch reform of the European asylum system and the intention to move forward as part of a coalition of EU Member States willing to receive refugees, thereby helping to ensure that more EU states take responsibility for the reception and relocation of refugees. This is without a doubt one of the hardest of its plans to implement, as it depends on other Member States and how prepared they are to cooperate. It is therefore not surprising, although a shame, that the coalition agreement remains somewhat vague on this point and declines the opportunity to mention EU cities that have declared themselves prepared to take in asylum seekers as partners.
Preventing secondary migration within the EU and increased deportations of persons legally obliged to leave it are aspects for which the European Commission has consistently campaigned in recent years. The fact that the coalition agreement offers no criticism of the narrative of the need to prevent secondary migration and aims for a “deportation offensive” is deeply regrettable, in view of the situation in certain EU Member States and many countries of origin. A counter-point to the prevalent narrative in the EU would have been a more helpful alternative. Ultimately, it is not for nothing that the term “Rückführungspatentschaft” (return partnership) coined by the European Commission was voted one of the two ugliest German words of 2020.
Cooperation with third parties
The conditionality in EU relations with third countries between migration agreements and financial support in the framework of development cooperation has attracted a great deal of criticism from civil society players in recent years. From now on, the German government intends to reject this conditionality.
In addition, agreements with third countries based on the rule of law should prevent people from being instrumentalised for geopolitical or financial interests and thus help to ensure that situations like the current one on the Belarusian-Polish border are not repeated.
Back in 2020, the European Union failed to meet its own resettlement target and it is looking unlikely to fulfil its pledge for 2021 either. In this connection, the commitment to greater German involvement set out in the coalition agreement could serve as a good example to other EU Member States to make the resettlement places promised actually available in the future. Additionally, the consolidation of the humanitarian admission programme in response to the war in Syria and the opening-up of this to persons from Afghanistan could also have a similar effect.
There is much to do and much to be gained
Many of the European plans laid down by the coalition parties in their agreement could be summarised under the heading “back to normality”. But in European migration and asylum policy, the debates and resulting practices of recent years have had a highly polarising effect and have in some cases disregarded facts and applicable legal principles. A German policy based on normality and the rule of law could therefore not just set a good example to others, but also make a real difference in overcoming years of stalemate in reform procedures.
What is beyond question is that this will not be a simple undertaking and that the German government will need stamina, nerves of steel and allies in the European Council. However, if it succeeds in pushing through all the ambitions set out in the coalition agreement, Germany will have the most progressive migration, asylum and integration policy in the whole of the EU. A policy that is truly worthy of a modern immigration country.
This article was first published in German on boell.de.