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MMC interviews Michael Spindelegger
“Breaking the gridlock”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The influx of new blood at the top of the EU’s executive branch provides a welcome opportunity to move beyond the current impasse over migration policy, says Michael Spindelegger, who believes meaningful dialogue could deliver consensus on key contentious issues.

What exactly is the “gridlock” you often refer to in relation to the EU policy on migration?

When we talk about the gridlock, we mean that positions are so different that they block each other, and no one can move ahead. With the creation of a new European Commission, this is a very good time to start to come out of the gridlock. It is only possible at this special moment because we have new positions with new people, and this is a time where you can start a new dialogue.

But although there is a policy gridlock at one level, at another level, there’s quite a lot of consensus, isn’t there?

Yes, of course. There have been a lot of achievements recently. Look at the EU Turkey deal, look at the African continent, the meeting in Valetta, the EU Trust Fund, and so on. This is the positive part of the story. But internally, we have come to a gridlock because of the discussions, because of the behaviour of some of the member states, and that is why we are in this very special situation. And the consequences are felt in other areas. So we really need to come out of this, but there is no single solution, one that is just a single step away. We have to do it step by step.

In what areas are EU member states gridlocked? And where is there consensus?

You have different visions at the moment in the European Union. Some would like to be more open-minded, others would like to be more restrictive. And with these two different positions, we cannot make progress in one of the most important issues, namely, reform of the Common European Asylum System, and The Dublin System. In that area, of course, we are in this gridlock. The first step to getting out of it is to talk about the common vision. And there, yes, there is already a common vision around fighting irregular migration.

But this is only one part of the solution. There are several others where you must find an agreement, and when you do, you can take the next step. And the next step would be to talk about the external dimension, because I think there you will find more agreement than in the internal dimension. If you have done this, you can come to the third step, and this is to find an agreement about the internal dimension. This is the most difficult part, but without a common vision about what you want to achieve in the next five years, you will not solve the problem.

This is what you and ICMPD mean by “hitting the reset button”? Starting with a new approach, with a common vision?

Yes, of course. To achieve a common vision, there is no way other than to sit together and to talk about what all the different member states would like to see within the next five years. And I think this is not such a hopeless task. Compromise can be found, because everybody knows about the challenges. There is a good chance we can agree on the bigger picture of migration and on what we would like to see as the European Union.

ICMPD has for many years been involved in different processes, particularly Rabat, Khartoum, and Prague, and others. And yet when the crisis came in 2015/16, you then supported this new process, the Global Compact for Migration. To what extent has this eclipsed the previous processes? And, speaking generally, how important are these multilateral processes?

It’s useful to come together on a global level to find a compromise, a founding document you can agree on. But I think you have also to realise that this will not help you solve the concrete problems along different migration routes. For that, it’s good to have this global dialogue, but for the different problems along, say, the Balkans route or the eastern Mediterranean route, you have to find another format. And the smaller the format, the more you will be able to find a solution, because a tailor-made solution is needed everywhere. So processes like Budapest, Khartoum, Rabat, and Prague provide opportunities to talk in more detail and find special migration-related partnerships along the route with the countries of origin, transit, and destination.

You speak of the need for “solid compromises” in migration policy. What do you mean by that term?

Migration is not an issue with purely technical solutions. You always need a political solution. And finding a “solid compromise” means looking not at just one of the issues, you must look at the bigger picture of migration, to find common ground. To give you an example, if you as the European Union are negotiating with Nigeria about the Readmission Agreement, you will not find an agreement with this country unless you also discuss other issues like investment in Nigeria, trade agreements, illegal migration channels, and so on. So if you don’t see the broader picture you will fail in finding an agreement. And this is why we talk about solid compromises.

The original Marshall Plan after World War II was about economic recovery in Europe, but the new idea of a Marshall Plan for Africa seems more about investments that reduce the potential number or refugees and migrants that would want to come to Europe. How do you see such a plan working?

I think it’s just a symbol and just something that people can rally around in terms of financing and funding African development. But I don’t think you can draw a comparison with the situation after the Second World War in Europe, it’s a different situation. We need to start looking at economic cycles in Africa, figure out how to give people perspective just to find a job, to get the right training, to have a chance at coming to Europe legally. Initiatives likes this [the Marshall Plan for Africa] are a good start, but they must engage at ground level. And they will only succeed if they involve the private sector, because without the private sector there will be no real jobs, no benefit for companies in Africa, and without all that, the motivation will fail. Private sector involvement is one of the big issues for the future.

In terms of labour migration, you have suggested that a future Europe needs to accept that it is a continent of immigration. Even if this is correct, will legal pathways satisfy migration demand? Won’t there always be over-supply of labour, meaning irregular migration is bound to persist?

Legal migration opportunities will not replace irregular migration. But if you want to see cooperation with countries of origin, you have to convince them to fight irregular migration together with countries of destination. And you have to offer them different benefits, such as opening up legal pathways to Europe, providing certain trainings in Europe, maybe also places in companies, as well as for students in universities. And for that I think it is good to open up legal pathways, even if we know that this will not end all the irregular migration we have seen in the past.

Even if you do not like the idea, can you envisage a future where labour migration channels are greatly expanded and facilitated, while the securitisation of borders (especially the EU’s borders) to prevent irregular access is significantly increased?

I think this is a realistic future. You must do both. You have to open up on the one side, but also choose who will come to your country, and not leave that up to the smugglers. But on the other hand, of course border control is an issue, not only for European countries, but also for African countries, because every state would like to know who is entering and who is in the country and who is going out.

ICMPD has been increasingly involved in border management programmes in parts of Africa. Some critics say such projects are part of what they see as a “normalisation of the extreme” in so far that they reinforce externalisation of border management and outsourcing mechanisms to effectively restrict movement of both migrants and asylum seekers. How would you answer these critics?

If you establish border control systems, especially at the external borders of the EU, you will find fewer irregular migrants. This is in keeping with our rule of law system, because if someone asks for asylum on the grounds of needing protection, in two thirds of cases there’ll be a decision that says, “No, this person doesn’t need protection.” So the better the system is working – where all countries are fighting against irregular migration – the more you will find ways where people can come legally to work in Europe, or to live here, or to be trained, or to be a student.

You have been closely involved in the Information Centre in Afghanistan, which provides potential immigrants with realistic information about what to expect in Europe. Some see this as an EU-funded effort to dissuade Afghans from travelling to Europe even though many asylum applications from Afghanistan are accepted. How do you respond to this?

The mandate of these resource centres is to give a realistic picture of what to expect in Europe. Of course, we can’t recommend they stay at home or go: it is our job to give them more information, because we think the better informed you are, the better you will decide. If you don’t have all the various information in place, you may come to Europe and be surprised that it is not what you have heard from your friends or family members. What we have seen in asking refugees coming to Europe is that they really have wrong expectations. There are the rumours about getting apartments here, getting a car from the state, getting money every month, and so on.

So I think telling them how the procedures work, and about how many people are sent back because of not being recognised as refugees, is also part of the real world. And the more you know about this and about your chances if you ask for asylum, the better your decision will be.

You have said that “given current demographic and other trends, the overall pressure to migrate will increase, not decrease”. Could you elaborate on how demography will influence migration?

I think this is one of the main problems. If you look at the young nations of this world, you will find most of them in the African continent. I think Benin is the youngest country with an average age of 15 years, and it will stay like that in the future. The more younger people you have without an increase in jobs, the more pressure there will be to go out of the country to find better living conditions for you and your family in another country. So it’s very clear that demography is one of the main drivers and this won’t change unless there is tremendous development on the African continent. But I can’t see it.

How significant do you think climate-induced displacement and movement will be in the next 10 or 20 years? Is there a chance we are underestimating its potential impact?

It’s too soon to know about the concrete numbers of people that climate change will bring out of their home areas. It’s not just a problem for Europe, this will especially be a problem for the neighbouring regions of the worst-affected areas. Mainly this will bring people to other regions within the same continent, but it could also be a reason to go to Europe or to America or to Australia or somewhere. At the moment we don’t have real figures, how many millions this will be. But if this is a situation like we see it today, there will be a tremendous number of people leaving because of these climate change issues.

Is ICMPD engaged in understanding future pressures and likely scenarios concerning mixed migration?

Yes, we are doing that on behalf of our member states to give them a perspective for the future. We have done such a project to show them how the situation will change if they work together, if they are willing to find a compromise in this common asylum system, and so on. But of course, it is up to them to look at it and to take the consequences. This was not a public project – it was just for the member states. But once a year we produce a big outlook about what we think will happen over the next year.

In relation to resolving many of these issues, are you personally optimistic about the future, or pessimistic?

I’m always optimistic because I think at this very special moment with a new European Commission coming up, it’s the time for changes within the EU. We have developed 70 different recommendations for the European Commission. You can make migration better in the future and this is what we are working towards.