Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mandatory Migrant Quotas in the New Europe

Yesterday, the Member States of the EU voted to force the relocation of migrants streaming in from Africa and the Middle East across EU member states. This happened despite the fierce opposition of Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic. How could this happen?

The EU is a messy international organization that has gradually moved from requiring unanimity among the Member States to pass legislation and policy to adopting some of its decisions by supermajorities--called qualified majority voting, or QMV. The threshold is 55 percent of the 28 Member States representing 65 percent or more of the population. Resorting to QMV is something of a nuclear option, a filibuster-busting move when consensus can't be reached.

But until this point, QMV had never been used in such a sensitive area as asylum and migration. So how could it happen? Three components came together--two legal, and one political. Legally, the EU agreed in the 2001 Nice Treaty to open up the possibility of QMV in asylum matters in the future. At that future date, the Member States would first have to agree unanimously to allow QMV in the future. That happened when the Dublin Regulation was agreed two years later. That Regulation was designed to prevent migrants landing in Southern Europe from travelling onward to the richer countries of the North. But it also opened up the possibility of using QMV in the future to regulate the finer details of its application. After that point in 2003, changes could be made without unanimity.

While those legal changes were in place, there was no political impetus to consider a change in the rules. Europe could have maintained that the Dublin Regulation be applied. However, German insistence that refugees be relocated forced the issue of upending the Regulation. In the Old Europe, Member States would not have been cornered and overruled this way. But Germany's capacity to steer European events in the New Europe is once more on display.

From a humanitarian perspective, this simply had to happen. But the way that it was done signals that German power matters  in ways that traditional thinking on the international relations of Europe has yet to internalize.