Migration looks to be the biggest topic for voters in the European Parliament elections in May. The most recent Eurobarometer survey shows that 40 percent of Europeans consider immigration to be one of the two most important issues facing the EU – the highest reported of all issues, and far ahead of terrorism (20 percent) or the economy (18 percent).
While some subjects, like the Dublin Regulation, are so politicised and difficult that reform can appear implausible at this point, there are still numerous, discrete migration-related issues where the parliament has been able to act.
In 2018, the EU parliament passed three resolutions for which NGOs and civil society actors in the migration field have been campaigning.
The first was a call to end the detention of migrant children. Practices vary across the EU when it comes to migrant child detention. Although even a short time in detention can have a devastating impact on children’s health and well-being, only a handful of Member States never detain migrant children.
A second resolution called on member states to prevent the criminalisation of humanitarian assistance. This was passed in response to a series of alarming arrests and legal proceedings against humanitarian aid workers and volunteers who had helped rescue asylum seekers and migrants in danger of drowning in the Mediterranean. Some of these legal proceedings are still ongoing.
The third resolution requested the European Commission to submit proposed regulations for a European Humanitarian Visa, which would provide a safe, legal pathway to a particular Member State for people seeking protection. This is already an option in some countries, like Italy, where the humanitarian corridors programme enjoys a broad base of support from the public and community and religious groups – but this programme and others like it are small and not available EU-wide.
While these resolutions did not create widespread changes in the EU’s migration policy, they were steps that could help save or improve the lives of many – children trapped in prison-like conditions, humanitarian workers and volunteers (and the people they rescue), and people around the world who need a safe way to escape from violent conflict or other desperate situations.
Small but big
Thus, the upcoming elections are important not just for how they might impact high-level migration policy, but also because they have major consequences for how the parliament will approach these ‘small’ – but important – migration topics in the future, especially because these types of actions are likely to focus on the most urgent humanitarian and human rights issues in migration.
Looking at how MEPs voted on these resolutions, which all passed either by a show of hands (clear majority), or in the case of humanitarian visas, by a large majority of 429-194, it appears unlikely that a surge by far-right parties could change the parliament’s course on migration on its own.
The far-right and/or Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) groups currently hold 151 out of 751 seats in the parliament; even large gains are unlikely to give them a majority.
Moreover, in the case of the EFDD, there was considerable disagreement within the group. The Italian members of the EFDD, who come from the Five Star Movement, deviated from the rest of the group on all three resolutions by generally voting in favour of them.
However, support for far-right positions from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), currently the largest group in the parliament, could still tilt the balance – even more so if the far-right parties’ success makes more EPP members feel obliged to adopt similar positions or avoid controversy by abstaining from voting whenever migration comes up.
Divisions among EPP members also tend to take the form of national voting blocs.
There were 52 EPP members who voted against humanitarian visas, including all 12 MEPs from Hungary and 15 of 20 MEPs from France (121 voted in favour and 24 abstained).
These results underscore the importance of national voting blocs within the political groups; the national parties comprising each EU political group can have significantly different agendas.
These voting patterns suggests that NGOs and civil society can have a major impact on outcomes by campaigning at the national level.
These types of efforts can help ensure that, even if far-right groups and positions gain ground following the upcoming elections, the EU parliament can continue its work to support human rights, humanitarian action, and a more humane system of migration.