In mid-June, one of the worst migration-related accidents ever occurred in Europe when a boat carrying hundreds of refugees sank in the Mediterranean Sea. About two weeks before the incident, negotiations on a new migration and asylum pact within the EU were completed. This pact has been one of the focus areas during Sweden's presidency of the EU Council of Ministers in 2023.
The boat that capsized off the coast of Greece in mid-June was carrying far more people than it could carry. It left a port in Libya with its sights set on Italy. Over 600 people, adults and children, are feared dead, making the incident one of Europe's worst migration-related accidents ever. There are no exact figures yet on how many people died in the accident and families are desperate for information about missing relatives.
- Authorities are searching for their bodies in the sea. They are looking in the hospitals, they are looking among dead bodies and among the survivors, Kassam Abozeed told with the BBC, whose wife and brother-in-law were on the boat.
At the same time, the Swedish presidency of the EU Council of Ministers has come to an end. In early June, the member states agreed on essential parts of it new migration and asylum pact, which was proposed by the EU Commission in 2020. The pact concerns, among other things, the asylum process and how long an asylum application can take. Asylum pressure is to be eased through more examinations of asylum applications at the EU's external borders. Countries such as Greece and Italy are thus noticeably affected by this pact. The pact also includes a new principle of solidarity, which means that the member states either receive a certain number of asylum seekers or pay into a common fund.
As the chair country during the first half of 2023, Sweden has led several meetings and discussions on migration and asylum issues.
- The EU has long been plagued by its lack of migration policy. I am pleased that the Swedish presidency has completed these difficult negotiations, says Maria Malmer Stenergard (M), Sweden's Minister for Migration.
"A historic occasion"
The refugee crisis in 2015 was a wake-up call for the EU's migration policy. In the first three months of 2015 alone, 479 refugees lost their lives in the journey across the Mediterranean. At the same time, more and more people continued to seek Europe from conflict-affected areas in the hope of safety and protection. Approximately five million people had by the end of 2016 reached Europe's borders. The EU institutions and the member states of the Union have, since the height of the crisis, intensified the work for a "effective, humanitarian and safe migration policy".
The Commission added in 2016 presented a package of proposals for improvements in the legislation on migration and asylum issues. But then the member states failed to reach an agreement on the responsibility for the refugees, who continued to arrive at Europe's external borders.
Swedish actors involved in the negotiations that ended in June this year see the agreement as an indication that discord in European migration cooperation is now a thing of the past.
- It is a historic opportunity to value that trust and cooperation are back in the Council of Ministers when it comes to migration, said the EU's migration commissioner and former S politician ylva johansson.
Not an obvious success story for the new pact
But not all member states supported the settlement. Bulgaria and Malta, among others, abstained, while Hungary and Poland voted against. The reasons for the downvote must have been dissatisfaction with the pact's principle of solidarity and frustration with how the agreement was decided.
There are also voices in the European Parliament that question the migration and asylum pact. MEP Malin Björk (V) believes that governments consisting of right-wing and far-right parties are the main obstacle to agreements on and solutions for the reception of asylum seekers. She also says that the new settlement will mean that much of "the bad things we see today" will become EU law.
- Countries like Italy, Spain and Greece will continue to bear the brunt of the reception, and human trafficking and death in the Mediterranean will not stop, because we have embarked on a path that only reinforces much of the bad we see from today refugee policy, writes Björk in a comment to Utvecklingsmagasinet on the question of the EU's future migration policy.
The political scientist: Is there a power in the presidency
Sweden's Migration Minister Malmer Stenergard largely attributes the completion of negotiations in the Migration and Asylum Pact to the Swedish presidency. Critics say on the other hand, being the country chairing the EU's Council of Ministers is symbolic.
- In its role, Sweden does not have more decision-making rights than other member states; the principle is still that the political decisions are made unanimously, writes Sverre Haukeland in Vestmanland County Newspaper.
Louise Bengtsson, researcher in political science, claims that there is a significant function to be played by the country that holds the chairing role.
- There is clearly a power as an agenda-setter and as a mediator, because you hold the pen, she states in an interview with Uttvecklingsmagasinet.
Bengtsson highlights, however, that this presidency differs from Sweden's previous presidency in 2009, when Sweden simultaneously held the presidency of the European Council. That was before the EU appointed a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the Lisbon Treaty only came into force at the end of the Presidency. She believes that these factors have reduced the importance of the role.
- It is a challenge to be president because it is about moving the EU's agenda forward and reaching agreements with member states and also with the parliament in some cases. (…) But I think it's an opportunity to be on, says Bengtsson.
EU and migration
- "Irregular migration" means that people stay in a country without permission. The term also covers people who have not applied for asylum yet. In Sweden, it is usually used interchangeably with the term "paperless".
- EU Council of Ministers consists of the member states' ministers. Which minister participates in negotiations and discussions depends on which policy area is affected. The Council of Ministers, together with the EU Parliament and the EU Commission, is a legislative institution. The member countries share the presidency of the Council of Ministers in a rotation of six months each. Before Sweden, the Czech Republic was the chairman, and Spain is next.
- The European council consists of the heads of government and state of each member state and the president of the European Commission. They meet at least four times a year to decide on the EU's general political direction and agenda. The Council neither negotiates nor adopts EU laws.
- Treaty of Lisbon entered into force in December 2009. It forms the basis of how the EU and its institutions look and function today. Among other things, the treaty expanded Parliament's legislative powers.
Sources: Migrationsinfo.se and the EU