Nov 23, 2021

Migration, Borders, and the EU’s Capacity to Act

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This in-depth monitoring study assesses the EU’s capacity to handle migration. Why does the European Union respond so badly to migration crises? And why does it repeatedly allow itself to be blackmailed by neighboring states which extract concessions in return for holding back migrants? The ongoing situation at the EU’s border to Belarus is no isolated incident. It reveals vulnerabilities resulting directly from the way the EU regulates its borders and international migration. Over the past decade, a pattern has emerged: the more the EU tries to defend the Schengen Area, its passport-free travel zone, the more vulnerable it makes itself.

Please note: Below you find the executive summary of this report, assessments and recommendations for Capacity to Act, and the description of the “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” the project through which the report is published. For the full report – including all info graphics, footnotes, and citations – please refer to the PDF version here.


Executive Summary

Stocktaking: Assessment of Capacity to Act as a Whole


About the paper: Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik 


Executive Summary

This paper examines the EU’s capacity to act in the face of large-scale migration, looking at the five basic steps of the policy cycle – from the capacity to frame the problem through to the capacity to evaluate and correct policy. It finds that, although the EU has built its capacity to act in this field, it is not using it to act well. Having been forced by member states to fight for its competencies, the European Commission has locked itself into a set of negative practices more likely to exacerbate a crisis than to resolve or even harness it.

The Three Elements of Good Crisis Response

At first glance, the EU’s capacity to act on migration seems to have improved dramatically since its 2015 crisis. Brussels has built its ability to anticipate migration trends and drive through defensive border reforms; it has become adept at using its market power as leverage to buffer against unruly migration flows before they even hit Europe. But raw capacity is not everything, and there is a body of good practice for dealing with disruption and uncertainty. This paints a very different picture.

Successful crisis response requires three basic traits: internal trust and cohesion, joined-up government, and a readiness to change path. The EU tends to treat each crisis individually, and without joining the dots – the “Schengen crisis,” the “Eurozone crisis,” and so on. It uses each as an opportunity to drive through a pre-existing policy course, following the mantra “never waste a crisis”; and it does so in ways that upset key stakeholders, notably peripheral member states in the south and east. The result is internal division, “siloization,” and path dependency. For the EU to meet even the most basic prerequisites for managing migration crises, this needs to change.

1.     The EU responds best to disruption when it has previously invested in its internal cohesion.

Experience shows that, when the EU has invested in bottom-up cohesion, it is better able to absorb unexpected shocks, adopt nimble new policies on the basis of political consensus, and respond well to cooperation from its international partners. The need for cohesion sounds so obvious as to be a platitude, but when it comes to dealing with migration, the EU has tried to push through reforms in the face of member state dissent, and to impose its rules on its partners. The EU justifies this top-down assertiveness by reference to big foreseeable migration threats related to global demographic growth, conflict drivers and climate change. The worrying trends identified by the EU should not be downplayed, but by focusing so much on predictable threats, the EU has sidelined its response to the unforeseen – and the opportunities this sometimes brings.

2.     The EU responds best when it breaks silos and mixes and matches across its competencies and market projects.

The second major principle of dealing with disruptive forces is a joined-up approach. This means overcoming the administrative silos which sometimes prevent governments and authorities from linking different competencies and policy fields. Again, the desirability of “joined-up government” sounds like common sense, and the EU has itself traditionally pointed to its sheer range of competencies as a comparative advantage over other more specialized bodies when it comes to dealing with crisis. But, again too, the EU’s actual response to migration crises has been the opposite – siloization. Insofar as the EU has looked outside its borders toolbox to other policy fields, it has been to raid these for political leverage, using its economic, trade and development powers to push member states and neighboring states to act as migration buffers.

3.    The EU responds best to disruption and crisis when it is ready to change course and break unnecessary path dependencies.

The last really important attribute of states that respond well to crisis and disruption is the capacity to step back, reassess, and (where sensible) chart a new course. History shows that the EU has always been most successful when it was most adaptable. For decades it responded to shifts in the international environment using connectivity, mobility and border cooperation in multiple inventive ways, with the Schengen project accounting for just one iteration. It is positive, therefore, that the European Commission has recently boosted its capabilities to assess the migration situation and propose new policies. But it has also adopted a mantra of “never waste a crisis” which means using its powers to push Europe further down a pre-existing policy path, rather than considering alternatives. The EU has exploited migration crises to try to “complete” the Schengen Area by pushing through a pre-cooked agenda.

Stocktaking: Assessment of Capacity to Act as a Whole

Our experts imagined best-case, worst-case, and status quo migration scenarios for 2030. This helped guide our assessment of the EU’s migration policy and its capacity to act well in a crisis. The best-case scenario provided a way to judge whether the EU was able to harness crisis and disruption to positively shape its place in the world; the worst-case scenario, to judge what would happen if the EU managed future migration disruptions poorly; the status quo scenario, whether the outcome would be positive or negative if the EU stuck with the kind of response it has shown during past migration crises, most recently in 2015-16.

The best-case scenario confirmed the importance of the three traits generally recognized as the key to good crisis response: internal cohesion, joined-up government, and the ability to change the course of policy. The worst-case crisis illustrated the effects of their absence. Worryingly, the status quo scenario was almost indistinguishable from the worst-case scenario. In other words, it emerged that the EU’s current response to migration crises rests on top-heavy policymaking, which alienates important stakeholders in the EU and outside; treats migration crises as “Schengen crises,” as if in a silo; and exploits crises not to change course, but to push through old policies. The result of resorting to divisive policymaking, siloization and path dependencies was negative.

Germany seems to have found the Commission’s crisis response lacking - but only because it believes the EU is not making a sufficient impact at home or abroad, and should increase its leverage. The analysis here suggested that the Commission does have a significant impact, but its assertive approach creates resistance and chaos on the ground. Abroad, it can be shown to have strengthened authoritarian partners, alienated players that might respond to a more consensual approach, and created artificial border restrictions that provide business opportunities for people smugglers. At home, its attempts to push through policies and take their implementation into its own hands has led - and continues to lead - to division. Again and again, we found that the EU is indeed shaping the world – but in such a way that it takes it closer to our worst-case scenario.

The specific experience of the 2015 migration crisis led to the emergence of a number of ideas about how to respond to international crises that are now in vogue in Brussels and Berlin. Experiences of 2015, such as playing power politics with Turkey, and driving through the refugee relocation key at home had an exhilarating, taboo-busting effect on policy-makers in both capitals. Ideas that emerged in this context include “European autonomy,” and more recently the “Brussels effect”. The goal of the latter is to unilaterally regulate unruly aspects of globalization, surrounding crisis-prone EU projects with buffers, deepening the internal regulation of each, and then leveraging market access as a means of imposing these rules on foreign governments and businesses. This is the modus operandi of the migration crisis: Put up external borders, deepen internal rules, and then leverage visas. And it has negative results.


If the EU were to apply best practice in the field of crisis response to migration, the following 3 shifts would be required:

1.   Build Internal Cohesion

At present, the EU tends to rely on the existence of external migration threats to build internal cohesion, or at least to achieve the minimum level of agreement required to drive through defensive border policies. These policies are based on the idea that the EU is a fragile beacon of order sur rounded by chaos and power politics. One theme of this pa- per, however, has been the risk of “negative policy loops” and self-fulfilling fears. Too often, the defensive policies the EU has brought in to head off migration threats appear to have aggravated those risks, and perhaps even called them into existence. A better approach would be to build internal cohesion on a sense of common mission and agency.

A better for policy would be EU governments that see that migration can be handled through international cooperation, and EU citizens who see they can participate in migration. There are a number of positive international trends that could be key to the EU’s successful regulation of migration, if only it would focus more on exploiting them. These include the growth of regional labor markets in Africa and Asia, capable of retaining labor locally; emerging economies that increasingly draw low-skilled migrants away from the EU; and the blurring of distinctions between countries of destination and origin, which has increased the scope for international cooperation.

2.     Change Course Where Sensible

At present, the EU tends to use crises to drive through a pre-cooked agenda, rather than to change course. Its current agenda focuses on “completing” Schengen - but this may in fact perpetuate the EU’s propensity for succumbing to crisis. The Schengen Area is, after all, little more than a passport-free travel area; it was never designed to absorb immigration, let alone generate positive shared migration interests amongst member states. The Commission’s heavy focus on completing Schengen and creating protective barriers around it only deepen the EU’s vulnerability by maintaining the project’s centrality to EU immigration regulation.

From a crisis-response perspective, it seems strange that the EU has not adapted to migration crises by changing path, for instance matching its focus on border control with an equal effort at labor market integration. Placing a more cohesive, elastic, integrated labor market at the heart of its migration and borders regime could make the EU more resilient.

3.     Practice Joined-Up Government

At present, top-heavy leverage, policy inertia and, above all, siloization have become inherent in the EU’s whole geopolitical posture. The EU is building up buffers around the Schengen Area, deepening its internal border rules, and then leveraging access to EU visas to spread these rules abroad. It has previously done the same with other crisis-prone fields, such as finance, energy, technology. This modus operandi is disjointed, smothers European businesses in red tape, and – perhaps most problematically – politicizes protective measures like visa rules that are necessary in their own right. This pattern is playing out not only in the field of migration, but in its digital, capital and energy markets too.

A better idea would be to join up these individual market projects to ensure businesses have access to fine minds, modern technologies, investment capital and efficient energy. This would equip the EU with a model of market power that grows, innovates, and absorbs crises, rather than simply surviving them.

About the paper: Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik

This monitoring study was written within the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” a process of reflection on the capacity to act in German and European foreign policy, the underlying conditions for which are undergoing a fundamental transformation. In addition to the much-discussed changes to the international system and increasing great power competition between the United States and China, technological developments, new security threats, the consequences of climate change, and socioeconomic upheavals are just some of the developments that will determine the future tasks and international impact of German foreign policy. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic poses numerous political, economic, and societal risks and accelerates many existing trends in the multilateral system with immediate consequences for Germany and the EU. In light of these challenges, the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik” aims to put German foreign policy to the test – through evidence-based analyses and interdisciplinary strategy discussions – and contribute to strengthening Germany’s and the EU’s capacity to act in foreign policy.

The project focuses on four thematic areas that are highly relevant for the future ability of German and European foreign policy to act: geo-economics, migration, security and defense, and technology. As part of the project’s overall strategic and analytical effort, DGAP will produce a monitoring study on each of these areas – four in total, including this one. All four studies analyze Europe’s capacity to act and provide recommendations to EU and German policy-makers on how to strengthen this capacity. In order to provide a nuanced and yet comprehensive picture, they take the different stages of the policy cycle into account: (1) problem definition, (2) agenda-setting, (3) policy formulation, (4) implementation, and (5) impact assessment. In gauging Europe’s capacity to act, the studies refer back to a series of scenario workshops on the four thematic areas that were held in late 2020 and in which DGAP and external experts created status quo, best-case, and worst-case scenarios for how the future might look in 2030. Taking the respective scenarios into account, the monitoring studies analyze to what extent the EU and Germany are prepared for the worst case, are aware of the implications of the status quo, and move toward achieving the best case. The report that distills the results of the scenario workshops and all four monitoring studies can be found here as soon as they are published:

This project is funded by

Bibliographic data

Parkes, Roderick. “Migration, Borders, and the EU’s Capacity to Act.” November 2021.

DGAP Report No. 24, November 2021, 51 pp.

This Report is the second of four Monitoring Studies. It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik” about which you can find more information here.

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