Margaritis Schinas, vice president of the European Commission: ‘I want to do a campaign that uses migration as an argument in favor of a Europe of solutions’

The EU executive in charge of immigration says, in an interview with EL PAÍS, that the new European pact will ‘de-dramatize’ debate

Margaritisi Schinás
Margaritis Schinas, vice president of the European Commission, in his office.© Delmi Alvarez
Manuel V. Gómez

After the new European pact on migration and asylum was signed, European Commission vice president and commissioner of immigration Margaritis Schinas defends it unwaveringly. He does so in nearly perfect Spanish, polished from having worked for years with three Spanish commissioners (Marcelino Oreja, Abel Matutes and Loyola de Palacio, a trio of politicians from the Spanish Popular Party). Schinas (Thessaloniki, 61 years old) knows the inner workings of the European Commission as few others do, after having been its spokesperson during the administration of Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker. Schinas is convinced that the agreement reached on Wednesday by the European Council and Parliament will bring solutions for migration, the EU’s most divisive problem in recent years.

Question. The pact is quite the departure from what the commission put forward in 2020. Do you think it is a good pact?

Answer. I wouldn’t say that it is so far off. The agreement reflects the core of the commission’s proposals, namely that Europe needs a system based on community law to manage migration and asylum. This system must offer the possibility of obtaining asylum to those who ask for it in Europe. But it must also provide certainly that those who are not entitled to EU protection must return home. For the first time, the pact offers solutions for all the situations that Europe is facing. Until now, we did not have a European migration policy; we had disparate elements, patches. For the first time in decades, Europe has a migration policy.

Q. Why has it taken so long?

A. Migration touches the very heart of national sovereignty, which influences political debates and fuels many tensions and frictions between social and political forces. In Europe, for years, we haven’t been able to approach the migration issue in an objective and calm manner. Every time migration was spoken of in Europe, it was spoken of in politically charged terms, socially charged terms. The pact offers less ideology and more solutions.

Q. Who led the debate?

A. It was mainly led by populist and Europhobic forces on the left and the right of the European political spectrum, those who benefit from this kind of debate. In their discourse, they constructed a political narrative that said Europe is incapable of solving the big issues of our time, such as migration. What is true is that, when citizens saw there was no European solution, their discourse of hatred and division found fertile ground.

Q. Would the result have been the same without the political might of the ultra-right?

A. We have learned from the errors of the past. In the last 15 or 20 years, there have been other attempts to find a European framework for migration that failed. Many of the previous proposals were too perfect, too idealized, instead of looking for a point where everyone could come together. With this pact, we have built a point where everyone can come together and come to an agreement. As we are five or six months away from European elections, there was added pressure to offer solutions. Clearly, that was an important factor, as it was for the pact on stability and growth [an EU accord meant to protect its economic stability].

Q. Italy’s ultra-right government applauds the agreement, and in contrast, there is critique among the left and nonprofits. Do you really think that everyone comes together in this pact?

A. Yes. I am very proud to see that it is supported by all European Union governments, except for Orbán’s Hungary. The European Parliament supports it, the three major European political parties (the European People’s Party, European socialists and Renew, the liberals). Who is against it? Le Pen, Mélenchon — I mean, the people who benefit from the narrative of a Europe incapable of solutions. A few NGOs are also against it, whose opinions I respect, but I would have liked to see them have the same reaction to the unacceptable situation that was taking place in Europe before the pact.

Q. What those NGOs criticize is that the pact came at a high price, that it limits the right to asylum and international laws. They also talk about the risk of creating a type of concentration camps, with all the emotional weight from European history that the term implies.

A. I absolutely do not share that analysis. We have those risks with our current system, or non-system, I should say. Right now, we have people trapped in centers for months; we have a lack of juridical security, a lack of facilities. The pact will correct many things. A person fleeing war or discrimination who applies for asylum in Europe will have their right to do so guaranteed. There will be security checkpoints, for identification and the possibility of getting asylum or not. And that will be determined by the next steps, which will be standardized between the 27 EU member states, not arbitrarily determined by each country. We will have more law, more certainty.

Q. Isn’t it a lopsided pact, overly focused on security?

A. Its center of gravity is the balance between the right to asylum and Europe’s obligation to refuse to accept those who do not have the right to be with us. That is the golden rule. Does that mean security comes first? That’s not how I see it. An imbalance that tips towards security would be Australia’s policy, or those of countries that do not accept any kind of asylum. That’s not our case. Europe is the European Union, we are a destiny for asylum and we will continue to be. It’s part of our European way of life, that which defines us. But at the same time, those who do not have the right to protection in Europe will have to go back.

Margaritisi Schinás
Schinas during the interview in his office in Brussels.© Delmi Alvarez

Q. Does that seem like the right message to you, coming from an aging continent in need of labor?

A. This is an important debate, but it’s not what we’re talking about right now. The pact on migration and asylum is like the organization of the European house when it comes to migration: conditions around arrival and asylum, procedures at the borders and solidarity among the 27 member states. The subject of legal immigration and the organization of mobility is a separate issue. We are doing it, with structures that offer jobs in Europe in sectors where there is a need for labor. I would say that this has a better chance of success now that there is a pact.

Q. The pact includes quotas for the distribution of asylum seekers, as a solidarity mechanism, something that has not worked in the past, and the alternative of paying 20,000 euros for each asylum seeker who is rejected. Why will this work now?

A. They’re not quotas; those have not worked in the past. I will explain. We are not using 2015 logic, when there were a half-million people who came. We have entry attempts that require fewer relocations [of asylum seekers] and more money, more coast guard and more border guards. The pact will be a collective guarantee for those who need it. It will be like a car’s shock absorber, spreading the pressure according to the situation at hand. If there is a need for relocations, we will see how many, and if there is a state that says it can’t take them, it will have to make a financial contribution. But there will not be any kind of à la carte solidarity.

Q. Orbán won’t be able to get out of the pact?

A. No, because when the pact takes effect it will be part of institutional law. It will be obligatory. You can be against community legislation while it is being debated, but when it is applied, it is applied to all. Those are the rules of the game.

Q. Will migration continue to be the central element of the European campaign?

A. I hope that one of the subjects of the European campaign in June will be an intellectual struggle, a political campaign between those who defend a Europe of solutions and those who want to convince people that they can’t expect anything good from Europe. This will be the battlefield: it won’t be socioeconomic; it won’t be right against left. And I would like to do a campaign that uses migration as an argument in favor of a Europe of solutions. I don’t want to walk away from this debate, and right now I feel much more capable of having it. Now, I have arguments. The other side, what will they do? The people who wanted a Europe incapable of solutions, will they keep asking for solutions? We already have one. Will they attack the solution? Tell us what the alternative is. We have taken a giant step towards de-dramatizing migration as an existential crisis for Europe.

Q. Now what?

A. The next commission’s job will be to make sure that the new system is carried out as it’s been designed. That means with all its European logic, with adequate facilities, and with adequate financing.

Q. Is the amnesty law a Spanish internal matter?

A. The entire debate around amnesty in Spain has to be broken into several parts, and they are not all the same. First, there is a legislature agreement, which is a political agreement. Then there is a law, and then there can be amendments, or not. Some things are political, others are legislative. These matters are not my specialty. But every time they ask me this question, the answer the comes to mind is that these are all matters that, in Europe, we solved in the time of Montesquieu, when he made the distinction between the powers of the state, and those that belong to each one. We should not reinvent Montesquieu, we must respect the separation of powers in Europe; that is how we guarantee constitutional order at the national and European levels.

Q. Are they respecting that in Spain?

A. There is a procedure under way, a question-and-answer process that will determine the final response.

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