Obligatory detentions, more security screening, and faster deportations – these are the French EU presidency’s migration priorities, in a right-wing home affairs agenda.
Immigration did not take centre stage in French president Emmanuel Macron’s speech in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (19 January).
But what he did say emphasised keeping people out.
“We must protect our external borders, including by developing a rapid-intervention [military] force … to build partnerships with countries of origin and transit, to fight against [human-]smuggling networks, and make our return policy effective,” he told MEPs.
He voiced empathy for people “in great misery … and insecurity”, some of whom had walked from Africa or Asia to Europe, he said.
But Macron’s empathy had its limits. “It’s a horrendous humanitarian situation, but that’s reality,” he said.
And his speech was matched by his priorities on immigration for the next six months.
EU states should agree “common rules” on border “screening”, including “an obligation to ‘keep at the disposal of the authorities’ persons apprehended at the external borders, by increasing detention capacities,” France said in a memo to fellow EU states on 17 January.
Screening should include “health and safety checks” and fingerprinting, the memo said.
“The asylum procedure … would only be provided for in the later stages” of the security process, France noted.
And EU states should step up deportations, by concluding “more readmission agreements with priority third countries” and creating a new “EU Return Coordinator”, France added.
These were the “core” measures France believed EU states could agree on by July, following months of consultations.
France also discussed how EU states could show “solidarity” with front-line countries, such as Greece and Italy, without taking in asylum seekers.
They could pay each other off or send border guards instead, France proposed.
But there was as little in the French memo on protecting migrants’ lives or welfare as there was in Macron’s speech.
The EU should offer “dignified reception and better integration of people in need”, the memo said, in its only words on the issue.
Record numbers of people drowned last year trying to cross the Mediterranean, while others froze to death in the forests of Belarus and Poland.
At the same time, EU countries carried out thousands of illegal “pushbacks”.
Some built new walls and razor-wire fences, while conditions at many Greek migrant camps remained dismal.
But for all the human “misery” involved, EU migration has become a political weapon ahead of French elections in April, where Macron is running against three right-wing contenders, among others.
“We cannot have a sieve-like Europe,” the centre-right candidate, Valérie Pécresse, said while on a visit to Greece last week.
And one far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen’s party spoke out in Strasbourg.
“Your Europe [the EU] is 60 years old, but our Europe is 3,000 old,” one of Le Pen’s MEPs, Jordan Bardella, told Macron.
“Will Europe still be Europe if refugees are everywhere? Will it still be Europe if people swear allegiance to sultans in Turkey and Morocco?,” Bardella said.
Meanwhile, Macron’s migration agenda comes alongside other EU presidency projects on counterterrorism, antisemitism, and hate speech.
And some of these would also appeal to right-wing voters.
EU countries needed to tackle “the extremely sensitive nature of the notion of blasphemy, which rallies and mobilises all streams of the radical Islamist scene”, such as the lone knife-man who beheaded a French schoolteacher in 2020, France warned in a recent EU memo on terrorism.
It proposed a hawkish definition of antisemitism that was being used to demonise Israel’s opponents.
And for all the French concern on dialling down hatred, Macron’s vision of a secular Europe contained nothing on tackling Islamophobia.
For his part, French Green MEP Yannick Jadot took the French leader to task in heated, eyeball-to-eyeball comments in the Strasbourg chamber.
Jadot highlighted the death of a young Kurdish migrant in the English Channel.
“All that she wanted was to live and to love, Mr President … Why do you pull down the tents [in Calais migrant camps] every day?”, Jadot said.
But Jadot is also running in April and his intervention was just more French election fever for some MEPs, such as the Spanish leader of the socialist group, Iratxe García Pérez, who asked the Frenchman to cool his tone.