Since the crisis of 2015/2016, asylum has become the focus of attention in the European Union (EU). The right to seek refuge raises issues of sovereignty and control of the territory; hence, with the gradual integration of European member states into a single area free of internal borders, there has been a functional pressure to harmonize domestic asylum policies. However, this process of integration continues to be highly contested on two main axes: the extent of harmonization (how much should the EU do in the area of asylum) and the content of the policies (should the emphasis lie on territorial security or individual rights). The tension between this “core state power” status and the EU’s international obligations has shaped both policy developments and academic debates since the emergence of asylum as an EU policy field in the mid-1990s.
The integration of asylum policies is intimately linked to the emergence of Schengen as a borderless zone. Indeed, the idea that, in a Europe without borders, member states cannot control the flow of migrants led national governments to find common rules on ascribing responsibility for international protection claims. The rules agreed in the Dublin Convention of 1990 have become the core pillar that structures the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). This system aims to harmonize the definition of a refugee and the procedures and rights that need to be followed when considering asylum requests, as well as the conditions for receiving asylum seekers (e.g., housing, access to healthcare, and the job market). This process of harmonization has not been uncontested: while the first legislative phase (2001–2005) remained highly intergovernmental and was characterized by little progress being made in the approximation of domestic asylum systems, the second phase (2008–2013) showed an increased reluctance of member states to strengthen the powers of the EU in this field. As a result, the CEAS has been epitomized by faulty implementation and weak approximation—especially among those member states that did not have strong asylum systems in place before integration began. These gaps have left the CEAS in a dangerous position, since they have created incentives for those who benefit the least from EU cooperation to bypass their obligations. There, the principles underpinning the Dublin regime have been at the core of the functional crises that have recurrently emerged in the EU. The so-called “asylum crisis” has shown the weaknesses of the CEAS as well as the incapacity of member states to reform the system and find a solution that addresses the current imbalances. The main solutions have come via externalization, whereby the EU has sought to strengthen the responsibility of third countries like Turkey and Libya.
These trends have also been the focus of attention in this highly interdisciplinary field. Debates have generally concentrated on either the internal or the external dimension of EU policy-making. When it comes to the internal dimension, early scholarship centered on the process of integration and the development of asylum into a new policy field. They showed how the major drivers of integration followed functional logics of spillover from the single market and Schengen—but that the nature of this policy area called for different political dynamics. This process remained highly intergovernmental until the early 2000s, which gave interior ministers the power to escape domestic constraints (e.g., civil society, national parliaments, and courts) and shape EU policies in relative isolation. This does not mean, however, that this intergovernmental process was uncontentious. Indeed, it has been shown how the core principles of EU asylum respond to a public goods logic, whereby member states try to shift their responsibility for asylum seekers away from their territory and onto that of their neighbors. Although the idea of “burden-sharing” (and hence a generalized negative perception of asylum) is shared by most member states, the processes of uploading and downloading policies between the domestic and the EU level have been more complicated than just building a “Fortress Europe.” Among those who were traditional recipients of asylum seekers and had strong asylum systems, there has been a clear game of regulatory competition that has sometimes led to a race to the bottom. In comparison, those that had no experience with international protection and lacked a strong asylum system have generally struggled to adapt to EU standards, which has reinforced the imbalances and weaknesses of the Dublin regime. Given these dynamics, most scholars expected the shift to a fully supranational decision-making process to produce far-reaching policy changes and have a rights-enhancing effect. The outcomes have not always fulfilled expectations, which underlines the importance of opening up the black box of preference formation in the EU institutions and member states. What scholars do agree on is that policy outputs on the EU level have often failed to materialize into policy outcomes on the domestic level, which has led to processes of informal adaptation and the strengthening of EU operational agencies like Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). In addition, these internal failures have pushed the EU to externalize border controls as well as push the responsibility for international protection toward third countries. There has been a clear case of policy diffusion toward neighboring countries, but also an increased dynamic of policy convergence among hosting countries like Australia and the USA. These policies tend to emphasize exclusionary practices, notably extraterritorial processing and border control—leading to major questions about the survival of asylum as an international human right in the years to come.
These trends show that asylum continues to be a highly contested EU policy both in its internal and external dimensions. We need, therefore, to look more closely at the impact of polarization and politicization on EU policy-making as well as on how they might affect the role played by the EU and its member states in global debates about migration and the right to seek asylum.