The Europeanization of Asylum Policy

By Matthias Fleischmann

In many European debates and electoral campaigns, the refugee crisis has become a hot topic, especially because some EU member states feel like the current system is treating them unfairly. This raises the question of how the European asylum system could be changed in order to cope with increasing challenges and to become fairer for member states.

The concept of “Europeanization” is one possible approach. It describes a deeper integration of the EU asylum system, embracing the trend towards a more cooperative model instead of a non-cooperative one with many individual authorities. This article will be divided into three parts. First, it will answer the question of why Europeanization is the better approach. Secondly, it will lay out the problems of past Europeanization initiatives and lastly, it will try to find solutions on overcoming those issues.

Why strive for more Europeanization?

There are three main reasons for the EU to do so: to avoid (1) free-riding strategies by member states, (2) asymmetries in the quality of asylum policy implementation and (3) the risk of diminishing trust in the EU.

First, non-cooperative approaches proved to create some problematic consequences regarding the behavior of nation states as individual actors. As some scholars argue, stability which derives from when refugees settle down can be seen as a public good (Czaika 2009; Thielemann 2018) and according to Mancur Olson’s collective action theory, single actors in a group of actors with similar goals regarding a public good tend to “free-ride” on the work of other actors. In this context, this means that smaller countries are trying to benefit from the work of larger countries without, for example, accepting a proportional number of refugees in their own territory (Thielemann 2018). This can lead to a system were some actors contribute less to the collective welfare than others, causing an unfair share of burdens, which a more autonomous European burden-sharing system could prevent.

Second, recent history has shown that, even though the EU framework established some minimum standards for refugee protection and admission, the member states still have a lot of discretion concerning the implementation of those standards. This leads to huge inequalities regarding the quality of implementation in the domestic arena (Türk 2016). Most importantly, recognition rates and the amount of responsibility that different states have vary widely. When left with the authority to decide on asylum policy, countries tend to strategically minimize their attractivity as a destination country. In order to prevent being seen as a “soft-touch” country, which would attract asylum seekers, more restrictive asylum policies are adopted (Thielemann 2018).

However, as Czaika and Hobolth have shown, choosing a more restrictive approach by increasing asylum and short-stay visa rejections can result in an increase of irregular immigration, which is an undesirable effect (Czaika and Hobolth 2016). Additionally, Toshkov found out that restricting recognition rates only has a small effect on future asylum applications (Toshkov 2014). If Europeanization would go beyond common standards by establishing a common legal framework and procedural rules, it might counter the strategy of more restrictive policies, which proved to be a rather inefficient strategy anyway.

Lastly, a European asylum system which is based on non-cooperation and different decisions on asylum policy could weaken the nations’ trust in each other and in the principles of the European Union, especially in the case of burden-sharing asymmetries and free-riding scenarios (Toshkov and Haan 2013).

The problems of past Europeanization

Up until now, the Europeanization process has proven to be deficient due to three major problems: (1) Organized Hypocrisy, (2) a lack of policy convergence and (3) insufficient burden-sharing.

First, there is a huge gap between the EU’s discourse of ambitions, standards and principles and its de facto implementation. According to Lavenex, this gap is one of the main reasons for the EU’s difficulties in handling the refugee crisis and therefore part of a wider problem concerning the transformation of the EU “from a primarily regulatory polity into a political Union” (Lavenex 2018). Following the theory of Organizational Sociology, she calls this phenomenon Organized Hypocrisy and states that it is caused by the lack of a de facto integration of European decision-making and common approaches:

As long as EU institutions lack the power and legitimacy to exert supranational authority towards unwilling Member States, and in the absence of compromise solutions or of public pressure for greater consistency, organized hypocrisy is likely to persist (Lavenex 2018).

The second problem is one of the consequences of Organized Hypocrisy in the Europeanization of the EU asylum policy: the asymmetry in the quality of implementations among EU member states. This problem could be solved with a greater extent of policy convergence. However, as Toshkov and De Haan argue, past Europeanization of asylum policy has only led to a limited amount of convergence. Even though differences between member states are now smaller than they used to be, there are still huge inequalities in recognition rates and offered protection due to two reasons. First, the allocation of asylum applicants has not become significantly fairer as a result of Europeanization and second, nation states still have a lot of decision-making competences over asylum policy, which results in an unequal distribution of burdens and costs (Toshkov and Haan 2013).

This leads to our third problem, which is unequal burden-sharing. Even though there have been attempts to diminish differences of financial burden between member states, the results have been disappointing. The European Refugee Fund (ERF), which was established in 2000, proved to be insufficient. Its distribution of money was marginal, as it could only provide a total of 628 million euros (Hix and Hoyland 2011). The ERF was later integrated into the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), which can allocate monetary resources amounting to three billion Euros in total between 2014 and 2020, a relatively small amount in comparison to the spending of the member states (Thielemann 2018).

How can Europe do better?

In order to solve these problems, Türk argues that:

a bolder approach is needed if the European Union is to overcome fragmentation and manage refugee movements effectively and in accordance with international obligations (Türk 2016). He calls for a “supranational arrangement exercised by the EU” comprising an EU Asylum Authority, an EU Asylum Appeals Court and an EU Asylum Code. In short, he advises the institutionalization of the EU asylum policy (Türk 2016).

Czaika follows this line of argumentation as he states that “refugee protection levels are insufficient and suboptimal because of the absence of any institutionalized and efficient refugee cooperation regime” (Czaika 2009). He further specifies that an authority is needed in the EU asylum system, which should have the competence to:

Guarantee steady commitment of participating countries, to coordinate the allocation of refugee admission numbers and implement, if efficient, an adequate monetary compensation scheme across countries (Czaika 2009).

Thielemann also demands further Europeanization of asylum policy as he postulates that “Europe can be more ambitious” and calls for the establishment of „binding quota-based refugee burden-sharing initiatives” (Thielemann 2018). Additionally, stricter monitoring and control mechanisms should be established to improve the member states’ implementation of common rules (Thielemann 2018). Czaika considers asylum cooperation to be desirable under the condition that asymmetries between countries are not too large. In this case, monetary burden-sharing mechanisms could improve the situation (Czaika 2009), but as pointed out earlier, existing monetary funds don’t provide enough resources to cope with the large spending in member states.

Conclusion: Towards a supranational asylum system

If done right, and most of the quoted scholars would agree, the mentioned problems could be solved by further Europeanization. A stronger and institutionalized supranational asylum organization could improve policy convergence to prevent countries from free-riding on the efforts of others as well as burden-sharing mechanisms by allocating resources like money and expertise. This would create a fairer EU asylum system, strengthening the member states’ trust in each other and in the European Union itself.

However, it has been proven to be difficult to change the current asylum system, as most member states prefer the status quo over possible reforms (Zaun 2016). Biermann et al called this scenario a “Rambo game situation”, where the least affected member states are happy with the status quo and therefore prevent any further reforms (Biermann et al. 2019). In order to establish a Europeanized asylum system, the EU must find a way to prevent a reform gridlock.

About the Author

Matthias Fleischmann is a student of political science and comparative literature at the University of Innsbruck and a student journalist for UNIpress, the Innsbruck-based magazine of the Austrian Students‘ Union (ÖH). (Twitter: @not_even_matt)


Biermann, Felix; Guérin, Nina; Jagdhuber, Stefan; Rittenberger, Berthold; Weiss, Moritz (2019): Political (non-)reform in the euro crisis and the refugee crisis: a liberal intergovernmentalist explanation. In: Journal of Common Market Studies 26 (2), p. 246–266.

Czaika, Mathias (2009): Asylum Cooperation among Asymmetric Countries. The Case of the European Union. In: European Union Politics 10 (1), p. 89–113.

Czaika, Mathias; Hobolth, Mogens (2016): Do restrictive asylum and visa policies increase irregular migration into Europe? In: European Union Politics 17 (3), p. 345–365.

Hix, Simon; Hoyland, Bjorn (2011): The Political System of the European Union. 3. ed. Basingstoke (i.a.): Palgrave Macmillan.

Lavenex, Sandra (2018): ‚Failing Forward‘ Towards Which Europe? Organized Hypocrisy in the Common European Asylum System. In: Journal of Common Market Studies 56 (5), p. 1195–1212.

Thielemann, Eiko (2018): Why Refugee Burden-Sharing Initiatives Fail. Public Goods, Free-Riding and Symbolic Solidarity in the EU. In: Journal of Common Market Studies 56 (1), p. 63–82.

Toshkov, Dimiter (2014): The dynamic relationship between asylum applications and recognition rates in Europe (1987-2010). In: European Union Politics 15 (2), p. 192–214.

Toshkov, Dimiter; Haan, Laura de (2013): The Europeanization of asylum policy. an assessment of the EU impact on asylum applications and recognitions rates. In: Journal of European Public Policy 20 (5), p. 661–683.

Türk, Volker (2016): Envisioning a Common European Asylum System. In: Forced Migration Review (51), S. 57–60.

Zaun, Natascha (2016): Why asylum standards exceed the lowest common denominator: the role of regulatory expertise in EU decision-making. In: Journal of European Public Policy 23 (1), p. 136–154.