Revision of the long-term EU budget: what implications for migration and asylum policy 2024-2027?

© Marco - Pexels
© Marco - Pexels

A first version of this op-ed, slightly edited here, appeared on ECRE’s website on 15 February 2024.

After many months of complicated negotiations and a failed attempt to find a deal in December, the European Council finally adopted a revision of the EU’s long-term budget (the so-called ‘Multiannual Financial Framework’ (MFF) 2021-2027’) at its extraordinary meeting on 1 February. Compared with the European Commission’s original proposal, the revised MFF is significantly lighter in terms of additional funding that EU member states will be required to provide (€ 21 billion down from € 65.8 billion) and includes a combination of financial cuts and reallocation of resources, mainly at the expense of development and cohesion funding. In short, EU leaders managed to reduce extra contributions to the EU budget while further strengthening the focus on migration control and border management. The European Parliament’s rapporteurs endorsed a provisional political agreement with the Council negotiators on 6 February, and the final text will likely be adopted at the next plenary.  

Here are four takeaways from the European Council’s agreement:

EU leaders always seem to be able to agree on additional funding for migration and border control.

The deal confirms the overall figures proposed by the European Commission and increases funds for migration and border management (Heading 4) by € 2 billion, bringing the total funds to € 25.7 billion. Unlike the original proposal, the European Council’s deal also clearly specifies the allocations for individual funding programmes: € 0.8 billion (+8%) for the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), € 1 billion (+16%) for the Border Management and Visa Instrument (BMVI) and € 0.2 billion (+18%) for the EU Asylum Agency. Whereas the Commission intended to add resources to implement various parts of the Pact, ranging from screening and border procedures to reception capacity and relocations, EU leaders chose to focus only on ‘border management in frontline Member States’ and ‘new border procedures.

Funds for cohesion, development and humanitarian assistance are being diverted to migration control.

The original Commission’s proposal was to increase national contributions for development assistance (Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument, NDICI) and humanitarian assistance (Solidarity and Emergency Reserve, SEAR) by 10.5 billion €. Instead, the European Council agreed to a more modest increase of 3.2 billion euros in fresh funding, accompanied by additional budgetary cuts of 4.5 billion € to existing programmes. Some cohesion programmes under Heading 2 (Cohesion, Resilience and Values) will also be reduced, such as the EU4Health (-1 bn), Horizon Europe (-2.1 bn) and cohesions funds (-1.1 bn). This means less funding for supporting refugees in third countries, and an increased focus on the Southern Neighbourhood and the Western Balkans to boost deportations and prevent departures.

Before the extraordinary European Council’s meeting, 26 humanitarian and development NGOs, including Caritas International, the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam International, issued a statement in which they warned that ‘The cuts will affect human rights, peace-building efforts, health, education, nutrition, climate, and many other areas for migration priorities. Here, we are essentially talking about solidifying fortress Europe by undermining programmes that contribute to sustainable development’. This assessment is shared by ECRE and PICUM, who previously argued that the EU is prioritising migration control over other policy goals by using funds to prevent movements along migration routes.

The EU will be able to maintain support for Ukraine, but Orban’s acquiescence comes at a price.  

To secure Hungary’s support to funding the EU response to the war in Ukraine, the other member states had to make a number of (marginal) concessions: the European Commission will need to report annually on the implementation of the Ukraine Facility, followed by a debate by the European Council; the European Council will also be able to ask the Commission to review the € 50 billion funding in the context of the next MFF negotiations in 2026. However, Hungary’s government had already secured the unfreezing of  € 10.2 billion of various EU funds (cohesion programmes, Border Management and Visa Instrument, Internal Security Fund and most elements of the Asylum and Migration Fund), that will allow Hungary to escalate violent border control policies. The European Commission’s decision to unfreeze the funds had sparked heavy criticism from the European Parliament.

The European Parliament has little influence in defining budget allocations, but it can still use its supervisory powers to avoid abuses  

MEPs wanted an increase of € 10 billion over the Commission’s original proposal (a total of € 75.8 billion of fresh funding). However, in the end, they agreed to a revised MFF that includes € 21 billion of new contributions, and additional budget cuts to cohesion and development funding, despite their own concerns  against reorienting cohesion funds to other priorities. Despite the EU Treaties limit its role in revising long-term budgetary priorities, the Parliament should at least make full use of its supervisory powers to ensure that no EU funds are transferred to authoritarian regimes or used to finance fundamental rights violations. The potential Parliament’s lawsuit against the Commission’s decision to greenlight funding to Hungary may provide an excellent opportunity for the Parliament to push the ‘guardian of the treaties’ to clarify the criteria it used (and will presumably continue to use) to disburse or withhold funding to EU member states that fail to uphold human rights and the rule of law.