Commissioners Johansson, Schinas, and Urpilainen: Here’s How You Can Use Legal Pathways to “Manage Migration”

Earlier this month three future European Union (EU) Commissioners were given the green light by legislators to lead the migration portfolio—despite the fact that the confirmation of the entire Commission is still pending. Ylva Johansson (Home Affairs), Margaritis Schinas (Protecting our European Way of Life), and Jutta Urpilainen (International Partnerships) will all have some responsibility for managing migration within—and to—the EU, with input from Josep Borrell, the EU’s “chief diplomat.”

While the EU has primarily focused on deterrence and border management in the past, the new president of the EU Commission (EC), Ursula von der Leyen, and her team acknowledge the need for a more comprehensive approach to migration, including partnering with both countries of origin and countries of transit to create legal pathways to attract the skills Europe desperately needs. So, what should the new Commissioners do to enact this vision? Here we analyze the mission letters’ directions and provide recommendations, based on our “Roadmap for the new European Leadership.”

Analysing the mission letters: What are the Commissioners tasked with?

In September 2019, President-elect von der Leyen issued mission letters to all Commissioner-Designates, assigning their individual portfolios, priorities and institutional responsibilities for the period 2019-2024. She also revealed how these individual portfolios fit together to achieve the new Commission’s political guidelines. Commissioner Johansson, in charge of the Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME), will oversee the biggest share of the migration portfolio. Von der Leyen has tasked her with developing a “New Pact on Migration and Asylum.” She will also have to reform the asylum system, promote sustainable search and rescue efforts, fight trafficking and smuggling, increase Frontex operations, and implement the Schengen Area rules around free movement. In addition, her mission letter contains two interesting subpoints:

  “You should focus on ensuring there are genuine legal pathways to the European Union, both through the resettlement of those in need of international protection and through employment opportunities for skilled workers.

I want you to work closely with the High Representative/Vice-President and other Commissioners to develop stronger cooperation with countries of origin and transit. You should work closely with Member States to step up efforts to develop a more robust system of readmission and return.” [their emphasis]

Clearly, the incoming EC-President has recognised the need to strengthen legal migration pathways to Europe, and that a successful migration policy framework requires close collaboration with partner countries.

Commissioner Johansson’s portfolio will be overseen by Commissioner Schinas, the new Vice-President responsible for “Protecting our European Way of Life.” The media has criticised this title for co-opting the way that the far right discuss migration and suggesting that there is indeed a European way of life. In response, Commissioner Schinas made clear during his hearing that he sees the “European way” as a commitment to inclusion, solidarity, and diversity. His mission will be to help implement the New Pact on Migration and Asylum,” and to focus on:

“creating pathways to legal migration to help us bring in people with the skills and talents our economy and labour market need.”

And finally, to complement these efforts, Commissioner Urpilainen, in charge of “institutional partnerships” and the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO), will support the EC’s efforts on migration through trying:

“to reach comprehensive partnerships with countries of migration origin and transit, bringing together all instruments, tools and leverage. You should therefore be ready to adapt bilateral funding to achieve our objectives on migration management.” [their emphasis]

While all three portfolios retain an emphasis on border enforcement and security, these statements are a welcome shift towards a migration management approach that is more pragmatic and potentially beneficial for countries of origin, transit, and destination. It is especially interesting to see the expansion of legal pathways presented as a “carrot” alongside the “stick” of increased returns and readmission agreements.

Yet there are also worrying signs of conditionality, potentially using “all instruments, tools and leverage” to secure such agreements while offering little in return. It is telling that the mandate letter for Commissioner Urpilainen does not stress the importance of legal pathways for economic development in countries of origin, transit, and destination, and the centrality of promoting these for decades to come. If the new Commissioners are to effectively carry out their mandates, they are going to need to invest funding and energy in both enforcement and new legal labour migration pathways.

Europe’s progress to date on “managing migration”

In May 2015, the Juncker Commission presented its European Agenda on Migration. It was designed to immediately respond to the 2015 refugee “crisis” through four pillars aimed at better managing migration over the medium and long term. Under these pillars, the outgoing Commission has achieved much—increasing refugee resettlement numbers, supporting Member States with border management, financing integration projects, combatting smuggling networks, fighting trafficking, and working broadly on development and security efforts in countries of origin through the EU Trust Funds.

However, future success is not guaranteed for four reasons. Firstly, the demographic make-up of the globe is significantly shifting. By 2100, Europe’s working-age population is projected to have declined by almost 30 percent from 2015 levels. The impact of this shift is already being felt as the private sector in many countries demands an increase in the number of workers available and the types of skills they possess. At the same time, the working-age population in sub-Saharan Africa is booming and job creation will not be able to keep pace with demand, nationally or regionally.

Secondly, forces beyond the EU’s control—foreign wars, displacement, and climate change, among others—will have a bearing on future migratory movements.

Thirdly, the EC’s successes to date also depend on the cooperation of third states, which may not be assured, as Turkey’s President Erdogan’s recent threat to end the EU-Turkey migration deal clearly demonstrates.

And finally, with no broad European consensus on how to best manage migration, European states too often depend on ad hoc solutions.

How the Commissioners should “manage migration” in the medium to long term

While both increased development efforts and border controls are necessary, they are insufficient to curb irregular migration—a fact which has been acknowledged by the outgoing Commission. To reduce incentives for irregular migration, attract the right set of talent and skills to Europe, and enable admissions to be tailored to the needs of the labour market, Europe needs new kinds of legal pathways for migrants. Accordingly, promoting new legal pathways is the fourth pillar of the European Agenda on Migration.

To date, the funding and attention paid to this fourth pillar has been massively outweighed by the focus on enforcement and border security. However, as demonstrated above, legal pathways are prominently mentioned in the incoming Commissioner’s mission letters.

How can President von der Leyen and her team implement those? Our “Roadmap for the New European Leadership” provides four ways that the EC can create new partnerships to manage migration in a mutually beneficial way.

  1. Create and promote new kinds of legal labour migration pathways. Thanks not only to his mandate, but also to his responsibility for skills development and employment within Europe, Vice President Schinas is ideally placed to take the lead in creating new legal pathways, in close cooperation with Commissioner Johansson. Such efforts will complement existing development and security efforts under the responsibility of Commissioner Urpilainen, and at the same time reduce demand for irregular pathways. Meaningful legal pathways which expand opportunities for workers at all levels with all corresponding legal protections and safeguarding need to be part of any comprehensive partnership agreements, alongside readmission and returns.
  2. Pilot and scale Global Skill Partnership projects between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. One such legal labour migration pathway that the Commission could implement is the Global Skill Partnership, based on a bilateral agreement between equal partners. The country of destination agrees to provide technology and finance to train potential migrants with targeted skills in the country of origin, prior to migration, and receives migrants with precisely the skills they need to integrate and contribute best upon arrival. The country of origin agrees to provide that training and gets support for the training of non-migrants too—increasing rather than draining human capital. The Commission is already supporting similar projects through the Mobility Partnerships Facility (MPF). Commissioner Johansson should expand and diversify the funding and support available to the MPF and promote the opportunity to Member States based on their current and emerging needs and priorities.
  3. Pilot Global Skill Partnership projects within Africa. Most sub-Saharan Africans will not want to travel to Europe, preferring instead to seek work within their region. Therefore, Commissioner Urpilainen should finance and support regional Global Skill Partnerships, building necessary institutions and complementary skill sets among native and foreign workers in countries of destination. Functioning job markets and economic growth in Africa will in turn also provide new opportunities for European companies and reduce migratory pressures.
  4. Be a positive voice for migration within Europe. Such efforts will require an increase in financing, in coordination, in partnerships, and—most importantly—in leadership. Von der Leyen and her team have a real opportunity to proactively manage migration in the medium to long term, implementing some of the concrete proposals highlighted above. It is imperative that the Commission remains an outspoken advocate for labour migration (and its necessity given the demographic shifts already underway) and showcase positive outcomes from the pilot projects. We have a real opportunity to facilitate new types of migration, but only if the Commission spearheads these efforts.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.