Marrakech’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, which took place on December 10-11 fulfilled all the prerequisites to be a celebration of international cooperation and a global show force committed to doing good.
The Compact aimed to create a common reference point, under 23 objectives, to tackle the issue of migration and set in motion the United Nations Migration Network.
The Americans and Europeans, however, appeared determined to spoil the party, something that wasn’t entirely a surprise from the United States delegation. The administration of Donald J. Trump had long ago decided not to partake in the negotiations of the first intergovernmental pact. This part of the agreement aims to create an inclusive, comprehensive framework to manage the challenges migration produces. Hungary quit five days after a final draft was approved by 191 countries in New York on July 13 after 18 months of negotiations.
The turning point came when Austria, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and led the final stages of the negotiations of the draft, decided to reject the pact after a “political assessment” at the end of October. The nationalist, far-right Freedom Party of Austria, which backs the current conservative government led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as its junior coalition partner, disapproved of the pact and forced the hand of the country’s leadership.
That move gave opposition to the pact a degree of added weight and legitimacy. The rest of the Visegrád Four – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – followed suit in a coordinated effort reminiscent of the February 2016 Vienna gathering that shut the Balkan migration route.
Italy included itself in the growing chorus of countries opposed to the deal, later joined by Latvia and Bulgaria. A fierce debate also ensued in Estonia and Croatia, as well as in Germany and the Netherlands, where the government issued an explanatory document to justify its support. The New Flemish Alliance dramatically left Belgium’s governing coalition over the matter, leaving Charles Michel’s government hanging perilously by a thread. As a result, Michel has since announced his intention to lead a minority government.
To claim that this sort of contentious back and forth was enough to ruin the merriment and undermine the enormity of the achievement would be unfair. First and foremost, it would be unfair to the hosts. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Kingdom of Morocco successfully put on a very challenging conference. Not only did the Marrakech gathering bring attention to a region that is the most exposed to the challenges brought about by migration, but it also elevated the country to the status of a key global actor in any future debate on the issue.
It would also be unfair to the 164 countries that formally endorsed the Compact yesterday before it is scheduled to be subjected to a vote during a UN General Assembly plenary session on December 19.
A total of 83 ministers and 21 heads of state from across the globe took part. The European Union was represented by Germany’s Angela Merkel, who received a standing ovation, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, Belgium’s aforementioned Michel, who drew extended applause from the crowd for standing his ground, Denmark’s Lars Løkke Rasmussen, and Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship.
It seems that the bloc has decided to hand over the baton of multilateralism, or rather, in the absence of a single European voice that could have exerted the greatest influence and could have filled the vacuum left by the United States’ withdrawal from the global stage, leaving others to assume the mantle and lead as the word “multilateralism” was the second most mentioned term after “migration” in Marrakech.
The EU, instead, chose to speak with two voices, which says more about the European Union as a whole, rather than the contents of the Compact, which is otherwise a non-binding intergovernmental agreement that explicitly recognises the signatories’ right to have self-determination when it comes to regulating migration based on their own affairs.
Commissioner Avramopoulos was unequivocal in his support for the agreement, saying, “Human mobility can only be addressed effectively by the international community as a whole.” This position was shared by Merkel who offered her support to the Compact by adding, “Multilateralism is the only way to render this planet a better place.”
Some EU members appear to have rejected the deal as a means to go it alone. If this rejection of multilateralism, be it unilateralism or nationalism, wins the day in Europe, it will mark a significant policy change and a blow to the system of international governance that Europe has helped put in place since the end of the Cold War – the same structure that has helped Europe prosper.
A major paradigm shift by Europe could be detrimental to the stability of the world order if taken in tandem with the US’ decision to question the value of international cooperation. The value of international treaties or pacts, such as this, should be judged against the benefits that it brings to citizens.
In that respect, the Compact aims to bring order over chaos. Even if one disagrees, to have a say, one should have a seat at the negotiating table. Moreover, to withdraw from an agreement that you helped shape sends undermines Europe’s collective credibility. The European Union will have to make up its mind soon if it is not already too late as the next Commission and Council Presidents will have to see to its ratification upon the next election in May.
Marrakech might otherwise be multilateralism’s swan song – for the European Union, that is.