By Chiara Catelli

After many months of complicated negotiations and a failed attempt to find a deal in December, the European Council (EUCO) 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 (EC) original proposal, the revised MFF is significantly lighter in terms of the additional funding that EU member states (MS) will be required to provide (€ 21 billion (bn) down from € 65.8 bn) and includes a combination of financial cuts and reallocation of resources, mainly at the expense of development and cohesion funding. In this way, EU leaders managed to reduce the impact of the revision on their own countries’ contributions while further strengthening the focus on migration control and border management. The European Parliament’s (EP) rapporteurs endorsed a provisional political agreement with the Council negotiators on 6 February, and the final text will most likely be adopted at the next EP plenary at the end of the month.

Here are four takeaways from the EUCO agreement:

(1) EU leaders always seem to be able to agree on additional funding for migration and border management.

The deal confirms the overall figures proposed by the EC and increases MFF Heading 4 (Migration and Border Management) by € 2 bn. Unlike the original proposal, the EUCO deal also clearly specifies the allocations for individual funding programmes: € 0.8 bn (+8%) for the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), € 1 bn (+16%) for the Border Management and Visa Instrument (BMVI) and € 0.2 bn (+18%) for the EU Asylum Agency. Whereas the EC had referred to the need for additional resources to implement (selected) parts of the Pact, including ‘the screening and border procedure, reception capacity, relocations, and returns’, EU leaders intend to focus on ‘border management in frontline Member States’ and ‘implementation of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum (…), including new border procedures’.

(2) There is a real risk of diverting cohesion funds and funding for development and humanitarian assistance towards migration control objectives.

The EC’s original proposal was to increase EU MS’ contributions to the Neighbourhood Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) and the Solidarity and Emergency Reserve by € 10.5 bn. Instead, the EUCO agreed to a more modest increase of € 3.2 bn in additional funding, accompanied by € 4.5 bn of cuts to existing programmes. A number of programmes under MFF Heading 2 (Cohesion, Resilience and Values) will also see part of their funding reallocated in favour of other priorities. Affected programmes include EU4Health (minus € 1 bn), Horizon Europe (minus € 2.1 bn) and Common Agricultural Policy and cohesion funds (minus 1.1 bn). This means less funding for supporting refugees in third countries, less flexibility due to a reduction in the NDICI ‘cushion’, and an increased geographic focus on both the Southern Neighbourhood and the Western Balkans.

Prior to the extraordinary EUCO meeting, 26 civil society organisations working in the humanitarian and development sectors, including ECRE member organisations Caritas International, the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam International, issued a joint 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 a focus on a “route” approach reflects the EU’s objective to use funds for preventing movements along the route, by replacing other external policy priorities with migration control objectives.

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

While the EU seems to have managed to overcome Viktor Orban’s opposition, the Hungarian Prime Minister still managed to secure access to funding for Hungary, including on border management. In order to gain Orban’s support and to put an end to his lengthy efforts to block the deal, the other EUCO members had to make a number of (marginal) concessions: an annual EC report on the implementation of the Ukraine Facility, an annual EUCO debate on that topic, and, if required, the possibility for the EUCO to ask the EC to review the € 50 bn funding in the context of the next MFF negotiations in two years. However, Orban’s real victory probably came in December when he secured the unfreezing of € 10.2 bn of various cohesion programmes, BMVI, Internal Security Fund and most elements of AMIF funding, via a contested EC decision that sparked heavy criticism from the EP.

(4) This revision has showed the limited influence that the EP has over the MFF process, but it can and must use its supervisory powers to full effect from now until 2027

MEPs wanted an increase of € 10 bn over the EC’s original proposal (a total of € 75.8 bn of additional funding). However, in the end, they agreed to a revised MFF that included € 21 bn of new contributions, and additional budget cuts to cohesion and development funding, despite their own concerns against reallocating cohesion funds to other priorities. Nevertheless, since the EP is not empowered to play a central role in decision-making for long-term budgetary priorities, it 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. As a first step, the lawsuit that MEPs are considering taking against the EC for its decision to green-light funding to Hungary may provide an excellent opportunity for the EP 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 MS that fail to uphold the rule of law.

Chiara Catelli is a Policy Officer at both ECRE and the Platform on International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM). She leads ECRE and PICUM’s advocacy work on EU funding for migration, asylum and inclusion.