As More Countries Distance Themselves From UN Migration Compact, Opposition Rises in Germany

By James Carstensen | November 7, 2018 | 6:11pm EST
Jens Spahn, German Health Minister and leading member of the Christian Democrats (CDU), speaks to the media in Dusseldorf on November 6, 2018. (Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – A small but growing number of nations are distancing themselves from the U.N.’s global migration agreement a month ahead of its formal adoption. The document now also faces opposition in Germany – despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support -- with some members of her ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) saying it could impede Germany’s sovereign decision-making.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration aims to boost international cooperation on migration. It was the outcome of a 2016 U.N. summit’s consensus declaration expressing countries’ political will to protect the rights of refugees and migrants and to share the responsibility for doing so.

Set to be formally adopted at a U.N. conference in Morocco next month, the non-binding agreement was first approved in July by all 193 U.N. member-states except the United States, which backed out late last year, with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying it would “undermine” the U.S.’s sovereign rights.

Europe has been divided over migration since the 2015 crisis, which saw masses of asylum-seekers arrive from war-torn and poverty-stricken regions. Germany admitted the largest number – some 1.4 million people since then.

Although the CDU-led coalition government officially backs the pact, Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) said its parliamentary group should address unresolved debate over the compact before its adoption.

His statement came ahead of a round of parliamentary debates scheduled for Thursday at the behest of the far right anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which has called the document “a threat to the national sovereignty of Germany.”

Spahn, considered a front-runner to succeed Merkel as party chair (following her announcement she was stepping down from that post), also cited sovereignty concerns.

“What is important is that Germany keeps its sovereign power to control, steer and limit migration,” he told Die Welt am Sonntag early this week.

Marian Wendt, a CDU lawmaker, said that despite its non-binding nature, the compact poses problems, such as a lack of distinction between legitimate refugees and “economic migrants” – those who seek out countries with optimal work and welfare conditions.

“I, together with several colleagues of mine, would oppose signing the global migration pact in its current form,” he said.

The Green party criticized the CDU for questioning the pact.

"For us the migration pact is a success of multilateralism and a clear signal against the spread of nationalism, for example of someone like Donald Trump,” the left-wing party’s migration spokeswoman Filiz Polat told the DW broadcaster.

“The AfD is a pressure-point in German politics, I believe, and is forcing the CDU to re-think its immigration policies,” said Armand Cucciniello, a foreign policy expert and former U.S. diplomat.

“I am not surprised that some countries are not willing to sign onto the compact,” he said via email. “It is a matter of principle: the idea of a global body creating a framework on how sovereign countries should handle migration sounds a lot like globalism and global governance.”

Cucciniello added that the pact does not do enough to address local factors prompting people to flee, such as rampant violence and government corruption.

The U.S. is not alone in objecting to the compact. Australia, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia have rejected it completely, while the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Italy signaled they are likely to withdraw.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a statement cited “the mixing up of seeking protection with labor migration,” while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, at a Tuesday news conference in Warsaw, cited “sovereign principles on securing our borders and controlling migration flows.”

“Countries appear to be saying they are withdrawing because they feel the pact conflates economic migration with asylum seeking,” agreed Shelley Inglis, executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton.

She said that as the existing body of international refugee law places already high standards on governments, the pact could prompt fears of even higher expectations on governments to recognize migrants’ rights.

“Countries in the West historically have been reluctant,” said Inglis, who has held various U.N. management positions. “This can be seen by the very low number of countries signing on to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Migrants.”

(The U.N. member-states which have ratified that convention are almost all developing countries.)

“There are many issues with the compact, both legal and political,” said Matt Pinsker, professor of International Law at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Pinsker said that, legally, the compact contains ambiguous language which could cause political problems, for instance enabling proponents to pass domestic legislation on the grounds their nation has a moral, legal and/or international obligation under the compact.

“Its ambiguous language can be defined in any way politicians or activists find most convenient, and would use it to push extreme policies,” he said. “Signing to the compact has many risks as it exposes nations and lawmakers politically while offering few if any practical benefits.”

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