What role does the EU play in influencing the development of integration policy?

Helen McCarthy

Shifts in integration policy

Across the EU, there are wide variations between different countries in how they approach the question of integration of immigrants and their descendants. Whilst some countries (such as the UK and France) have long histories of and experience with migration, others (such as newer members like Poland) have relatively little (recent) experience with large migration inflows. In addition, different countries have very different philosophical/ideological approaches to integration, with the French Republican model that rejects group identities traditionally considered to be on one end, whilst the UK with a more ‘multicultural’ approach has been considered at the other.

Nevertheless, recently it has been argued that integration policies across different countries are actually converging and that there are now fewer obvious differences between the different models. And this could be part of a wider shift. With increasing pressure on integration budgets and growing complexity and diversity in communities, it is increasingly hard to justify integration as a standalone policy area leading to an increase in a ‘mainstreamed’ approach to integration – so that integration priorities are simply included in more generic policy areas (see this Breakfast briefing for a discussion). Examining whether, why and how this has happened has been the focus of the UPSTREAM project and one element of the analysis has been investigating the role of the EU within this policy field.

What role for the EU?

In the last decade, the EU has begun to stake out a position as a player on integration policy. With the publication in 2004 of the Common Basic Principles on Integration, member states agreed to eleven principles on which integration policy should be built. One of these was that integration policy should as far as possible be ‘mainstreamed’ across policy portfolios. Since then the EU has developed a number of other instruments, such as the Handbooks on Integration (2004, 2007, 2010) the European Integration Forum, and the European Website on Integration to promote shared learning in this area.

But do any of these have any real impact on what happens in member states? Answering that question is notoriously tricky. In the case of legislation, it can be much easier to trace a direct line between something the EU has introduced and changes in policy in member states. However, when it comes to the area of integration policy, the EU has little ability to act beyond a range of ‘soft’ mechanisms. The impact of these is much harder to assess. These soft mechanisms usually involve spreading of good practice examples; the creation of research networks; and the occasional ministerial conference to discuss it all. But integration policy remains a competence of the national level and member states have resisted calls to develop more coordination in this area through the Open Method of Coordination.

EU funds

Nevertheless, influence can be wielded in another way – through funding. In the case of integration, the most obviously relevant has been the European Integration Fund (EIF) – now merged into the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). This fund has focused money on integration projects for recently arrived non-EU citizens (the so called ‘third country nationals’ in Euro speak) in line with the Common Basic Principles.

euro coinsMore tangentially, the much larger and more significant European Social Fund, which focuses on programmes that support employment and tackle social exclusion, also included a priority on supporting immigrants into employment. This was motivated by a recognition at EU level that there are still large gaps across Europe in employment rates between EU and non-EU citizens. Although the Social Fund has tended to focus rather narrowly on labour market integration, priorities on social exclusion could provide the basis for more inclusive integration projects aimed at migrant communities. Both of these funds could, potentially, be used as a means to pilot innovative new approaches to integration policy or tackle entrenched local challenges.

Through the regulations of the funds, the EU indicates to members states how the funds can be used (on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis). Although essentially it is still member states who decide both the national priorities for each fund and the mechanisms for allocating it, research has indicated in certain cases these guidelines and priorities can induce a new focus on policies targeting particular groups such as migrants (see for example Verschraegen, Vanhercke and Verpoorten 2011).  And in countries where there traditionally has been very little focus on integration, the European Integration Fund has played a major role in focusing policy attention on integration as well contributing significant financial resources (see Jóźwiak, Nestorowicz and Lesińska 2014 for a discussion of Poland).

Nevertheless, member states still have considerable lee-way in the design of their Operational Programmes for both the Integration Fund and the Social Fund, and can decide to take more inclusive or exclusive approaches in line with national priorities. For the larger, wealthier member states there are indications that EU funding is rather less important, regarded rather as a nice ‘extra’. In addition, the effectiveness of the funds in delivering innovative projects may be hampered by the fact that they require a huge amount of administration. The burdensome nature of accounting requirements means that the funds are often inaccessible to many smaller organisations that may be best placed to deliver innovative projects addressing the needs of hard-to-reach communities.

On the whole, it seems the funds have not contributed to any real shift in the way integration policy is designed at national level. Instead they are more likely to simply be used by member states in line with existing priorities. The funds are also not flexible enough to respond to the different needs in different communities or to changing circumstances. Whilst the Integration Fund has had a focus on recently arrived, non-EU citizens, it has neglected the needs of both non-EU citizens who have been in member states for longer, as well as the needs of mobile EU citizens. This reflects a dichotomy at the heart of EU policy on integration, in which it is only non-EU citizens who are seen of as having integration needs. The Social Fund, on the other hand, has focused on everybody, but has risked losing sight of the specific needs of those who are most vulnerable. The lack of flexibility and inability to combine the funds has contributed to siloed thinking. And despite changes to the funds for the next funding period (2014-2020), it seems likely that many of these limitations will remain.


Jóźwiak, I., Nestorowicz, J. and Lesińska, M. (2014). The Politics of Mainstreaming, Immigrant Integration Policies: Case study of Poland. UPSTREAM Report.

Verschraegen, G., Vanhercke, B. and Verpoorten, R. (2011). ‘The European Social Fund and Domestic Activation Policies:Europeanization Mechanisms’, Journal of European Social Policy 21, 1: 55–72