Q&A with “Delegating Responsibility” Author Nicholas Micinski

by Briana Johnson on January 14, 2022

This guest blog features a conversation with Nicholas Micinski, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine and author of Delegating Responsibility: International Cooperation on Migration in the European Union from the University of Michigan Press. 

This volume is available for purchase in hardcover, paper, and open access. Click the link above to start reading today! 

You conducted 86 interviews for your book! Who did you interview, and how did those conversations lead to your book’s argument?

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my book and research process. I conducted fieldwork in 2016-17 with follow-up interviews since. I spoke with policymakers at the European Commission and European Parliament in Brussels; UN officials in New York, London, Geneva, Greece, and Italy; aid workers on the ground in Athens and Rome; and volunteers around Europe who were working to help refugees. These conversations revealed the shifting power dynamics and tensions between EU institutions and border states with different political incentives and goals. Many interviewees spoke about how the “crisis” dynamic reinforced power structures that were already in place between the EU and Greece after the debt crisis, in addition to a long-standing distrust that EU migration policies were not in their interests.

Importantly, my research questions and methodology ask how states and international organizations respond to refugees. I look at the system and institutions that attempt to manage migration rather than the refugees and migrants. As a white American male researcher, I cannot and should not speak for the migrants and refugees at Europe’s borders. Instead, I have tried to leverage my privilege to examine and hold accountable the institutions. My book focuses on the system to reveal the political and financial incentives within institutions and the power dynamics between states and the EU.


Why was it so important to focus on Italy and Greece specifically?

Greece and Italy are important case studies for EU migration policy because they are on the external EU border and are the two countries that received the most arrivals in 2015-17. In this way, how the EU deals with migration in Greece and Italy defines how all of Europe deals with migration.

My book shows how the EU treated these two countries differently: in Greece, the EU delegated responsibility primarily to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other NGOs, while in Italy, the EU coordinated with the national government. I show that in Greece there was a persistent lack of migration state capacity and lack of credible partners, leading to delegation during the 2015-17 crisis, while Italy had a higher capacity and credible partners, leading to coordination. This variation reveals how states and the EU act differently within different contexts.


How has the EU’s approach to migration changed over the years, and how does this contribute to the growing tensions of refugee and migrant policies throughout Europe? 

Chapter 3 of my book traces the gradual and messy Europeanization of border and asylum policies long before the events in 2015-17. I show how states collaborated more and more over issues ranging from the Schengen area, visas, Frontex, and eventually creating the European Border and Coast Guard. Similarly, states increasingly collaborated on asylum, including the Dublin system, three waves of directives to create the Common European Asylum System, nearly €4 billion in migration funds, and the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Both Frontex and EASO have seen large increases in budget and staff over the last decade, particularly after 2015.

This does not mean that the EU determines all migration policies for its member states, or that there is a truly unified approach to asylum in Europe. Rather, over the last three decades, the EU leveraged cycles of crisis and policy failure to build more institutionalized collaboration between EU member states.

Tensions are inherent in the system because there are no burden-sharing mechanisms within EU asylum policies. The Dublin system requires people to apply for asylum in the first EU state they enter, effectively anchoring most in Greece and Italy, while other states, like Poland or Hungary, refuse to relocate their fair share.

Nevertheless, when migrants arrive at their borders—as happened recently on the Poland-Belarus border—they are eager to receive EU assistance. My book shows how that assistance is implemented and linked to state capacity and credible partners.


What new policies have come about that support the arguments made in your book? How do you think Delegating Responsibility can help policymakers approach increased migration? 

Since writing the book, both Italy and Greece had elections, which shifted the EU political dynamics. For example, the 2018 Italian elections brought a coalition between the far-right Lega party and the Five Star Movement (M5S), changing the political calculus and making the Italian government far less credible partners for the EU. If the number of arrivals increased dramatically during that government, my theory suggests that Italy would act unilaterally without the EU, as it did in 2020 with a ban on NGO search and rescue boats.

The concluding chapter of my book directly addresses what policymakers can learn from my findings. First, subcontracting (i.e. delegation) can buy-in administrative capacity and credible commitments by selecting a trustworthy implementing partner on the ground. This does not create political goodwill with domestic authorities or long-term functioning migration institutions.

Second, subcontracts need specificity, clear lines of coordination and report, and accountability and transparency. Huge amounts of funding were poured into migration management in Greece that are now under investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office.

Third, policymakers should focus on building coalitions and supporting civil society, not just to pass legislation, but also to implement migration policies. Without a coalition of credible partners, the implementation of difficult migration policies will stall.

Finally, the EU migration policies will continue to struggle until an EU-wide political coalition devises a genuine, binding burden sharing mechanism that proactively supports states and migrants, instead of continually responding to cycles of crisis.


What is the most important message you want readers to take away from your book?

Instead of looking at the high drama politics of EU summits, follow the money: the EU migration funding shows that they delegated responsibility to the UN in Greece to respond to the 2015-17 refugee crisis, while in Italy they coordinated with the government.

How EU migration policies are implemented on the ground is determined by a mixture of state capacity and political will. States will coordinate when capacity is high and there are credible partners, but when capacity is low and there are no trusted partners, they delegate. But delegating responsibility is a short-term fix to a long-term problem.

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