How Do Crises Affect Policy Subsystems? The Evolution of Policy Core Beliefs in the EU Asylum Policy

JCMS |

by Laura Mastroianni (University of Bologna)

On April 10th, 2024, the European Parliament voted to endorse the European Commission’s proposal on a ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’. After nearly ten years since the so-called 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ and the first proposal for the amendment of the Common European Asylum System with the ‘European Agenda on Migration’, the reform of the EU asylum policy seems to be walking its last steps to the finishing line. How did we get to this point? My recent JCMS contribution seeks to disentangle the mechanisms leading from crisis to policy change, with a specific focus on the EU asylum policy subsystem. Accordingly, it investigates the short-term and long-term effects of crises on policy core beliefs by merging perspectives from public policy analysis with the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF), crisis management literature and network approaches. The article concludes that policy core beliefs prioritised during the crisis have not stabilised in its aftermaths, implying short-term effects of the crisis on policy core beliefs.

Crisis and Policy Process Theories: the Advocacy Coalition Framework

Crises, as system-wide events that alter the stability of policy subsystems, have for long been a central factor in the analysis of change and learning processes in public policies. However, there is still a big gap in the literature relating to the mechanisms possibly leading from a crisis to change. The ACF, one of the most utilised theoretical-analytical approaches for the analysis of public policies, refers to external and internal shocks as possible drivers of change.

The framework assumes that beliefs are the means through which actors interpret the world and make decisions. At the centre of this belief system, policy core beliefs are located, representing basic normative commitments and causal perceptions. Policy core beliefs are the real glue of advocacy coalitions.

My contribution investigates the evolution of policy core beliefs before, during and after a crisis, with the aim of disentangling the mechanisms possibly leading to policy change and learning. It hypothesises that (1) the prioritisation of policy core beliefs may change during a crisis, (2) this change may be circumscribed to the crisis period, and (3) this change may stabilise over time.

The Common European Asylum System in Crisis

The Common European Asylum System is a legislative framework comprising a common regulation within the EU involving all facets of asylum. Since its birth, in 1999, it underwent two rounds of reform, and it is currently in its third. In effect, in 2015, an unprecedented number of first-time applications for international protection arrived to EU Member States, and the system did not have the appropriate instruments to act. Therefore, a reform was proposed by the European Commission with the ‘European Agenda on Migration’. After years of discussions, at the end of its mandate in 2020, no reform was passed. With the new term, the European Commission proposed the ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’. Apart from the establishment of the European Agency for Asylum, the negotiations have not produced any legislative reform until the day of writing this piece.

The Evolution of Policy Core Beliefs in the CEAS

Using network analysis and centrality measures, I analysed  beliefs in newspaper articles from two of the main European outlets: Euobserver.com and Politico.eu. The period under consideration covers ten years from 2012 to 2022. How have the beliefs changed from the pre-crisis period to the crisis? And from the crisis to the post-crisis period?

During the pre-crisis period, the most prominent beliefs relate to the reinforcement of EU agencies, the appeal to reform various policy instruments, as well as measures of burden sharing, such as solidarity mechanisms, resettlement schemes and the stipulation of third-country agreements. These beliefs express the EU twofold trajectory: on the one hand, migration issues have been guided by burden sharing and solidarity beliefs; on the other, securitisation beliefs come to the forefront.

During the crisis, beliefs revolve around the call for emergency measures, for burden sharing proposals and solidarity mechanisms, along measures to protect migrants’ rights, securitisation and pushback. Acknowledging the incapability of the system to deal with the events, beliefs portray the inadequacy of the Dublin system through proposals to reform it, suspend it, and abolish it. Therefore, beliefs intersect on three approaches: the realisation of the failure of the system, the conservative response approach by prioritising emergency measures, and the reformist response approach by advancing proposals going beyong the crisis situation.

After the crisis, most of the beliefs went to the pre-crisis period (see Figure 9 below), with a special focus on the securitisation debate with proposals for disembarkation platforms and/or processing centres, for pushbacks, and to fight irregular migration. Therefore, crisis beliefs have not stabilised after the crisis period, returning to beliefs predilecting the securitisation approach, rather than the burden sharing/ solidarity one. Even if some actors have pursued a reformist response approach, pushing for a future policy adaptable to everyday and crisis politics, post-crisis beliefs show its failure.

What may we conclude?

My contribution started with the following research question: What are the short-term and long-term effects of a crisis on EU asylum policy subsystem policy core beliefs? Such a question has its roots in the assumption that the underlying mechanisms of policy change and policy learning within and in the aftermaths of a crisis rely on the (non-) prioritisation of policy core beliefs to the changing necessities of a policy subsystem. For its empirical analysis, it investigated the EU asylum policy through the methodological tools of Discourse Network Analysis. It concludes that crisis policy core beliefs have not stabilised after the crisis period and, therefore, that the crisis has had short-term effects on policy core beliefs. For the policy subsystem, this implies a return to the policy core beliefs portrayed in the period prior to the crisis, especially focused on a policy of securitisation.


Laura Mastroianni is a PhD candidate in Political and Social Sciences at Alma Mater Studiorum – University of Bologna. Her primary research interests lie in public policy analysis, with a particular focus on policy process research, EU migration policy, and network approaches. Follow her on X here.