Conceived as the centerpiece of the EU’s efforts to deal with the external dimension of Europe’s migration challenge, the Partnership Framework initiative aims at strengthening cooperation with individual third countries, particularly in Africa. After years of failed attempts, the EU’s migration policies certainly needed a new impetus. However, political pressures arising from the strong anti-immigration feelings in many EU countries have resulted in an overly narrow focus on discouraging migration and increasing returns of irregular migrants. Apart from the initiative’s rather modest offer of financial assistance, the EU takes neither the interests of its African partners nor the protection needs of vulnerable migrants and refugees adequately into account.

For the plan to become a sustainable basis for managing migration flows responsibly, EU leaders need to rebalance the initiative. In particular, that means filling in the gaps by improving the financial offer, opening up new legal pathways for migration, and placing greater emphasis on the protection of vulnerable people.

Bringing the Numbers Down

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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In fall 2015, after months of bitter infighting, EU member states finally converged on a common approach on how to handle Europe’s refugee crisis. From German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, all EU leaders concurred that the most urgent priority was to reduce the massive inflow of irregular migrants and refugees. In record time, they set up a European border and coast guard with a stronger mandate and more resources than the EU’s existing border agency, Frontex, and expanded the financial and operational assistance to the most exposed member states.

But they also understood that the real key to reducing the numbers lay in cooperation with the countries from which most of the migrants were crossing into the EU. The closure of the Greek-Macedonian border in February 2016 and an agreement with Turkey on refugee returns a few weeks later succeeded in diminishing the flow of people on the eastern route into Europe to a trickle.

These barriers to entry via the Western Balkans are fragile. People smugglers are finding new pathways across the region. The EU-Turkey agreement has been only partly implemented, and difficult political relations between the EU and Turkey put the sustainability of the agreement in question. Nonetheless, for the time being, the inflow along the Western Balkan route appears to have been effectively contained.

No comparable success could be achieved on the Central Mediterranean route. In the power vacuum in Libya following the overthrow of strongman leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, the EU lacked a reliable partner for any arrangement to manage the situation. International efforts to secure the acceptance of a unified government have made little progress, and the officially recognized government remains challenged by shifting coalitions of militias. Consequently, people smuggling continues unabated, and the number of people having crossed from Libya to Italy reached 128,000 in September 2016, which is roughly the same level as in the two previous years.

However, in 2016, hardly any Syrians used that route. Almost all migrants came from African countries. With the exception of Eritreans and Somalis, the vast majority are considered by EU member states to be economic migrants and have little chance of being granted asylum.

The EU’s most significant involvement in this situation is the naval force EUNAVFOR Med, also known as Operation Sophia. Its mandate includes combating people and arms smuggling and training the Libyan coastguard. But fulfilling these tasks is difficult without dependable partners on the shore, so European ships that patrol close to the Libyan coastline function primarily as a search-and-rescue mission, picking up people from dinghies and other unsafe boats and transferring them to Italy.

Paradoxically, therefore, rather than fighting the smugglers’ networks, the mission effectively facilitates their business. By making crossing the Mediterranean somewhat less risky and much cheaper, as no seaworthy vessels need to be employed, the mission also exerts a pull effect encouraging further migration. But even this humanitarian dimension of the operation is not a full success. Despite the best efforts of the EU vessels and of NGOs, the total number of drownings in 2016 rose to 4,233 as of early November, an unprecedented level.

Altogether, the number of people entering the EU through the Central Mediterranean route represents only a minor part of all irregular immigration. Many more people every year enter legally and then overstay their visas. Still, in the current political climate, this highly visible irregular flow of migrants into Europe meets strong opposition. The current approach of the EU naval operation has come under criticism. Increasingly, one hears proposals to push back the boats to the Libyan coast or to erect camps there to process potential asylum seekers.

Without support from Libyan state institutions, such ideas are as impractical as they are morally and legally problematic. In reality, there are only two plausible courses of action: to continue to support efforts to restore stability and governance in Libya, and to work with other countries in the region to reduce the number of migrants reaching Libya.

The African Migration Challenge

Although the Syrian refugee crisis has dominated headlines, it was always clear that irregular migration from Africa would constitute the much greater challenge in the longer term. According to UN estimates, the African population is expected to more than double by 2050. Many African countries remain poor, and some are suffering from internal strife and bad governance.

Also, there is a long tradition of large population movements in many parts of the continent. Even the rising incomes now achieved in many African states often result at first in increased migration flows. Sizable diasporas that already exist in Europe, together with the closer connectivity achieved through modern media, make crossing the Mediterranean seem more feasible and attractive. As journalist James Traub put it, “the barometric pressure of a poor and growing continent next to a rich and shrinking one cannot be sustained forever.”

It therefore makes sense to recognize that significant migration from Africa to Europe will continue for many years. But to make it mutually beneficial and avoid political disruptions, migration needs to be managed responsibly through close cooperation across the Mediterranean.

Such cooperation on migration has long been on the agenda between Europe and Africa, on both a regional and a bilateral level. The last comprehensive migration initiative—launched against the background of the current crisis—culminated in the Valletta Summit of EU and African leaders on November 11–12, 2015. After difficult negotiations, delegations arrived at a declaration and action plan that present a balance of the two sides’ divergent interests. The documents deal with development, legal migration, and mobility but also with reductions in irregular migration and trafficking as well as returns and readmissions of irregular migrants. An increase of EU assistance in the shape of a new €1.8 billion ($2.0 billion) trust fund was a further part of the bargain.

In early 2016, the Valletta framework for cooperation on migration was still new and untested, but a number of EU governments, led by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, were already pushing for a more ambitious approach. In June, the European Commission responded by submitting a communication on establishing a new Partnership Framework.

The Partnership Framework

This document exudes a very different spirit from those adopted in Valletta. The EU’s interests are laid out in brutally clear terms: to reduce the number of deaths in the Mediterranean, to increase the rate of returns to countries of origin and transit, and to enable migrants and refugees to stay close to home and avoid dangerous journeys. The union and member states would pool instruments, tools, and leverage to reach comprehensive migration partnerships (known as compacts) with third countries. All the EU’s policies, including trade, assistance, education, and research, would be deployed to mobilize maximum leverage, which would include positive as well as negative incentives.

The commission mentions the desirability of creating legal pathways for migration only in very general terms. Once again, financial assistance is envisaged as the main positive incentive.

Apart from Jordan and Lebanon, with which similar compacts were already in the making, the commission identified five African countries—Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal—with which the EU should agree on migration partnerships as a matter of priority. This selection aimed at a mix of countries of origin and of transit, but probably also at a combination of low-hanging fruit with which rapid progress could be expected and hard cases with which it could not. Some important actors on migration, such as Eritrea and Sudan, were omitted, as the relevant governments do not at present appear suited for any kind of partnership.

The communication was not well received by NGOs, which criticized the document’s heavy emphasis on deterrence, returns, and conditionality; its insufficient concern for protection and human rights; and its subordination of development policy to migration management.

Yet the European Council highlighted precisely these points when it endorsed the partnership concept in June 2016. Cooperation on readmissions and returns would be the key test of the partnership, and all the EU’s policies, instruments, and tools would be deployed to create and apply the necessary leverage.

A Flawed and Incomplete Approach

The European Council has charged the EU’s foreign policy high representative with leading the implementation of the new initiative. It thereby handed Federica Mogherini and the European External Action Service (EEAS) an extremely important and difficult task. How she does in this regard will to a considerable extent determine her overall record. To rise to this challenge, the EEAS would need significantly greater resources and expertise and would have to further develop its cooperation with the European Commission and the member states.

However, the conceptual flaws of the Partnership Framework will be an even greater obstacle to achieving results. In devising the concept, EU leaders were driven by increasing opposition to immigration in broad segments of the population, the rise of rightist populist parties, and a fear among mainstream politicians and EU institutions of being swept away by growing centrifugal forces. As a result, leaders paid insufficient attention to the fact that the notion of partnership requires a balance of the interests of both sides. Particularly, four aspects of the approach appear problematic.

A Mismatch Between Expectations and Incentives

The European Council expects to see significant reductions in the arrivals of irregular migrants and increases in returns by December 2016, which requires a high degree of immediate cooperation from partners. The counterpart is an offer of financial support. The commission envisages mobilizing €8 billion ($8.7 billion) in support of the partnerships by 2020. However, this will be accomplished primarily by redirecting existing development funds. So rather than making additional commitments, the EU would just make parts of existing funding conditional on cooperation on migration.

Potentially more significant is the proposed establishment of an External Investment Plan designed to address the root causes of migration. Modeled on the European Commission’s Investment Plan for Europe (known as the Juncker plan after the commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker), the proposal aims at using about €4 billion ($4.4 billion) from the EU budget and a similar amount from member states as guarantees to mobilize private investment of up to €62 billion ($66 billion).

Whether the Juncker plan actually results in significant additional investment in Europe is controversial. And whether such a scheme would work in the much tougher investment conditions of Africa is entirely unclear. While the emphasis on investment does seem a useful complement to traditional EU development policy, the scheme appears so uncertain that African partners would need great faith in the EU to consider the plan much of a carrot.

As Carnegie Europe’s Pierre Vimont has pointed out, the commission’s approach does not take into account the fundamental differences between European and African attitudes to migration. The economic case is simple: as remittances amount to three or four times the overall amount of development assistance, most African countries consider emigration a vital source of income. Given the high levels of unemployment in Africa, migration also offers a safety valve, as many young people who could otherwise pose a threat to domestic stability leave the country. Aware of the great reluctance in most EU capitals to commit to greater legal migration, the commission pays only lip service to the interest of African partners in opening additional legal pathways to migration.

Increasing returns of irregular migrants is certainly a legitimate objective, but in many countries of origin, arrangements for returns are controversial and come at a considerable political cost. And often, the reasons for the low numbers of returns lie not with third countries but with slow procedures and administrative shortcomings in the EU.

The impression of one side imposing its agenda is reinforced by the EU document’s frequent references to the deployment of negative incentives should the other side fail to cooperate on returns. Of course, negative conditionality is part of many negotiations, but the EU is usually not very adept at playing this game, and waving a stick at the start of a demanding process hardly seems a promising strategy to mobilize the necessary goodwill and mutual trust.

Subordination of Other Instruments and Policies

The partnership framework and, even more so, the European Council conclusions that endorsed this concept claim that all EU policies and instruments will be deployed to achieve maximum leverage to achieve cooperation on returns. This testifies to the high priority the EU currently attaches to managing migration, but it lacks plausibility. The EU has and will always have a plurality of interests vis-à-vis African countries. Setting priorities among these is necessary, but a simplistic subordination of everything to one short-term objective is not a realistic option.

Although there is a case for greater alignment between development policy and foreign policy, leveraging large amounts of assistance to obtain cooperation on migration control could negate development policy’s own long-standing policy objectives, which are geared mainly toward the reduction of poverty.

Trade policy, similarly, reflects first the EU’s economic interests but also—particularly regarding Africa—developmental objectives. Using trade arrangements to achieve concessions on returns would run into strong resistance on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The same is true of the other policy areas mentioned as parts of the package, ranging from education, research, and energy to the environment and climate change. Cooperation in these areas is in the interests of both sides and should not be considered a bargaining chip.

Tensions Between National and Collective EU Action

Many member states have bilateral arrangements with African countries on migration. Spain’s cooperation with West African countries, for instance, is generally considered particularly effective in bringing down a high level of irregular migration to manageable proportions. The partnership concept rightly emphasizes that effective coordination between member states and EU institutions will be vital to achieving progress. It suggests new coordination mechanisms with the capitals focused on the offices of prime ministers as well as enhanced cooperation on the ground, including through the deployment of liaison officers. The focus on synergies between national and EU-level action is one of the strong points of the concept.

It is not evident, however, that individual member states will always see a great deal of added value in a collective EU approach. When it comes to African partner countries, member states have sources of influence and targeted leverage not available to the EU. They can operate more rapidly, with greater flexibility and less visibility. Even before the launch of the Partnership Framework, returns had significantly increased over the past year.

Nor is it evident that the interests of an EU member state that enjoys a special relationship with a particular third country are always in sync with the interests of the whole EU. Traditionally, such member states have often attempted to keep the others out. From the perspectives of individual European capitals, EU initiatives might easily get in the way of national efforts. They could also drive up costs. The €6 billion ($6.5 billion) promised by the EU in the EU-Turkey agreement has certainly whetted the appetite of many potential EU partners. At the moment, it seems that a number of member states including Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands give strong backing to the efforts of the commission and the EEAS, while a number of other member states appear to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

A Lack of Focus on Protection

The commission paper on the migration partnerships reiterates the EU’s commitment to humanitarian and human rights obligations. But only one paragraph in eighteen pages is devoted to helping displaced persons in need of international protection. This neglects the fact that according to figures of the UN refugee agency, of the 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world, 29 percent are hosted in Africa and only 6 percent in Europe.

The almost exclusive emphasis on reducing arrivals of migrants and enabling returns means that reaching Europe also becomes difficult for refugees in genuine need of protection. The EU’s preference that refugees “stay close to home and avoid . . . taking dangerous journeys” is understandable, but it is probably not a solution for everyone. Among experts, there is widespread agreement on the need for substantive resettlement programs, but in the current political environment, few countries are ready to commit to such initiatives.

There is also a need to ensure that the migration partnerships with priority partners—not all of which are paragons of the rule of law—include appropriate safeguards that ensure respect for human rights and the necessary protection mechanisms for refugees and vulnerable migrants.

Toward a More Pragmatic Approach

On October 18, the European Commission submitted its first progress report on the Partnership Framework. Barely four months after the initiative was launched, not a lot of progress could be expected. But the report is interesting insofar as it points to a certain evolution in the concept of the partnerships.

In setting out its approach to individual countries, the commission displays a good deal of pragmatism. There is no single template but a readiness to tailor the approach to the specific situation on the ground. The overall philosophy appears to be “whatever works.” For instance, whereas the EU aims for a common readmission agreement with Nigeria, several such agreements with individual member states are envisaged for Senegal. The notion of negative incentives is no longer highlighted. And most importantly, even the understanding of the nature of the compacts seems to have evolved. These are now defined as a “political framework for continued and operational cooperation” that no longer seems to require formal agreement between the two sides. This could be a sign that the commission is recognizing that the original concept is unworkable.

At the same time, there appears to be a certain disconnect between the stern messages and high ambitions conceived in Brussels and the realistic policies pursued on the ground. It is quite possible that this more flexible approach will over time deliver results, particularly in countries where the EU already enjoys considerable influence. But it will in all likelihood not satisfy the urgent expectations of the European Council.

Filling in the Gaps

The EU’s migration partnership concept certainly has merits. It recognizes that the migration challenge can be managed only through cooperation with African countries, and it sensitizes African partners to the urgency of the issue in Europe. It also promises to step up coordination between member states and the EU institutions. Finally, the concept of partnerships with individual African countries is convincing, as it allows a flexible approach tailored to specific local situations.

However, conceived in a situation of political emergency in the EU, the approach focuses almost exclusively on keeping people out and sending them back. The financial incentives suggested are hardly generous or credible enough to have the desired impact. Moreover, the concept fails to take sufficiently into account the concerns and interests of governments on the other side of the Mediterranean and the needs of the people who are the subject of this policy.

To fill in these gaps, the EU should upgrade the financial dimension of the concept. It should also make concrete and credible offers for enhanced pathways for legal migration, such as temporary work, educational visas, scholarships, and visa facilitation. And it should place a stronger focus on the protection of vulnerable people, by ensuring that these concerns are mainstreamed into the partnerships and by offering humanitarian visas and programs for the resettlement of refugees.

It would make sense to put much more emphasis on programs for the assisted voluntary return and reintegration of migrants, an area in which the International Organization for Migration has considerable experience. If such programs are well designed and implemented, they can take much of the trauma out of the return process and turn it into a success story for all stakeholders.

The point would be to address the Catch-22 problem at the heart of the migration challenge. Improved legal pathways for migrants and resettlement programs for refugees appear the most promising approach to reducing the numbers of irregular migrants. However, as long as irregular entries remain high, governments will be reluctant to commit to such policies. Effective arrangements for returns and readmission are therefore an essential part of the bargain, but they are only one element of a comprehensive strategy for sustainable migration management. A migration partnership concept rebalanced along these lines would not only be in the interests of countries of origin and transit as well as receiving states but would also pay due regard to the rights and humanitarian needs of the people concerned.