The EU’s renewed priority given to cooperation with third countries on migration is a welcomed principle, and the EU’s effort to bring coherence and consistency across policy areas must be encouraged. But the new approaches as part of the implementation of the Valletta Action Plan and the EU Migration Compact for cooperation on migration with African countries are not perceived as balanced or as being conducted in a spirit of true partnership by all parties. This risks undermining the EU’s image as partner in the area of migration and development and may undermine principles of good donorship.
November 2016 marks one year since the Valletta Summit on Migration, at which European and African Heads of States signed a Declaration and an Action Plan with the aim to step-up joint action to address displacement, irregular migration and development. What has been achieved since then?
United we stand? The road to partnerships on migration with non-EU countries
The Summit was part of a series of European steps towards a deeper cooperation with African states on migration. Since then, the EU Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa (EU Trust Fund) has entered the implementation phase. The EU conducted at least 35 High Level Dialogues with partner countries before and after Valletta, and signed 4 joint statements with African states. In June 2016, the EU Commission presented its Communication on establishing a new Partnership framework with third countries under the European Agenda on Migration (EU Migration Compacts) and EU Member States endorsed a partnership model based on ‘effective incentives and adequate conditionality’ for better cooperation on return and readmission in priority pilot countries. With parallel developments of the EU-Turkey deal in response to the Syrian refugee situation, Europe’s external focus is predominantly about forging new deals and partnerships with non-EU countries to reduce the flow of irregular migrants and asylum seekers.
The idea of partnerships with third countries on migration is embedded in previous frameworks (Cotonou Agreement, Global Approach to Migration and Mobility, EU-Africa Declaration on Migration and Mobility and the Rabat and Khartoum processes). In theory, there is nothing controversial about it. The rationale is that cooperation will help save lives, dismantle migrant smuggling networks, prevent irregular migration and open up channels for legal migration and ultimately result in win-win solutions to address a common issue and prevent future crises.
Some of the new developments are welcomed, showcasing a deeper understanding of the complexity of migration. For example, tailored cooperation with each partner country based on different migration realities has brought about a much needed differentiation. Policies have also become more comprehensive and based on a long-term vision, which opens up opportunities. A good example of this is the new European External Investment Plan, which brings private sector investments as part of the solution.
The partnership approach: from rosy picture to reality check
There is a discrepancy between aspirations of the new partnership approach and the reality of how it is applied in practice. The EU partnership approach with Africa seems imbalanced and biased towards EU narratives and interests. This bears risks and puts at stake the trust between European and African partners and institutions – an element needed for effective cooperation.
There is an inherent imbalance in the migration topics covered, with a focus on return and readmission, predominantly in the EU’s interests, and a lack of prioritisation of other aspects such creating legal routes for migration. Not surprisingly, it is in the latter aspects where EU Member States have less progress to show one year after Valletta. Rather than broadening the cooperation on issues related to migration and development, the predominance of EU interests in this approach has led to a gradual narrowing of the agenda towards dealing with irregular flows and return by giving financial concessions.
Also, a number of partners start to conceive the EU as being overly coercive instead of applying a true partnership model. The implementation of the Valletta outcomes may have further reinforced this initial perception. The EU interest to re-introduce aspects that have been rejected by African states collectively in Valletta into bilateral agreements with individual countries (such as agreements on laissez-passer documents) may be discomforting to some partners.
There are questions emerging on how the EU can work better together with Africa’s regional organisations on the topic of migration. The question is how engagement between the two regions’ institutions could better complement the current mode of implementation through bilateral negotiations with governments. A more balanced approach and a (re-) building of trust with African organisations could also be in the long-term interest of Europe as such regional approaches “have an important role to play in promoting labour standards and reducing irregular movements”. They may be also an important stepping-stone and part of improving global governance on migration.
Quick-wins undermining approaches for longer-term development
The focus on quick wins and political expediency also risks undermining a long-term developmental approach. Although the discourse focuses on the need to have a long-term strategic approach to the deep-seated drivers of irregular migration and displacement, in reality there is still a crisis mode out of which Europe acts due to the influx of refugees on the continent.
Since Valletta much progress has been made with regards to actions under the pillar related to ‘addressing root causes’ of irregular migration and displacements. Yet, implementing agencies are under enormous pressure to identify projects, disburse, deliver and show results as quickly as possible as part of the EU Trust Fund and beyond. Yet projects under the EU Trust Fund are for the most part development projects focused on creating jobs or building resilience. These are all long-term endeavors in difficult contexts for which engagement over multiple years and a clear yet flexible long-term strategy is key. The political expectation that such quick actions would lead to display immediate results (be it in terms of development or flows of migrations) is however based on flawed assumptions.
For some of the projects it seems that the pressure by EU member states to act quick has led to relaxing usual procedures of quality control. It has meant that time for trust building and consultations and coordination with partners locally has been cut short. Though it may be too early to tell how this affects results, it can taint Europe’s image as a credible development aid provider and partner.
On the other hand, the procedure of contracting and starting implementation has been slower than expected (e.g. 57.3% projects contracted as of 27 September 2016 from the first pipeline of Horn of Africa projects, against 82% objective projected for the third quarter of 2016). Potential bottlenecks include political differences in Europe on which actions to fund, as well as the necessary expertise of involved EU implementation agencies and ministries acting as implementing partners. The problem may not be that these targets for contracting and disbursement may not be reached, but rather the challenge of defining short-term objectives without a longer-term strategic approach on migration, mobility and development in which they can fit.
Time for a more balanced approach to partnerships
The EU’s new approach of no longer looking at migration through the lens of development cooperation, but at development cooperation through the lens of migration (the EU’s so-called Copernican revolution in development cooperation), has put pressure on the core principles of development cooperation characterized by “openness, trust, and mutual respect and learning” (as stated in the Busan declaration).
It may also not be effective for longer-term engagement with partners. In the words of the European Court of Auditors “reluctance by partner countries to engage constructively with the EU in the migration domain” is partly explained by the “perception that some actions were primarily intended for the EU’s benefit.” These conclusions tell us that a different approach towards cooperation and partnership is warranted. As EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and European Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini stated during a speech at the UN Migration Summit: “We believe in partnerships. Solutions cannot be imposed, they can only be agreed together. Priorities are set together with each partner country.”
It is now time for the EU to practice what it preaches. The European Union can better address the migration situation with partners if trust is built and genuine cooperation is sought. This requires frank discussions on where mutual interests lie and where they diverge, as well as being open to different narratives that find more resonance with African partners. A re-balancing act towards investing in mutual processes with partners, moving away from the current predominant focus on getting results for the EU’s own objectives, will be crucial.
By Anne Laferrère and Anna Knoll (European Centre for Development Policy Management, ECDPM)
The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
This commentary was published initally on Afronline within an editorial project that associates VITA/Afronline with 25 African independent media.
Cover Photo: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images