A fresh look or just a new coat of paint? EU-cooperation with third countries of origin and transit in EU’s migration and asylum policy

The European Commission’s promise to renew its cooperation with refugees’ countries of origin and transit should be critically assessed in the light of the latest proposals: Can these really represent a change of paradigm with regard to the long criticized one-sided security bias, a growing externalization of border controls and imposed conditionalities on third countries? Or do they rather widen existing power-gaps, undermine legal safeguards and monitoring human rights for migrants and refugees? This contribution highlights some of the most critical factors scholars should be aware of.

Cooperation with third countries of origin and transit in EU’s migration and asylum policy: A(nother) “fresh look”?

The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, proposed by the European Commission in late September 2020 in order to realign the Union‘s migration and asylum policies, dedicates a special chapter to the cooperation with third countries of origin and transit. In this New Pact, the Commission states that “[t]he EU needs to take a fresh look at its priorities, first in terms of the place of migration in its external relations and other policies, and then in terms of what this means for our overall relations with specific partners. In comprehensive partnerships, migration should be built in as a core issue, based on an assessment of the interests of the EU and partner countries.” The claim that this is a fresh start or that a fresh look is needed in the EU’s migration policies is repeated and reiterated all over the New Pact, but not all the proposed sub-policies can hold this promise.

Researchers should, therefore, closely examine whether the Commission’s focus on the external dimension of migration truly represents a real change in content, strategy and regional application or if it is simply a rehashing of the well-known Global Approach on Migration (GAM, COM(2007) 247), its 2011 update, the Global Approach on Migration and Mobility (GAMM, COM(2011) 743 final) and the 2015 European Agenda on Migration.

At least on paper, the Global Approach at first glance looked plausible and comprehensive: It addressed both regular and irregular migration, included the need to combat smuggling and trafficking while also strengthening refugee protection and migrant rights and underlining the positive impact migration can have on development. However, the European Agenda on Migration and the subsequent Partnership Framework on Migration already showed clear shifts towards a stronger security bias and the prevention of irregular migration. The resulting framework on a regional and bilateral level covered a broad and intensifying series of dialogue initiatives, action plans, road maps, mobility and migration partnerships, visa agreement and return partnerships as well as financial programs and funds with third states.

Contested partnerships

Researchers have repeatedly criticized the schemes that resulted out of this approach on the ground, with such criticism focusing mainly on four central topics: Firstly, they have questioned the reliability and the guarantees of human rights standards particularly of dubious partners from authoritarian regimes (e.g. in the case of the EU-Turkey statement) or failed states (e.g. the cooperation with Libya), criticizing, too, that monitoring efforts for the guarantee of refugee rights standards are lacking.

Secondly, a growing focus of these – often informal, non-binding – “statements” that come along with EU trust funds is being laid on border management, combating human smuggling, and the facilitation of readmissions and returns. This fosters the securitization of migration policy at the expense of all other objectives of migration policies on the agenda, such as, for instance, opening up legal pathways both for humanitarian and work permit migration, and guaranteeing refugee protection. These issues have become even more urgent for many refugees and migrants who, even if eligible for resettlement or family reunification, ended up “stuck” at closed borders or with their visa expired due to the pandemic.

Thirdly, migration control is continuously being externalized: from the EU to the neighboring states and from there towards more distant transit states, making mobility even within regions outside the EU increasingly difficult.

Finally, the tendency to unilaterally impose more conditionalities on third countries has been put under great scrutiny. Too little attention has been paid to the position of the third states themselves, for which readmission of migrants is scarcely a priority. Instead of pursuing self-proclaimed win-win projects between the EU and third countries, more returns are “rewarded” with more cooperation or “punished” with the imposition of conditionalities for development cooperation. Instead of establishing partnerships on an equal footing, the EU has in many cases implemented a “carrot and stick” policy.

“Fresh look” or simply a “new coat of paint”?

Does the “fresh look” on EU’s migration policy towards third countries of origin and transit now indeed imply new objectives and instruments? Can the mentioned shortcomings be overcome by looking at them through a new lens and can this opportunity be leveraged to turn migration partnerships into win-win-alliances? Or do we run the risk of retreading the same, or even worsen paths to the same mistakes, protection gaps and a notorious power imbalance in negotiations with countries of origin and transit?

A closer look at the objectives, strategies, instruments and main target regions is needed, as well as their promise of a “change of paradigm”. With regard to the objectives, as in 2005 and 2011, the Commission again repeats the importance of the following objectives in its New Pact: “[a]dressing the root causes of irregular migration, combatting migrant smuggling, helping refugees residing in third countries and supporting well-managed legal migration.” They are supplemented by goals such as “to strengthen migration governance and management,” and “help partner countries manage irregular migration, forced displacement and combat migrant smuggling networks.“ Thus, at least the rhetoric of the GAM(M) is being reused, but it will have to prove its functioning when applied in negotiations with third countries.

With regard to strategies, according to the Commission, cooperation with third countries should be channeled into “mutually beneficial,” “comprehensive, balanced and tailor-made partnerships.” Once again, it is underlined that these tailor-made partnerships should be flexible enough to change over time, and that they should include the different policies mentioned above.

Looking at the suggested instruments, pursuing a “root causes approach” should be examined more closely. In the past, this approach has also been deployed with the aim of “using trade and investment policies at the service of containment, or as deterrence tools for preventing refugees from reaching the EU.” With regard to legal routes, community and private resettlement are encouraged, along with the idea of developing what the Pact calls “Talent Partnerships“. The latter, obviously inspired by the Global Compact on Migration between the EU, its member states, and countries of origin and transit could be regarded as a novel incentive. Nevertheless, in principle, they fall under the discretion of the member states – and they will most certainly only be established in a limited number of third countries. In all other areas, neither the full use of external policies (including the Common Security and Defense Policy), nor the principle of conditionality of development cooperation or the focus on returns are new. Thus, the Commission bluntly states that migration “is systematically factored in as a priority” in programming its external policy instruments, and that “assistance will be targeted as needed to those countries with a significant migration dimension.” Surprisingly unflattering, it also warns that although visa policy can serve as a positive incentive in migration policy, the 2019 EU-Visa Code will be used “to incentivize and improve cooperation to facilitate return and readmission.”

Currently, under the Portuguese Presidency, the EU is renegotiating the (partly dysfunctional) EU-Turkey statement. It is working on a new proposal on financing the support for Syrian refugees in host countries, like Lebanon and Jordan, through instruments like the EU Regional Trust Fund. At the same time, it is elaborating on existing and further partnerships – often under the name of “joint declarations” – with countries of origin and/or transit particularly in (North) Africa, the Western Balkans, Latin America and Asia along the Silk Route, including Afghanistan.

It should be carefully explored in each case if these renewed or newly developed partnerships can, this time, avoid the risk of cooperating with unreliable partners, of promoting securitization and returns at the expense of more comprehensive migration policies. It should be cautiously examined whether such cooperation also opens up incentives such as humanitarian and other legal pathways (be it through the new Talent Partnerships or otherwise). These might be very useful in ensuring negotiations with the partners at eye level. Cooperation that unilaterally focuses on readmission and reintegration, as García Andrade rightly remarks in her post on the Odysseus Network blog about the EU’s relationship with Afghanistan, would continue to widen existing power-gaps and can even lead to a lack of legal safeguards and monitoring human rights for migrants and refugees.

Putting lipstick on a pig? Or even less?

Some 15 years ago, Steve Peers named the then new EU asylum proposals “lipstick on a pig.” Certainly, the Commission’s narrative of presenting “a fresh look” at the EU’s cooperation with third countries on migration and asylum also cannot hide the fact that its proposals rather tend to reproduce the EU’s failures of unilateralism, one-sided migration policies.

They run the risk of exposing its hypocrisy to its potential partners, thus undermining the EU’s credibility, its partners’ trust and therefore possibly also the effective implementation of the negotiated (and often deliberately informal) agreements. A “fresh look” on cooperation with third countries in migration policy – as it is actually claimed in the text of the New Pact – should shed light on root causes and be based on a realistic assessment of refugees’ and migrants’ situation on the ground instead of restricting to repatriation as a short-term solution. It should also take a better look at and take a more profound approach to working with both the partners and the regional actors. Scholars should closely observe whether the Commission’s promises to learn from the past and to renew its vision can be fulfilled.

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