As the Member States’ reaction to the Pact – hundreds if not thousands of requests for clarification and a redrawing of battle-lines in the two old conflicts East v West and South v North – demonstrates, any agreement on the future of asylum in Europe will be a long time coming. One element bucks the trend, with rapid consensus, progress and agreements reached – unsurprisingly it is that old favourite: “the external dimension”.

Demonstrating that it is often easier to agree on what others should do than on what we should do, it appears that the political agreement that will be the culmination of the German EU Presidency will focus strongly on external “cooperation”. Proposals under discussion involve familiar and novel elements.

What does not change

There are three truths underlying the external part of asylum and migration policies: first, Europe’s key objectives remain increasing readmissions and prevention of arrivals in Europe (often through prevention or disruption of departures elsewhere). For shorthand, this can be termed the migration control agenda. It should be noted that it is always presented as targeting “economic” migrants but it has a significant negative impact on refugees and others entitled to international protection. “Irregular” movement includes many people who need protection.

Second, it is incontestable that this agenda is unwelcome in countries of origin and transit. This is an understatement: it is often strongly opposed, by governments and civil society alike (on the latter, see the analyses from African civil society representatives published by ECRE. The different perspective derives from a criticism of the ahistorical approach of those who blindly refuse to acknowledge why people might migrate in a context of extreme global inequality and the historical reasons for it.

Third, the opposition is not just confined to the “others”: there are policy-makers, politicians, external affairs specialists and practitioners in Europe or working elsewhere for Europe, who remain sceptical about the value of this agenda, sometimes for normative reasons, sometimes just because they see the extent to which it undermines other objectives (which may themselves be highly questionable and opposed by partner countries – external affairs is hardly devoid of European interest-driven policies). Compared to external dimension of migration policy, external policies such as diplomacy, trade, development and security, have their own legal bases in the Treaties; different objectives; different sets of guiding principles; and are managed by different institutions.

The dilemma at the heart of the external dimension

This state of affairs creates the abiding dilemma at the heart of the external dimension: it is not welcomed so – for all the talk of partnership and mutual interest – it has to be imposed. Partners usually have to be coerced or pressured into accepting it. In fact, so unpalatable is this agenda, that offering incentives does not really help because they are usually insufficient to outweigh the negative consequences (an exception to be closely watched is visa cooperation).

At the same time, strategies need to be deployed to get European dissenters on board. These strategies can be loosely classified as subsuming or capturing. If they don’t work, a parallel foreign policy emerges. All these approaches are currently on display.

Subsuming all under a Comprehensive Approach

Subsuming involves creating an overriding framework within which all other external policies would sit, subordinate to migration control objectives. This was the purpose of the failed Partnership Framework and is attempted now with the concept of “Comprehensive Approach”, set out in the Regulation on asylum and migration management (RAMM), that is part of the Pact. It is also likely to be central to the afore-mentioned political agreement under the German Presidency. Indeed, drafts circulating even talk about creating a new “operational structure” sitting above all external policies, which would “identify and assign” tasks to all the relevant institutions. The common approach, i.e. the agenda determined by interior affairs policy-makers, should be delivered by all, including the external affairs institutions.

The approach is likely to fail because these policies have their own dynamic, including identifying priorities for partner countries, which is already well underway. Unsurprisingly, migration barely features – partly because of the frustrating principle of deciding priorities in cooperation WITH the partner countries. Nonetheless, the RAMM (Article 3) attempts to provide a legal basis for the comprehensive approach and for an expanded role of DG Home. ECRE thus proposes both amending the Regulation and rewording the political agreement.

Capturing the fort

If subsuming external policy doesn’t work, the strategy of capture can be used. This is an effort to use external affairs resources to support the migration control agenda. Again, this strategy is at the heart of current debate on external policies. The NDICI, the mega-instrument (funding programme) for EU external affairs spending is at the heart of the battle. Proposals involve earmarking a large chunk of funding for migration-related objectives and wider conditionality on all funding, such that – in theory – funding for the determined country priorities, say healthcare or governance, would not be provided if migration-related objectives (such as readmission) were not implemented.

A parallel foreign policy?

There is still a certain amount of resistance to policy capture, so a third strategy evolves and is likely to prevail here: creation of a parallel foreign policy, using the external dimension of migration policy. The proposals to increase external dimension funding under AMIF and the increased budget and activities of the EU’s internal agencies (EASO and Frontex) in external issues, show how this works. ECRE argued for a strict limit on AMIF external dimension funding and a clear, exhaustive list of eligible activities, in order that it does not facilitate mission creep.

Partnerships with up to 25 countries are already under development. These partnerships have been described as “win-win”, however this seems to be a new meaning of the term, one that involves a double win for Europe and none for the partner (a 2:0 victory). Europe’s win is increasing readmissions. Many of the elements that partner countries would like to see are off the table, including regularisation or mobility – there is a welcome discussion among Member States on legal migration but the offer is also highly limited, and in all the existing frameworks, GAMM and Valletta etc, mobility is the missing piece. Thus, the “win” for the partner country is funding, but funding tied to Europe’s agenda, such as funding for prevention of departures.

The renewed Joint Way Forward between the EU and Afghanistan demonstrates the approach to expect. A leaked document shows that the renewal of JWF has not integrated points sought by the Afghan government (or those suggested by Diaspora and wider civil society). Thus, it is a joint way but with one partner walking the path reluctantly.

The comprehensive approach partnership approach

The language of “partnership” itself warrants some reflection. Under the former and current Commission, regular statements are made that partnership is an improvement welcomed by the partner countries because it moves away from the traditional, condescending approach off development. These statements are themselves rather condescending, overlooking the efforts to move away from the provision of “charity” and towards an approach based on “local ownership” (itself a mantra repeated ad nauseum), which characterises the international cooperation sector and is embodied in the principles developed, from Busan to Paris to DAC to the SDGs, etc. Of course, in practice, external cooperation and development in particular may not escape their neo-colonial or condescending heritage but tend to be more balanced than the partnerships proposed by those whose primary concern is to prevent migration to Europe – unsurprisingly.

Difficult partners

These partnerships can place countries in a difficult situation: if they accept provision on readmission or prevention of departure in order to appease Europe they risk public opposition (see the Gambia or Mali) or at least they end up integrating into their cooperation with Europe measures that are simply not national priorities and not in their national interest (see Afghanistan and many others).

There are of course governments that are not concerned about public opinion and they are able to take advantage of partnerships – to identify and punish opponents (Sudan) or to build up repressive state security apparatus (Egypt). In a high-level conference held this week, it was conceded that Europe relies on “despots” in its external cooperation on migration. Deals are often unsavoury and lead to human rights violations (this latter part was not conceded). The real “deal” behind a partnership is often not made explicit, as is the case with the EU-Turkey deal, where the Statement is a sort of fig leaf. The unstated agreement is more likely to be along the lines of: “You will prevent departures and we will not criticize or stop funding when you imprison (or kill) dissidents”, as an entirely hypothetical example.

Often there is a middle ground, where countries take advantage in a light way of Europe’s panic – accepting the funding and using it to meet their own objectives, or accepting what Europe offers and then passively resist cooperating on elements that they object to. This is a typical strategy deployed when it is not possible to resist the imposition of an agenda – and indeed one that is not unfamiliar to many European countries.

Better to have a rival than be subsumed?

If these new “comprehensive partnerships” operate in parallel to external policy rather than subsuming it, it is preferable, in that other, more balanced external policies might still be in place. Indeed, it is already common to hear diplomats or development policy officials say that the vast majority of the EU’s work in country X is not about return or preventing migration. Nonetheless, there are multiple risks, running from generating more displacement from the country (note the increasing number of asylum seekers from Turkey in Europe) to undermining essential local mobility (see another stellar report from Clingendael on Niger). Or poisoning the diplomatic relationship with the country (dangerous if – for instance – you want to engage in urgent conflict resolution efforts to end violence and the displacement that follows Senegal, Ethiopia, Mali, etc). And in parallel efforts certainly exacerbate the longstanding, damaging coherence problem in EU external affairs.

Alternatives, always with the alternatives

The alternatives to this over-reliance on external cooperation lie at the heart of efforts to make asylum function in Europe and to use external policy for more principled purposes, as promoted by ECRE and many others. There are also actions to be taken right now to combat current efforts to subsume or capture external affairs.

First, the effort to subsume external policies into a migration control agenda should be resisted through pushing back on the political agreement being developed by the Presidency but more importantly, amendments to the legislative proposals and especially the RAMM.

Second, if external policies are not subsumed then capture also needs to be resisted. This means limiting the amount of external funding that is allocated to migration control objectives and developing alternative, positive asylum and migration activities that would fit into whatever is earmarked (e.g. durable solutions – with a focus on local integration and resettlement; building up asylum systems elsewhere; support to mobility to Europe and within other regions; focus on the human rights of all people on the move etc). Efforts to shoehorn European priorities into the agreement to replacement Cotonou and future EU-Africa Strategy are underway. Insofar as asylum and migration are included, they should include positive approaches and activities that are of interest to both sides, not just Europe’s migration control agenda.  Above all, it involves resisting the attachment of migration control conditionality on to all funding. Proper scrutiny of all the migration related funding is also necessary, especially when senior political figures acknowledge that it is going in the pockets of despots.

Third, if this agenda is to run as a parallel foreign policy, then it needs to be both transparent and contained. Parliament and the Ombudsman (and eventually the Court of Auditors) need to use the powers they have to get access to, scrutinise and adjust the partnerships that are under development. If these partnerships are win-win, with benefits to both sides, why are they negotiated in secrecy? If there is nothing dodgy going on, why are they designed to be non-justiciable? If policies, proposals or partnership have wide implications, why are they not going into interservice consultation? Second, the “external dimension” funding under AMIF needs to be reduced and to be clearly defined. The external dimension activities of Frontex and EASO need closer attention, again from oversight and accountability bodies, as well as the co-legislators, and the courts where relevant (or possible). This is particularly important because of the opportunity costs: if AMIF funding and the human resources of the Commission and the Agencies are deployed in external dimension that draws directly from the resources that should be used for asylum in Europe.

For other countries, the partners, they should be ready for another round of elaborate misrepresentation of “partnership”, and efforts to pressure them into reluctantly accepting new arrangements. There continues to be strong agreement within Europe that this is essential to the future of Europe’s asylum and migration policies, however much it may not be number one priority elsewhere.

Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)

Photo: ECRE

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.