As European and African leaders gather in Abidjan, tensions over migration continue to simmer. Since 2015, the EU has developed a range of initiatives aimed at reducing migrant arrivals from Africa. The most controversial of these has been the Migration Partnership Framework (MPF). With its emphasis on keeping people out and sending them back, its bilateral and transactional approach to engagement with African partners, and its explicit use of positive and negative incentives, the MPF epitomises the most disturbing trends in EU migration policy.
The MPF is intended to mobilise all the instruments, resources and influence of the EU and Member States to get partner countries to cooperate in reducing migration flows. However, its basic premise is problematic. Not only does it seek to subordinate other areas of EU external action – e.g. trade, education, security – to short term migration goals. It is also based on two flawed assumptions: that irregular migration can be stemmed through development projects, and that the cooperation of African countries can be bought through comparatively modest increases in development investment.
Given these flawed assumptions, it is unsurprising that the MPF has not produced the desired results in its priority partner countries – Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. While the issue of returns has been given highest priority within the MPF, with European leaders pushing for African partners to take back more irregular migrants, there has been almost no progress in this area. It appears the EU miscalculated the extent of its leverage and underestimated the political sensitivity of returns in partner countries. As Europe now moves towards negative ‘consequences’, this divisive issue is souring relations and undermining wider cooperation with some African partners.
Not only is the MPF not delivering on the EU’s returns agenda, the EU’s migration projects in MPF partner countries are of questionable value. These frequently do not comply with good development practice in terms of local ownership, alignment and transparency; they skew development priorities, for example by focusing on populations most likely to migrate rather than most in need; their implementation has been slow; and they are not always in line with EU human rights values. Moreover, in some cases the increased EU funding for migration has resulted in a proliferation of inexpert actors repackaging development projects as addressing migration.
Privately, many EU officials say that the MPF has added little value, but that political leaders continue to push for it to deliver results. This means that the MPF is creating negative side effects – diversion of development aid, cooperation with abusive regimes, souring of political relations – for no significant gain, even within the EU’s very limited conception of what those gains should be. It also raises questions about how well EU leaders understand the politics of migration in Africa.
Ethiopia is the most challenging migration partnership and reveals the weaknesses of the MPF approach. Despite the fact that Ethiopia has been a cooperative partner in broader EU-African dialogues on migration, that the country hosts almost one million refugees, and that comparatively few Ethiopians migrate irregularly to Europe, the EU has prioritised the issue of returns in its engagement with Ethiopia. Ethiopia has resisted cooperation on returns, while expressing frustration about the quality, timeliness and relevance of EU migration projects. The result has been a political impasse and souring of relations, with the EU moving to apply negative incentives. It seems the EU – desperate for short term ‘wins’ – has lost perspective in its engagement with this powerful African country that could be a constructive partner in addressing the long-term challenge of migration.
This throws up questions about what the MPF means for EU-Africa relations. Although framed as a ‘partnership’ the MPF focuses heavily on EU priorities, returns and borders, and gives minimal space for African interests in jobs, remittances and legal migration. Its focus on tightening borders runs counter to African ambitions for intra-continental free movement and trade. The MPF also represents a shift away from multilateral engagement with Africa on migration, to bilateral engagement with a few priority countries. Many African actors perceive it as undermining African unity and imposing European interests.
The MPF experience suggests that the EU needs a rethink on migration. This must begin with accepting that migration will continue and that Europe will increasingly need African labour. Given this, unsustainable approaches focused on punishing countries for not taking back a handful of people, or working with individual countries to tighten borders, make little sense.
The EU must focus on building genuine partnerships at national, regional and continental level to foster intra-African movement that supports economic growth; to ensure protection for refugees and vulnerable migrants; to move from short term development projects addressing ‘root causes’ to long term trade and investment policies that promote growth and jobs; and to allow both continents to benefit from large scale, safe and orderly African labour migration to Europe. While the most recent EC communication on the migration agenda suggests some limited concessions to African interests in relation to resettlement and legal migration, a more dramatic shift is required for the EU to build a long term, constructive partnership with Africa on migration.