The Southern Mediterranean Countries: Target and Motor of EU External Migration Policies

Sandra Lavenex

Professor of European and International Politics, University of Geneva and Visiting
Professor, College of Europe

The Southern Mediterranean neighbours are usually seen as a target of EU migration policies. This is because of their geographical situation on the major transit routes,  and because many migrants and asylum seekers originate from these countries.  Partly due to the now three decades of EU external migration policy, the Maghreb and  Mashreq countries have seen a rapid transformation from being countries of origin and transit for migrants to being destination countries themselves. To designate these countries only as targets would however be short-sighted. A look back onto the  evolution of now three decades EU external migration policy towards the Southern  Mediterranean countries highlights that developments in the region have very much shaped EU policy. 

The responses that migration experts from these countries give to the EMM5-  EuroMeSCO survey attest very well this changed reality, and the extent to which these experts perceive the migration policy challenges in their country in response to both  EU priorities and their own needs. This short contribution reflects on the results of the  survey in the light of the influence that cooperation with the Southern Mediterranean  countries has had on the evolving EU external migration policies and the various  instruments that have been put into place to structure the cooperation (summarized  in the table below). In doing so, the article distinguishes three main phases in the  EU’s external migration policies: the period from the early 1990s until the launch of  the Global Approach to Migration in 2005, then the phase up to the revamped Global  Approach to Migration and Mobility in 2011, and finally the latest period including the  crisis of the Common European Asylum System and the adoption of the New Pact on  Migration and Asylum in 2020. 

The initial impetus: migration control and readmission 

The external dimension of EU migration policies was officially embraced with the  Tampere European Council in 1999. However, EU-Mediterranean relations addressed  migration policy well before. A look at the association agreements concluded with  the southern neighbours from 1992 onwards (starting with Lebanon) shows that  the EU systematically included provisions on migration control cooperation in  these overarching agreements already well before the development of an external  competence on the matter. Thus, the 1992 Agreement with Lebanon already  provided for the launch of a dialogue on migration, including irregular migration, and  cooperation on readmission. The Agreements concluded with Tunisia (1995) and  Morocco (1996) also included a dialogue covering migration control but excluded  cooperation on readmission and irregular migration. In contrast, they contain a clause  on cooperation on migration and development and on the return of migrants. The  1997 agreement with Jordan and the 2002 agreement with Algeria finally are the most  comprehensive and include all of these provisions (see Table 1 below and Lavenex,  Lutz and Hoffmeyer-Zlotnik 2021). 

The granting of an EU exclusive competence for the negotiation of readmission  agreements in 1999 reinforced the focus on migration control and readmission  (Coleman 1999). In 2000, the EU received the mandate to negotiate a readmission  agreement with Morocco, and later also with other countries. The only Mediterranean  country which has so far signed a readmission agreement with the EU however is  Jordan (see Table 1). The main point of contention over the conclusion of readmission  agreements is the EU’s enduring insistence on an obligation to take back also nonnationals  of the signatory parties staying irregularly in the other party. Not only has  such an obligation no basis in international law, it is also uniquely in the interest of the  EU and would have potentially very costly implications for the Southern Mediterranean  countries (Carrera et al. 2013).

Against this background the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCO survey provide  interesting insights into the contested issue of readmission. Given the absence of  a formal EU readmission agreement with all but one country it is not surprising that  most experts indicate having no opinion regarding their “assessment of current  cooperation on return and readmission with EU countries” (Q15), even if bilateral  readmission agreements with individual EU countries exist. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

Yet the responses show that Maghreb respondents are clearly more critical of this  cooperation (24% having a very low and 16% a low opinion) than Mashreq respondents  (only 7% indicating a very low and 18% a low opinion). Conversely, 39% of Mashreq  respondents have a positive opinion compared to 14% of Maghreb respondents. A  similar pattern can be observed in the answers to the question whether respondents  consider “the full implementation of existing bilateral agreements on readmission and  the negotiations of new ones” as an avenue to “improve cooperation on return and reintegration” (Q18), which 56% of Mashrek respondents answer positively versus  37% of Maghreb respondents. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

This difference is possibly linked to the fact that the only existing formal EU  readmission agreement in the region so-far is that with Jordan, a Mashreq country.  Another possible explanation which also affects other questions in the survey is the  profile of respondents: the majority of Mashreq respondents are public officials who  are more likely to utter response that are perceived as politically desirable than the  civil society and academic experts who form the majority of Maghreb respondents. 

The turn towards partnership 

Difficulties with the negotiation of readmission agreements, enduring migration  pressure in particular via the western Mediterranean route, and the launch of the  European Neighbourhood Policy in 2005 inspired a reconsideration of the one-sided  focus on irregular migration and readmission and today the – enduring – EU interest  in readmission co-exists with other priorities in external migration cooperation.  The tipping point to a policy reform was the escalation at the borders towards the  Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in 2005. Media and NGO reports of Spanish  and Moroccan authorities brutally deterring irregular migrants from climbing over  the fences and later deporting them as well as other migrants and refugees to the  Moroccan desert acted as an external shock and provoked a re-thinking of the  repressive focus of prevailing external migration policies (Lavenex and Nellen-Stucky  2011). The reorientation came with the adoption of the “Global Approach to Migration” (GAM, see COM(2007) 247) which stipulated a three-pronged approach including the  fight against irregular migration, development cooperation and the promotion of  legal migration as part of a comprehensive external migration policy. 

The results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCO survey underscore partner countries’ strong  interest in the legal migration and development cooperation aspects of the GAM. When  asked “in which domains should cooperation with the EU be improved in priority” (Q20)  the majority of respondents call for legal pathways to economic migration including  “circular schemes of labour mobility”, “international skill/diploma recognition” while  “preventing ‘brain drain’ and labour market distortions” (each receiving 18% of votes). 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

Theoretically, these priorities should have materialized under the EU’s “global  approach” – in particular also after its reform in 2011 which launched “Global  Approach to Migration and Mobility” (GAMM, see COM (2011)743). This reform  expanded the conclusion of so-called Mobility Partnerships that had previously  been offered to a few Eastern European countries and Cape Verde to the Southern  Mediterranean neighbours. As process-oriented fora for bilateral discussions and cooperation between the EU, interested EU member states and selected ENP  countries, the Mobility Partnerships were thought as promising vehicles for realizing  the various objectives of the GAMM. To date, three Southern Mediterranean Countries  have concluded Mobility Partnerships: Morocco (2013), Jordan and Tunisia (2014).  Notwithstanding the interest in economic migration highlighted in the survey projects  realized under the Mobility Partnerships fall short of introducing new legal pathways.  On the contrary, they concentrate on measures receiving less support in the EMM5-  EuroMeSCO survey, such as pre-departure training or labour market information  sharing (see Q20) (Reslow 2018). 

The challenge of refugee protection  Apart from widening the scope for Mobility Partnerships to the Mediterranean  countries, the GAMM adopted in 2011 also reflected new priorities in the region. This  concerns first and foremost the addition of refugee policy as a fourth element of  the global approach next to cooperation on irregular migration, legal migration and  development. If the GAM was a response to the shortcomings exemplified through  the tragic events in Ceuta and Melilla in 2005, its reformulation into the GAMM was  a reaction to the massive displacements engendered by the Arab uprisings and  subsequent wave of destabilization in the region. 

The latest reforms of the EU’s external migration policy, the 2016 New Partnership  Framework and the 2020 New Pact on Migration and Asylum reflect these changed  realities (Lavenex 2018, Carrera et al. 2019). Once more, these reforms responded  to developments in the Southern Mediterranean, and in particular the refugee  movements engendered by the war in Syria. While giving stronger priority to refugee  protection in the region, these reforms moved away from the more process-oriented  partnership approach of the GAMM. Marked by the failure of the Common European  Asylum System and the deep divisions over the question of refugees within the Union,  the new policies give a clear priority to the externalization of refugee protection  and migration control. Calling for the mobilization of “the full range of policies and  EU external relations instruments “ implementing “a mix of positive and negative  incentives” using “all leverages and tools” (European Commission 2016: 6), these  latest reforms also introduce a strong language of conditionality. 

An early example for this new cross-cutting approach are the “compacts” that were  offered to Jordan and Lebanon in 2016 in which the EU offers trade facilitation (mainly  a relaxation of rules of origin for exports) in exchange for these countries’ investment  in the hosting of refugees including their integration into local labor markets. These  compacts were flanked by ambitious funding instruments such as the EU Regional  Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis (Madad Fund) for Jordan and Lebanon.

 For the Maghreb and other African countries the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa  (EUTF) was launched, and European Civil protection and humanitarian aid was  stepped up (see table 1 and Lavenex and Fakhoury 2021). 

The EMM5-EuroMeSCO survey highlights how serious the challenge of refugee  policy has become in the Southern Mediterranean countries, and in particular in the  Mashreq countries of Jordan and Lebanon. When asked about the main challenge  their country is encountering while dealing with migrants in vulnerable situations and  forcibly displaced (Q3), 45% of Mashreq respondents indicate “addressing the basic  needs (shelter, food, heath)”, compared to 28% Maghreb respondents. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

This is the first priority for all experts surveyed, followed by the need to address the  broader socio-economic impact the presence of these persons have on their country.  Unlike the EU’s emphasis on access to local labour markets, the longer-term socioeconomic  integration of these persons is not perceived as a priority (only 10% resp.  6% of respondents). This reflects the fact that most Southern Mediterranean countries  perceive the hosting of refugees as a temporary and primarily humanitarian issue  and not as a long-term commitment (Fakhoury 2021). Meanwhile, the responses  to the question “What do you expect from the EU to do or to do differently in order  to help your country deal with forced displacement and assist those in need?” (Q7)  underscore how much migration experts in the Southern Mediterranean countries  share the concerns of a destination country.   

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey


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