The Global Approach under stress

Cooperative migration management in a time of crisis

Ferruccio Pastore (Direttore, FIERI)

Relazione svolta al workshop su “EU External relations and migration. Sustainable implementation of theGlobal Approach”, European Policy Centre (EPC), Bruxelles, 13 maggio 2009.

1. The rhetorical build-up of the external dimension

The external dimension of immigration and asylum policies (ED) was not invented in Hampton Court in October 2005. I think it is useful to throw a quick retrospective look, trying to focus on the evolution of the political and rhetorical attitudes towards ED.

Until the end of the 1990s, the ED of migration policies was entirely controlled by Member States. It should be said, however, that after the unilateralist shift accomplished in the early 1970s, the concrete experience of European countries with cooperative migration management had been very limited. Among the few exceptions were for instance the German well-established cooperation with Poland in the fields of border controls and seasonal migration; and the (at the time) innovative Italian experience in matching enhanced cooperation with neighbours in the field of migration controls with privileged channels for legal immigration.

At EU level, the need for cooperative relations with sending and transit countries was first proclaimed ten years ago in Tampere. At that time, the degree of trust and expectations associated with the planned “partnerships with the countries of origin” was extremely high.

Just a few years later, however, with the 2002 European Council in Seville, the overall tone of the discourse on the external dimension changed. Spain, which at the time was championing a more restrictive approach, succeeded in convincing the European partners of the need to set up a system of negative conditionality aimed at sanctioning – I quote – the “unjustified lack of cooperation in the joint management of migration flows”.

The Seville sanctioning mechanism

“35. The European Council considers it necessary to carry out a systematic assessment of relations with third countries which do not cooperate in combating illegal immigration. That assessment will be taken into account in relations between the European Union and its Member States and the countries concerned, in all relevant areas. Insufficient cooperation by a country could hamper the establishment of closer relations between that country and the Union.
36. If full use has been made of existing Community mechanisms but without success, the Council may unanimously find that a third country has shown an. In that event the Council may, in accordance with the rules laid down in the treaties, adopt measures or positions under the Common Foreign and Security Policy and other European Union policies, while honouring the Union’s contractual commitments but not jeopardising development cooperation objectives”.
Extract from: European Council, October 2002, Presidency Conclusions.

The Seville mechanism remained on paper. And the nuances of the external dimension rhetoric changed again a few years later. The Hampton Court 2005 Extraordinary European Council was again dominated by a positive attitudes towards the potential of cooperation with sending and transit countries (transit countries were the new catch-phrase in the understanding of international migration).

Such positive attitude was partly the reflection of a broader effort by the Blair administration to reframe UK and EU development cooperation policies, especially towards Africa, on more positive and proactive bases.
But this positive attitude was also the product of a new phase in the international debate on migration and its linkages with development. A new phase which put a strong emphasis on the potential of international mobility for development and on the magic of win-win-win relations between sending countries, receiving countries and migrants themselves. The High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development of September 2006 was a typical output.

2. Results and shortcomings of the Global Approach

Three years have passed since Hampton Court. The “theory” of the Global Approach (GA) has made significant progress

  • both in the consolidation of its conceptual foundations (not development instead of migration but development through migration; policies adapted to each context’s specificities; less naivety about the potential role of diasporas; etc.)
  • and in the better definition of its toolkit (Mobility partnerships; Cooperation platforms; Migration profiles; new financial instruments; etc.).

If we look at implementation, however, the picture is much less convincing. Experimental mobility partnerships such as with Moldova, or the Bamako-based CIGEM (Centre d’Information et de Gestion des Migrations) are not wrong steps, but they look like little more than window-dressing.

Which are the reasons for such a relative lack of more concrete progress? The shortcomings are honestly, although partially, listed by the Council Conclusions of December 2008. It is worth quoting at length:
The shortcomings of the Global Approach

“8. … the Council notes that the implementation of the Global Approach has yet to face some challenges, linked in particular to:
– the limitations of the various partners” administrative and technical capacity;
– the time needed to develop initiatives and to obtain concrete results in this sensitive area;
– the coordination required between the competent administrations on both sides;
– the complexity of the financial tools;
– the need to improve the coordination with overall external relations with the interested country or the region in question.
9. The Council believes that the success of the Global Approach in practice calls for more coordination and consistency between policies, particularly in the relationship with the external relations of the European Union and with development policies, sustained political commitment, and expanded and improved capacities to act”.
Extract From: Council Conclusions on the evaluation of the Global Approach to Migration and on the partnership with countries of origin and transit, GAC, 8 December 2008.

This is already a lot, and quite frank. But, as I said, this is a honest but also partial list of the shortcomings. Why partial? because the political fundamentals of the whole process are set aside, like a taboo. The Global Approach presupposes a strategic convergence of interests between EU, MS and Neighbours in the field of migration management. Now, this is precisely the question.

3. Cooperative migration management in a time of crisis

The win-win axiom has always been problematic, but it certainly becomes even more problematic and potentially contentious in a time of crisis.

In “normal” times of crisis, migration usually helps to absorb the shock. If the crisis affects more heavily the receiving region, return migration can be a viable survival strategy for international migrants. If, on the contrary, the sending side of the migratory space is more affected, migrant remittances can play a sometimes crucial anti-cyclical role, by providing support to families and societies back home.

Unfortunately, none of this works when both sides are affected. And even less so when the crisis hits globally, as it is the case now. When a crisis hits both sides of the migratory space, migrants are likely to get hit among the first, due to their comparative weakness in the labour market. But they are not likely to be tempted by the return option, as the outlook back home is equally gloomy. Furthermore, the international context where migration takes place is likely tends to become more tense and even conflictual. For the simple reason that, in a time of crisis, exporting people tends to become even more vital for sending states, while importing more of them tends to become less necessary or even perceived as noxious by the receiving countries’ governments and public opinions.

The increasing difficulty of a cooperative approach to migration management in times of crisis is not only due to the potential sharpening of the intrinsic conflict of interests between migrant sending and migrant receiving countries.
From a European point of view, an important factor is also the relative lack of resources available for the ED of immigration and asylum policy. Such scarcity calls for a strong prioritization, in order to avoid unproductive dispersion of resources.

The Global Approach was launched in 2005 with a clear priority granted to the Southern neighbourhood and Africa. This stirred the usual controversy between “Eastophile” and “Southophile” Member States and brought to the formal geopolitical rebalancing of the Global Approach in 2007.

Clearly, though, the issue is not solved. The lack of enthusiasm on the part of several MS for the launch of the Eastern Partnership on 7 May 2009 is a clear sign that the strategic orientation of the Neighbourhood Policy is still very much in progress, to say the least. And this concerns directly also the migration and mobility dimension, which is getting an ever larger role in the concrete shaping of the ENP, as shown by the prominence of the debate on visa-facilitation.

4. A Mediterranean stress test for the Global Approach

Just a few final words on what is now the most acute emergency in the whole external dimension of European migration policies. I am obviously talking about the controversial wave of interceptions at high sea of several boats transporting undocumented migrants, which is currently taking place in the international waters between Sicily and Libya.

Just a few words of background. After ten years of bipartisan efforts and of difficult negotiations, last August the Italian and Libyan heads of government signed a historical agreement which was expected to stop unauthorised flows from North-West Libyan shores to Sicily and the little island of Lampedusa in particular.
In 2008, the sum of unauthorised landings and rescues at sea by Italy hit an all-time peak of around 36,000 migrants (a vast majority of which asylum-seekers). This represents around 60% of all the estimated irregular arrivals on EU shores. A significant inflow, although a small proportion – maybe 10% – of the estimated yearly overall irregular intake of the EU as a whole, an intake which is made mostly of overstayers coming from the East rather than the South.

The impact of the 2008 super-agreement (which has a cost for Italy of 5 billion dollars spread over 20 years) was so far disappointing. In the first four months of 2009, landings were around 6,300, that is almost double than the corresponding period last year (3,600). Now, since a few days, the time of implementation seems finally to have come. The problem is the modality of such implementation. Even before that joint patrolling of Libyan territorial waters has started (due to start on 15 May), Italian vessels have started systematic interception at sea followed by transfer on Libyan soil without any screening based on asylum obligations and on the prohibition of refoulement. Until Sunday 10 May, 6 boats loaded with migrants and asylum-seekers (over 500 persons so far) have been intercepted and their passengers readmitted in a country which is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention and which has a well-documented and particularly heavy record of ill treatment of migrants.

In May 2007, the European Commission delivered a “Study on the international law instruments in relation to illegal immigration by sea” whose main conclusion was – I quote -:

All rules have to be applied without prejudice to the obligations deriving from international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including in particular the prohibition of refoulement.

How will the European Commission react to these radically new bilateral developments will be a key test not just for the future of the Global Approach, but more broadly of the whole of EU external relations and migration policies.