E.g., 09/21/2023
E.g., 09/21/2023
New EU Partnerships in North Africa: Potential to Backfire?

As European leaders meet in Malta to receive a progress report on the EU flagship migration partnership framework, the European Union finds itself in much the same position as two years earlier, with hundreds of desperate individuals cramming into flimsy boats and setting off each week from the Libyan coast in hope of finding swift rescue and passage in Europe. Options to reduce flows unilaterally are limited. Barred by EU law from “pushing back” vessels encountered in the Mediterranean, the European Union is faced with no alternative but to rescue and transfer passengers to European territory, where the full framework of European asylum law applies. Member States are thus looking more closely at the role transit countries along the North African coastline might play in managing these flows across the Central Mediterranean. Specifically, they are examining the possibility of reallocating responsibility for search and rescue to Southern partners, thereby decoupling the rescue missions from territorial access to international protection in Europe.

Bolstered by the success of the EU-Turkey deal that has helped sharply reduce crossings into Greece, politicians are eager to discuss the potential for replicating all or aspects of the deal in other countries. In doing so, they risk sounding like the model train enthusiast who strenuously believes he would make an excellent CEO of a rail network. The theoretical neatness of forging partnerships with countries on the periphery of Europe, particularly North Africa, is belied by two hard realities. First, that the willingness and capacity of North African partners to respond effectively is deeply uneven; and second, that the EU institutions have limited capacity to manage the implementation of such a strategy, not least without causing significant additional distress to those individuals they hope to hold at bay.

But aside from the significant collateral impact on EU-championed human rights and protection principles, these partnerships will signal a definitive end to the Union’s long-held stability and democracy-building ambitions in the neighbourhood. And in deprioritising the broader state-building approach, EU Member States may actually be undermining their core short-term endeavour: the search for an end to unceasing Mediterranean migration.

Capacity in the Southern Mediterranean

In the last weeks, a number of North African countries have been suggested as potential partners. They all present different opportunities for the European Union—and their own drawbacks.

As the main route through which migrants and would-be asylum seekers reach the Central Mediterranean, Libya is the central focus. Since mid-2016, the European Union has taken a number of steps, from strengthening the Libyan coast guard, giving the International Organization for Migration (IOM) significant funds to increase voluntary return operations, and extending the mission and budget of the Border Assistance Mission (EU-BAM) to Libya. The European Summit in Malta on February 3 is expected to both confirm and extend this support to the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). The package does not foresee any form of external processing or “camp” in Libya (aside from supporting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] and IOM to invest in reception facilities) but focuses largely on equipping the Libyan government with the means to prevent maritime departures, pull back boats that depart, and offer stranded migrants a one-way ticket home. Despite widespread disunity on migration issues between EU Member States, there is a rare consensus regarding the urgency and necessity of halting Central Mediterranean arrivals through actions in Libya. This is less of a “deal,” and more of a refocusing of financial support towards very specific goals.

Unfortunately, EU leaders cannot afford to publicly acknowledge a blunt truth: that Libya will not be able to do much of what is being asked of it. The European Union is negotiating with a government that does not have a strong hold on the country. The GNA does not control oil production, many of Libya’s ministries, and much of the South. Instability is still rife, as is ISIS, and while the government is willing, it may not have the capacity to deliver what Europe has proposed. Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has acknowledged that political instability inhibits a fuller deal with Libya. Direct in-country support from the European Union is also difficult to realise. The EU-BAM still operates remotely from Tunis, as Libya is considered too unsafe for staff. And there is no indication that EU Member States would be willing to offer military or security backing beyond that already operating in the country (or be welcomed by either the government or other factions). Push the shaky transitional government too far, and it might collapse.

The absence of any plan to support migrants and refugees who would be stranded in Libya if crossings are throttled speaks to the difficulties in developing any such infrastructure. There is no protection system; the only option for rescued migrants is detention—in centres decried as inhumane by observers—or return. Key international organisations such as IOM and UNHCR, which co-launched a Mixed Migration Working Group in Libya in December 2016, do not have unfettered access to all detention centres and are limited to providing basic core relief and medical aid to migrants. While Brussels focuses on preventing arrival and facilitating return, the situation in Libya itself is a glaring black hole in the middle of the plan. The phrase ‘seeking to ensure adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants’ in the draft Malta Summit conclusions seems a vastly inadequate response to widespread reports of execution, rape, and torture in Libyan detention centres.

Other Member States have proposed Tunisia as a more friendly and stable partner, and one that is in need of EU support and geographically convenient. Under a plan informally floated by the Austrian government, the Tunisian coast guard would intercept and pull back smugglers’ vessels to Tunisia, where a reception centre or camp would be established. EU involvement, beyond financial support, would be limited; instead this would be managed by other organisations and the Tunisian government. Again, the only solution on offer for those pulled back would be voluntary repatriation, with the limited possibility of status in Tunisia itself.

Yet here too, EU policymakers are negotiating with a fragile state with weak government institutions (even if more stable than Libya). Even if willing to cooperate, Tunisia may not be capable. There is little to no protection infrastructure in the country, and status determination is still managed by UNHCR. (In addition, Tunisian law penalises irregular entry, stay, and even exit with fines and prison sentences.) Tunisia’s most recent experience addressing mass movement was in 2011, as Libyan and other resident nationals fled conflict. The Choucha camp was largely managed by UNHCR and several international NGOs, and was closed in 2013 as most returned back to Libya or moved on; very few migrants were granted any form of protection status or opportunity to resettle. It is not clear that UNHCR would be willing to resume such a role for migrants rescued at sea, or Tunisia willing to host an uncapped number of individuals, in an open-ended fashion, when the prospects for return are ever more remote.

Aside from capacity, the Tunisian government would face a political challenge. Tunisia has one of the youngest populations in the region, with nearly 40 percent under age 25; of these, more than 30 percent are unemployed. With a population keen to find alternative economic opportunities, including in Europe, agreements to cooperate with the European Union to limit migration could lead to strong political backlash domestically. Tunisia may not have the political strength to withstand the ire of such a core disenchanted and restless demographic by launching a high-profile collaboration unless it can gain significant economic migration or visa commitments from EU Member States for its own nationals. In the current European political and security climate—and particularly following the Berlin attack—this seems unlikely.

Other countries named in the last weeks include Algeria and Egypt. Egypt would seem to replicate the conditions in Turkey most closely: a quasi-authoritarian regime with strong institutions, military, and border capabilities, as well as a pre-existing refugee population (though reports on the adequacy of protection vary widely). Unlike Libya and Tunisia, Egypt more realistically has the capacity to manage an EU-Turkey style deal, though one it might not find desirable. Here again, the partnership would require Egypt to pull back boats and place migrants either into camps or return them home. Aside from very real protection concerns for these individuals, the European Union would once again be making itself beholden to a state that would then have considerable leverage to exploit the partnership and impose a very high price tag. Aside from the costs of such a deal, subsequent threats to terminate it would leave the European Union vulnerable.

Beyond the Imperfect EU-Turkey Deal

The lack of an attractive partner aside, the EU-Turkey experience should give policymakers further pause. They should reflect upon the very clear lessons that the one-year experience of the deal reveal, and what that demonstrates about EU limitations to partner effectively.

First, the EU-Turkey deal shows that planning must precede politics. The woeful situation for refugees and migrants on the Greek islands, made worse by sharp winter weather, was both predictable and avoidable; the islands’ reception centres were ill-equipped to transform from short-stay facilities to detention centres, and had little capacity to process the claims of those who arrived on-site. The absence of any robust planning prior to the EU-Turkey deal led to delays, and considerable distress. Planning has occurred on the hoof, with policymakers responding to problems as they arise, and progress has been paralysed by uncertain division of labour between reluctant Greek authorities, short-term seconded officials from other EU Member States, international organisations, and local NGO.

The inability of the European Union, with all its stable governance and resources, to manage the logistics of reception and registration within its own borders suggests that effective management of external facilities in perhaps volatile conditions would be even more elusive. Of course, one of the tenets of these plans is that the European Union is merely the facilitator rather than owner, a fact that creates its own moral hazard. There would be no actor with sufficient political will to take responsibility to ensure protection and care standards are maintained, with the exception of an overloaded, under-resourced UNHCR.

Second, the shift away from territorial access to asylum and protection that such partnerships imply needs to be balanced with an alternative form of access, or the European Union risks its already shaky leadership on refugee protection. Experience with relocation and resettlement thus far suggests, however, that EU Member States lack the political will to sustain sufficient quotas for refugees, even through a UNHCR-managed process, and EU institutions have few means to compel them to do so. There is little penalty for those who do not offer places, as the Hungarian government has now realised.

There is a broader resource question as well: Brussels has strenuously reallocated its own budget to find sufficient resources for migration management over the past 18 months, and is running out of spare funds. Despite systematic calls to Member States for support for the 1.8 billion euro Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, just 153 million euros in matching contributions had been offered by the end of 2016. While Member States are united on the need to address flows across the Mediterranean through partnership, they seem less willing to finance it.

How to Achieve Balance?

To ensure that these partnerships are sustainable and do not become experiments in human misery, the European Union will have to place greater emphasis on improving conditions on the ground in country and invest heavily in the government institutions necessary to manage them. Support to IOM and UNHCR is a short-term strategy, and cannot be open-ended if the host government itself is unwilling or unable to independently establish the capacity to develop migration management and protection systems that meet international standards. While Neighbourhood Policy has taken a backseat over the past couple of years, its core objectives remain as critical than ever.

In addition, the European Union cannot ignore the need to keep working towards more robust management of arrivals within Europe, so that it reduces its vulnerability to uncertain partnerships with non-EU countries and can avoid the same sense of crisis even if maritime migration fluctuates in the future. This lesson from the EU-Turkey experience seems as yet unlearned.

The one aspect of the EU-Turkey deal that leaders are most eager to replicate is the strong message to would-be travellers: do not come. But in sending that message, leaders should be aware that they are sending a second message to partner countries. The European Union will be overtly switching to a transactional, normative-averse approach to partnership that values migration flows over stability, which is in turn more important than democracy and rule of law. It will also be sending a signal that protection is optional. This is a trade-off that has been creeping up for several years, and likely has now become politically unavoidable, but will have ripple effects for Europe’s voice on the international stage and its relations with neighbouring countries.

Elizabeth Collett is Director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe.