Trans-Europe Express – Migration still tops EU’s agenda

Spanish Civil Guard and national police agents talk to some of the 60 sub-Saharian migrants that sit on top of the fence at the border between Morroco and Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Africa, 10 September 2016. [ANTONIO SEMPERE/EPA]

The numbers may have fallen dramatically – by October the number of migrants reaching Europe had dropped to around 80,000 so far this year, compared to 300,000 in 2016 – but European leaders are still preoccupied with migration control.

A handful of EU countries this week signalled their intentions to leave the UN global compact on migration, even though it is both voluntarily and non-legally binding.

The African Union and North African countries appeared to shoot down the blueprint agreed by European leaders at the June Council summit to establish ‘regional disembarkation platforms’ or ‘hot spots’.

“This is no longer on the agenda and never should have been,” Juncker said on a visit to Tunisia on 26 October. Commission spin doctors say the EU executive’s new preferred phraseology is ‘regional disembarkation arrangements’.

But abandoning the idea of trying to persuade African countries to host migrant camps on their territories that does not mean that the ‘cash for migrant-control’ deal is dead. Far from it. Talks are underway to achieve similar ends via different means.

In truth, the EU executive finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The desire to create a ‘Fortress Europe’ comes from a handful of member states, not Brussels, and with the European elections just over six months away, the mantra that ‘something must be done’ to assuage the fears of voters and political leaders is particularly strong.

Instead, it seems likely that the EU will have to settle for ad hoc solutions, and several options are now in the pipeline.

Having launched in September, talks between Brussels and Abdul Fatah El Sisi’s Egyptian government have moved quickly. Insiders expect some kind of ‘cash-for-migrants’ agreement to be finalised in early 2019 based on the EU-Turkey model. An EU-Arab League summit scheduled for next February in Cairo.

Morocco, meanwhile, has just agreed a new trade agreement with the EU and is seeking to model itself diplomatically as a bridgehead between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

But these deals will be reached, in large part, because they are beneficial to the African countries concerned. Like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, El Sisi’s regime of domestic repression of human rights and democratic freedoms has made it internationally unpopular.

Following a deep recession and an unpopular (and painful) IMF programme, El Sisi’s government also needs money. A deal with Brussels will draw credit on both ledgers.

Tunisia and Algeria, meanwhile, have both been particularly hostile to the idea of ‘regional disembarkation platforms’ or ‘hotspots’. Neither country is cash-strapped or in need of currying political favours.

Talks with Libya are the riskiest, both for the EU’s credibility, and the populace in a failed state that is being run by competing militias.

But then the trouble with bilateral deals of this kind is that they are motivated almost entirely by realpolitik.

And they are not the only game in town. Migration control is also set to be given far greater prominence in the next seven-year EU budget.

Under the Commission’s proposal for the 2021-27 EU budget, 10% of the €89 billion external spending pot could be ear-marked for migration-related spending.

Additional billions of euro could also be available from side-headings, specifically on ‘emerging challenges and emergencies’ and ‘rapid response’ fund.

The Commission’s plan is to ‘mainstream’ migration. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that; effective policy on migratory flows is essential to EU-African relations, and to the economic development of the African continent.

But something is missing.

“Who is speaking for migrants in this debate?” a civil society leader asked EURACTIV.

For all the EU’s talk about values: safeguarding human rights and basic freedoms, the answer is: nobody.

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By Alexandra Brzozowski

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