You can’t build on that: Externalisation as the cornerstone of the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum


Since 2015, the EU and its Member States have been moving away from an externalisation of migration control to an externalisation of their obligations to afford protection. The New Pact does not change this.

Men at work 765

This commentary is part of our dossier on the New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.

If the flatmates cannot get on with each other, it would seem ridiculous if they were to build a house at. But this is exactly the image used by Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas when he presented the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, published even as Moria camp still smouldered.

This image likens externalisation to the ground level of a house. It is a foundation on which to build greater security of the external borders and a top floor of “solidarity” within the EU, a term that has become extraordinarily flexible. In lay terms, what it means is that in the areas where the member states cannot agree – i.e. on hosting – others will have to act to keep the people seeking protection or even just a better life in the EU far away from its borders.

But what scope is there to strengthen externalisation to give a bit of stability to the ruins of the asylum policy wing of the European house? After four years of blocked attempts at reforming EU asylum policy, during which “tackling the root causes of flight” and shifting migration management to other countries were the common denominator rather than burden-sharing and hosting, it is hard to see what more could be done under that heading.

The constant use of new imagery and terms, which take up so much space in the Commission communication, are apparently supposed to make up for it: “tailor-made partnerships” with non-EU countries, it is now claimed, will facilitate the fight against smugglers of human beings and returns of unsuccessful asylum seekers. New rules for legal migration are designed to offer an incentive for this. Amongst other things, the Commission intends to bring in “talent partnerships”, to bring the workers specifically needed by European companies to the EU. Its greatest success in this enterprise will probably, as was also the case with the “mobility partnerships” of the past, be limited to the generation of waste paper.

Willingness to block irregular migration to Europe will be rewarded financially or with visa liberalisation, while refusals will be punished. weaponising development or trade policy as a form of sanction against “problem cases” (in other words, uncooperative third countries) is being considered. Additionally, governments of the countries of origin should take back migrants who have travelled illegally to Europe but are not entitled to asylum or subsidiary protection there. Many of these governments, however, have no inherent interest in taking back migrants. This is entirely understandable, as there are many families whose very existence depends on the money sent back from other countries.

The total volume of these cross-border remittances is usually higher than development aid and direct foreign investment put together. Furthermore, governments have nothing to offer migrants returned forcibly: no job, no prospects. And even if it was possible to effectively tackle poverty in certain countries by “tackling the root causes of flight”, this would not necessarily lead to a drop in migration numbers, but might even drive them upwards, as it would mean that more people could afford to bribe border officials, buy bus tickets and pay smugglers.

“Return sponsorships”

Since the migration summit of Valletta, which discussed the externalisation of the border regime, a raft of mechanisms has been set in place, instruments have been developed and funding agreed. However, the system overall is still not working as hoped. Building walls may reduce migration, but people will still out for Europe, only on new, more dangerous or more expensive routes. The EU and its member states have been moving away from an externalisation of migration control to an externalisation of obligations to afford protection since at least 2015. Europe is outsourcing the “problem” to the transit countries, which have long been host countries.

Turkey, for instance, is home to 2.9 million refugees (mostly from Syria) and migrants. Readmission agreements should hold the countries of origin themselves to account. Countless agreements of this type are bilateral and were created on an informal basis (often with no legal security) and are still not implemented in many individual cases. The fresh proposal for “return sponsorships”, allowing EU member states to opt out of taking refugees and migrants, will do nothing to change this. Is this going to be a way of proposing to Hungary or Poland to put more pressure on the countries of origin so that they cooperate and take back their citizens who have been pushed back to the very external borders of Europe?

Migration cannot be stopped, only shaped. As long as the need for state services in the fields of healthcare, education, food as well as security and the rule of law is largely ignored, migration will rise around the world, if only because of anticipated population growth. Movements between developing countries will also increase.

However, the crisis mode of recent years has led to a situation in many European countries in which the initial efforts to reform migration policy and manage immigration have run out of steam. These days, it is all about reducing irregular migration and making returns of migrants more effective.

The real foundation of a realistic, future-proof European migration policy should be to provide protection, on the basis of the Geneva Convention. Regular migration should be encouraged in such a way that the interests of all three parties (country of origin, host country and migrant) are balanced so that everybody wins. This is not an easy undertaking and should begin with honest and open dialogue with representatives of the countries of origin. But most of all, it will take political will – including the willingness to explain and promote this policy to the citizens. This might finally allow all the floors of the house to be filled with life.