More for less? Europe’s new wave of ‘migration deals’

North African governments may feel they have the EU over a barrel on migration flows. But Europe must set tough conditions on any new aid it gives to them

The European Union appears to be on the verge of ramping up the securitisation of its borders in its emerging strategy for dealing with migration across the Mediterranean. A central plank of this looks to be to increase collaboration with states and military actors in the southern Mediterranean which have poor human rights records. In so doing, EU member states risk further legitimising these regimes and military outfits, and propping up inherently unstable political and economic orders which will only store up more problems for the future. If the EU does not attach any form of conditionality to new deals they agree with North African regimes, deepening instability could seriously outweigh the potential short-term migration gains from this evolving cooperation.

A strategy of attempting to “externalise” the migration question, which had been germinating for some time, became clear in outline form over the summer, and has now begun to firm up: first with Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent announcement of the deployment of a 10,000-strong border security force, and then in Donald Tusk’s and Sebastian Kurz’s proposals for talks with Egypt on deepening migration cooperation, and also to hold an EU-Arab League Summit in Cairo next spring. This event will most likely provide a forum for enhanced cooperation with the countries of the southern Mediterranean more broadly. This move may mark a slight shift away from earlier proposals about regional disembarkation arrangements, which all countries in North Africa vehemently opposed, although these proposals could yet re-emerge in negotiations with Egypt and others, depending on what the EU is prepared to offer Egypt by way of inducements.

Countries such as Egypt or Morocco will periodically raise the shadow of ending this cooperation on migration in order to achieve further gains

Recent deals mean leaders in North Africa are aware of the greater economic and political pay-offs that they might ask for in exchange for cooperation with the EU on migration. The Turkey-EU migration deal and the socioeconomic difficulties in many countries of the southern Mediterranean have combined to push regional leaders to be bolder in their asks. What the proposed cooperation with Egypt will look like is still unclear, but it is possible that Egypt will look not just for development aid, but also for budgetary support in the form of low-interest loans.

In the meantime, expect further high-profile visits by European leaders to Egypt and other countries in North Africa, lending further legitimacy to authoritarian regimes. President Sisi and other Egyptian officials invoked the figure of 5 million refugees living in Egypt in 2016, when Egypt was negotiating its $11 billion loan with the IMF. These figures may have been raised again in his recent meetings with Tusk and Kurz

This follows a wider emerging pattern. Spanish-Moroccan cooperation demonstrates the complexity of Europe’s externalisation of its border: Morocco largely prevents migrants reaching the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, while Spain has a readmission agreement with Morocco allowing Spain to return adult Moroccans who travel illegally to Spain. This is paired with extensive security cooperation. However, the rising numbers of migrants entering Spanish territory from Morocco this year may have been part of a Moroccan strategy to heighten the EU’s awareness of its importance as a migration partner, with a similar aim of potentially increasing financial aid. A previous rise in migrant numbers in February 2017 also acted as a warning to the EU and member states not to threaten Moroccan interests in the Western Sahara following European Court of Justice decisions ruling that agriculture and fisheries agreements between the EU and Morocco could not legally apply to the Western Sahara.

Following the validation of the new EU-Morocco fisheries agreement on 24 July, and the approval of €55m in supplementary funding for Morocco and Tunisia on 2 August, Morocco accepted the return of 116 migrants that had jumped the fence to Ceuta, while Moroccan authorities also arrested hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants in northern Morocco and dropped them in the very south of the country. These actions were likely an effort to assist the EU by preventing migrants reaching the Spanish enclaves.

Even if the EU does not agree to large grants of funds on a par with the Turkey deal, countries such as Egypt or Morocco will continue to seek significantly more from the EU in exchange for their cooperation, periodically raising the shadow of ending this cooperation in order to achieve further gains. As part of the new approach it is likely they will receive continued support for coastguards and border security, and development funds to provide a façade of offering more opportunities to their own people.

The reality is that all these countries are in desperate need. Egypt has thus far largely escaped falling confidence in emerging markets, but the Egyptian regime is facing increased difficulties in selling its treasury bonds. From the regime’s perspective, cheap loans could provide an important source of short-term financing, while increased EU development aid could help pay for public services.

But in light of Egypt’s very swift accumulation of international debt – at 36.8 per cent of GDP in late June – combined with very low levels of gross fixed capital investment, and rising dollar interest rates, Egypt’s debt burden could very quickly become unmanageable. Further, while Egypt accepted certain macroeconomic reforms as conditions to access $11 billion provided under the IMF Extended Loan Facility in 2016, it has failed to tackle underlying distortions that ultimately undermine sustainable growth and job creation.

EU policymakers have already normalised relations with the Egyptian regime and seem determined to enter a deeper migration partnership with Egypt regardless of the very clear human rights abuses it perpetrates. But if the EU wants a stable partner, then its policymakers should at least push Egypt towards adopting deeper economic reforms in exchange for further financial aid channelled through the Egyptian government.

Meanwhile, Morocco has faced on-going socioeconomic unrest since the protests began in the Rif region in October 2016. Following a boycott by protestors this year of certain key products, and protests following the sentencing of key Hirak leaders to long prison terms, King Mohamed VI announced an array of new reforms in July. This reform programme will be costly, incorporating as it does schooling, medical cover, local administration, job creation, and more. Additional European funds could be vital to paying for some of these initiatives.

However, following the failure of many previous promises of reform in Morocco, questions remain about how effective this new programme is likely to be. While local leadership of the development agenda is certainly essential, European policymakers should be careful not to further empower a small elite by funnelling more money into government coffers without clear conditions around inclusion of youth and civil society in the design and implementation of the development agenda.

The “externalisation” of the migration question is already resulting in increased aid going to the governments of the southern Mediterranean, and this tendency is likely to continue. However, given the unwillingness of governments in the region to genuinely and efficiently tackle underlying problems, it is doubtful whether these funds will be enough to prevent further economic difficulties from emerging.

The EU and member states should not direct further aid to the southern Mediterranean without clearer conditions around how such aid will be used. Otherwise, the combination of support to existing elites and failing economic models may maintain a modicum of stability in the short term, but it risks consolidating systems that will inevitably lead to longer-term instability that will include on-going – possibly even heightened – migration pressures.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Programme Coordinator, Middle East and North Africa

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.