Progress made, but events are now moving faster than political decision-making
The long-awaited Valletta summit of 11 and 12 November should have been a crucial meeting considering that a third of all irregular arrivals to the EU originates from Africa. However, for all the press coverage it received, Valletta had unfortunately already lost some of its political relevance since the time the Summit was initially announced in April 2015. By the time leaders arrived in Valletta, and despite the long term importance of the African continent - home to the largest young population in the world - in European capitals all eyes were on Turkey.
Both sides arrived at the table already dissatisfied with each other. The African countries encounter the complex reality of both producing but also hosting migrants and refugees with intraregional migration a key characteristic of the African continent. For years on the receiving end of Europe’s ‘stick and carrot’ policies, whereby deterrence of irregular migratory flows was accompanied by many promises but no concrete steps towards improved visa regimes for their nationals, many African states came at the table disillusioned and lacking a common approach.
On the other hand, EU member states have not been inspiring a lot of trust in recent months. The pledges for relocation and resettlement have yet to materialize and it is increasingly becoming clear to outsiders that this is a Union confused and divided on whom to follow. Open borders or closed borders? The German or the Hungarian way? Solidarity without concrete burden sharing?
Europe’s conflicting policies placed many African states on the edge, unsure whether their EU partners will follow through their commitments and whether they will do so without shifting the entire burden of migration management on the African continent.
In light of all this, it is a positive step that an Action Plan was agreed on at all, but the 17 point plan agreed upon by participants offers neither radically new ideas nor short term solutions to manager migratory flows. It does though, in an encouraging step and a nod to realism, attempt to strike a compromise between the needs of the African continent and the wants of the EU member states.
On the economic/development angle, the Action Plan lays out four main areas of focus. Poverty eradication, socio economic development (with perhaps most critical the effort to match vocational training with market labor needs), legal mobility options and remittances.
The latter was perhaps the most crucial element for the African states. Remittances are critical for the development of countries of origin and Africans end up charged with 10 percent fees or more for sending money back home. The plan commits governments to reducing that cost to below 3 percent by 2030. It was an immense concession on behalf of the EU, but the short-term steps remain vague.
For the EU however, the main issue has been and will be readmission. Readmission agreements facilitate returns, a critical tool in migration management. The EU has repeatedly expressed the desire for bilateral agreements that would enable all member states of the Union to return individuals to the third countries. The absence in the Action Plan of a commitment to readmission, the inclusion in the text that voluntary return should be prioritised over deportations along with the removal of references to transit centers or more radical proposals that were circulating prior to Valletta (e.g. ‘fast track’ return process via EU laissez passer documents) should all be seen as wins for the African states.
One glaring omission from the Action Plan is the absence of concrete proposals facilitating safe passage for asylum seekers, the main issue of concern right now in the Mediterranean Sea. In the short term, absence of legal routes for asylum seekers will continue to put pressure on the external borders of the Union and further increase profits of smugglers that have become the only available means of reaching safety.
The financial basis of the deal is the €1.8 billion minimum assistance package, a ‘trust fund’ for Africa. A part of it is meant to be used for conflict prevention, capacity building, education and an overall effort to reduce the ‘push’ factors for migration, with the rest utilised for the resettlement of deported economic migrants and/or failed asylum seekers. Questions remain on how the funds will be distributed and what guarantees will be put in place to avoid mismanagement, in a continent plagued by corruption. It is also optimistic to think that €1.8 billion is sufficient in stemming migration from Africa. It is a step, but a small one, especially when compared to the fund for Turkey, estimated at €3 billion euro.
The gap partly reveals the significance (or lack thereof) EU leaders attach to Africa today; an important corridor but not of immediate urgency and concern.
Rather, the spotlight is on Turkey, which this weekend hosted the G20 summit which was overshadowed by events in Paris and the refugee crisis. Similarly, to Valletta, the G20 has been a lesson in compromise.
The preliminary document uses language of solidarity and burden sharing, along with a stepping up border controls and aviation security, both likely influenced by the terrorist attacks in Paris. The communiqué calls for proactive measures to the refugee crisis, including refugee resettlement, humanitarian aid and access to services.
More crucially, however, leaders acknowledged that the refugee crisis is a global problem, which has to be dealt with in a coordinated way. This was from the beginning a European aim: to shift the discussion from a domestic to a global level. This is an important step that could potentially pave the path for the redistribution of refugees, in a similar fashion to what the world did with the Vietnamese boat people in 1979. However, there is a long way to go between bold statements and action, and much will depend on the outcome of the Syrian conflict.
There was also a positive announcement from Vienna where members restated their agreement on the need to begin formal negotiations backed by the UN between the Syrian government and opposition representatives. The G20 continued in a similarly-compromising fashion as indicated by the statement of Prime Minister Cameron that the ‘West is prepared to compromise with Vladimir Putin’ in ending the Syrian civil war. It remains to be seen whether a road map for ending the Syrian conflict emerges in the immediate-rather than distant- future. But both Vienna and the G20 showed an understanding that the refugee crisis will not end, unless the Syrian conflict is resolved.
In the immediate term, however, it is more likely that EU leaders will arrive at the table more willing to cede to Turkey’s demands in exchange for the country acting as the gatekeeper of Europe. Events in Paris and the news that one of the passports found at the scene had entered in Greece propelled many to link terrorism with the refugee flows. With this feeling of insecurity, Turkey’s cooperation is seen as critical in both stemming the tide but also avoiding further politicisation of the refugee issue
In other words, outsourcing the problem has the potential to be seen as the countermeasure to ‘Fortress Europe’, which some EU member states are already calling for (e.g Hungary, Poland). Whether it is a viable, long term solution is doubtful but events seem to be moving faster than political decision-making, leaving leaders, from Valletta to the G20, still in search of a solution to the refugee crisis.
Read more on:
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.