Migration is a key element of our foreign policy
Migration is as old as humanity. Our cultures, economies and societies have all developed through migration. Millions of Europeans have escaped poverty and hunger by emigrating across the oceans when our population growth exceeded economic growth and opportunities. In one way or another, we are all migrants, and our family histories reflect these. My own grandfather and father lived in Argentina before moving back to Spain where I was born. Indeed, tens of millions Europeans can trace their roots to other countries and other continents.
Nowadays, in Europe migration is primarily discussed as a challenge. To some extent, this is understandable. Public opinion is worried about large-scale irregular migration. We all remember the 2015 refugee ‘crisis’ when over a million, mostly Syrians, entered the EU seeking protection. Last year, Russia’s war against Ukraine forced the largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II, with 4 million receiving temporary protection. More widely, the numbers of people reaching Europe via the Central Mediterranean or the Western Balkan routes have increased again in 2022 respectively by 51% and 136%, according to FRONTEX figures, with a total of 330,000 of irregular entries in 2022. As a result, reception centres inside the EU are filled to more than their capacity. The European public rightly sees migration as a common European issue requiring common European answers.
In all this, it is important that we recognise three points:
- Migration offers numerous benefits;
- We need to work closely with countries of transit and origin who have their own interests and priorities to define joint interests; and
- We therefore need a balanced approach, where incentives and legal pathways for regular migration flank the necessary work on stronger border management and returns.
The benefits of legal migration
To start, safe and legal migration is beneficial for everyone: migrants help address labour market needs and drive economic growth in their countries of destination. The country I know the best, Spain, would not be able to sustain its socio-economic system without the tens of thousands of migrants coming from Latin America every year. More generally, we all know that demographic trends in Europe are such that we need migrants on the job market – and will continue to do so in the future.
Migrants also support families and communities at home. Just consider the issue of remittances. In 2022 alone, low and middle-income countries received $626 billion in remittances, according to the World Bank. This is more than three times the total amount of Official Development Aid! Many countries and communities depend critically on these remittances. In the Middle East and North Africa for example, countries received $63 billion in remittances in 2022, and in Sub-Saharan Africa it was $53 billion.
The presence of foreign students in European universities is also a major factor of both innovation and “soft power” for the countries and regions able to attract these students.
While recognising the benefits of regular migration and mobility, it is also important to accept the basic fact that we can expect more migration in the years to come. On the whole, we in Europe are getting older and fewer, compared to neighbouring countries and especially compared to Africa. The figures are clear: as displacement driven by climate change, conflicts and natural disasters, is reaching record numbers (more than 100 million in 2022 according to UNHCR), the level of migration is only going to grow. I have often pointed to the growing gap between the two shores of the Mediterranean, in both economic and demographic terms and the need to try to close it.
Some seek to respond to these trends mainly by focusing on strengthening borders and building fences. Of course, any country or political community needs to be able to decide who enters its territory. Borders need to be protected, or they are no longer borders. But the walls will never be high enough to just ‘keep people out’. And no one can accept the scenes where people drown while trying to cross the Mediterranean – this goes against our common humanity. So, the real issue is not to stop but how we manage migration, in a manner that is politically and socially sustainable and that reflects both our values and our interests.
Ahead of the European Council on 9-10 February the Commission has put forward a range of operational proposals for the short and medium-term covering the internal and external dimensions of migration.
It is certainly true that we need a more robust policy framework to deal with all aspects of irregular arrivals, balancing responsibility and solidarity. To this end, the Commission put forward in 2020 a set of proposals as part of a New Pact on Migration and Asylum. However, it is well known that member states’ views on this diverge - and it will take time to find the necessary consensus. Indeed, since Tampere European Council in 1999, Europe has not been able to agree on a real common migration policy. This enduring lack of agreement among us also means that politically the emphasis is now on what the external dimension can achieve.
How best to work with our partner countries on migration?
By definition, migration requires us to work with countries of origin and transit. And the only way to achieve our objectives is in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. This means finding the right balance between more results in reducing irregular departures and stepping up returns, while recognising the interests of partners and addressing the root causes of irregular migration.
This requires us to listen to partners, knowing their interests and taking them into account. For example, many of our partners in the South worry that we are depriving them of doctors, nurses and other skilled professionals (the risk of a ‘brain drain’). We also need the right incentives to underpin our cooperation and recognise that coercive measures are best used sparingly, kept as a last resort.
If we ask more from our partners, we also need to be able to offer more: not only financially but also by responding to their desire to maximise the benefits of migration for their own growth. Legal migration, mobility and complementary pathways are all important elements. In this context, the commitment of member states to provide legal pathways to protection helps underpin our credibility.
It is positive that, for 2023, 17 EU member states have collectively pledged almost 16.000 resettlement places and 13.200 places for humanitarian admission. This means that the EU will provide almost 29.000 places for safe and legal pathways to protection (in addition to those who enter the asylum process). This is not enough, but it is a positive message that we must build upon.
When it comes to our work on tackling the root causes of irregular migration, this includes addressing the complex reasons that drive it, including economic (poverty, inequality, lack of opportunities), environmental (climate change, environmental disasters, pressure on natural resources), security (protracted conflict, crime and gangs) or political (authoritarian systems, human rights violations, absence of rule of law, corruption).
Addressing these root causes is neither easy nor can it be done quickly. But it is absolutely necessary and we do have many EU tools to invest in education, business opportunities and faster job creation (NDICI, Global Gateway etc). We also need to make best use our of diplomatic assets including EU Delegations and work as Team Europe with member states, sending clear signals to partners about the benefits of cooperating with the EU on migration.
Some immediate priorities include:
- Deepening our cooperation with key origin and transit countries, namely Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Nigeria and Iraq. We should try to reduce the overall number of irregular departures. This in turn will require more ambitious legal migration pathways such as Talent Partnerships, an initiative by the Commission to address skills shortages and enhance cooperation with third countries on migration.
- Launching new anti-smuggling partnerships with Tunisia and Egypt, building on the successes in Morocco, Niger and the Western Balkans, with the goal of reducing the number of dangerous crossings and smashing the business model of the smugglers.
- Working with member states to expand the possibilities for legal pathways and resettlement along all main migration routes.
- Using our CSDP operations (for example EUCAP Niger and EUBAM Libya) to intensify work on capacity building of host countries’ personnel and on border management, in close liaison with FRONTEX.
Migration is increasingly a key element in our overall foreign policy, as I will stress to European leaders this week. To succeed we need a balanced approach emphasising the notion of partnership. And keep in mind that, at heart, this is about human beings moving, as they have done for centuries.