Committing to partners, staying flexible on the issues

11 April 2022

A wealth of stakeholder ideas oriented around bolstering migration partnerships along key routes to Europe were brought to the fore during the Vienna Migration Conference 2021. More effective migration management will require robust frameworks and formats that enhance engagement across borders. But there is more than one perspective on what this means in practice.

Migration partnership is a concept that has been used quite liberally to describe different forms of, at times, patchy cooperation. The inability of such partnerships to address migration challenges comprehensively has been a distinct source of frustration. There is a general feeling in the policy-making community, however, that the time has come to transform migration partnerships into more dynamic and reliable instruments. This resolve was reflected in the theme of VMC 2021: re-imagining migration partnerships.

The EU itself has experimented with different migration partnerships over the past 20 years in a multitude of ways. The wide array of mechanisms falling under the migration partnership umbrella can contribute to confusion in some circles. ‘Mobility Partnerships’, ‘Talent Partnerships’ and the ‘Partnership Framework on Migration’ – they all sound similar, but these and other partnership models differ substantially in their intentions and commitments and the way they formalise cooperation. Not all cooperation instruments with partnership features, meanwhile, have received the “partnership” designation, as can be witnessed in the ‘EU-Turkey Statement and Action Plan’ (also known as ‘The EU-Turkey Deal’).

Despite some ambiguity, common denominators of migration partnerships can be identified, namely formalised cooperation and long-term engagement intentions anchored by political commitments. Stand-alone projects are also invaluable tools for targeted cooperation and exchanges based on shared interests. But unless these initiatives are part of a broader strategy, their ambitions typically do not extend beyond the topics and time horizons agreed at the outset. Key ingredients for longer term engagement, meanwhile, include a joint political declaration, an action plan (or similar arrangement) and dedicated resources all agreed by a manageable number of stakeholders. These various elements provide a framework and channel through which mutual commitments can be discussed. And they can be set up as multi-thematic cooperation agreements (e.g. the ‘EU’s cooperation with Africa on Migration’ and ‘Mobility Partnerships’) or single-issue agreements (e.g. the ‘deal’ with Turkey).

Stopping short of legal commitments, the political willingness of partners to stay engaged is often the linchpin of EU migration partnerships. This is particularly true when much is at stake as, for example, the agreement with Turkey demonstrates. As emphasised at the conference, however, it would be prudent to move forward with a realistic understanding about what migration partnerships can achieve. The non-binding nature and varied levels of engagement may be inherent weaknesses, but this flexibility can be turned into a strength if partners are able to maintain an open dialogue and adapt their cooperation to changing circumstances and interests. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to negotiating migration partnerships. The starting point must always be context-and partner-specific considering that migration is inextricably linked, as both cause and consequence, to the broader socio-economic climate and policy environment of particular places. Cooperation agreements will and should be as diverse as the actors taking part in them.

While some partnerships would be prudent to initially limit their scope to a single issue, others could find it more advantageous to address migration comprehensively and even incorporate other policy area commitments. And though success will ultimately depend on many factors, it is important that partnerships are able to evolve over time and adapt to the changing needs of respective participants. The aims should also be clearly defined even as governments, and this is where political will comes in, are provided some manoeuvring space to decide the specific actions they wish to take. The suboptimal performance of certain cooperation instruments, like the ‘Mobility Partnerships’, can be partly attributed to the non-negotiable sets of conditions imposed. The EU rather proved unable or unwilling to offer adequate concessions to third-country partners in these agreements. These lessons underline the impetus for more tailor-made, context- and partner-contingent cooperation if the needs and wishes of partners are to be accommodated, mutual interests fostered and success achieved.

A versatile toolbox can further contribute to the development of resilient partnerships that are more likely to withstand unforeseen challenges narrowly confined to only one sphere of the partnership. A sound migration partnership, in this way, rests on actors being granted access to a comprehensive range of policy and implementation options. The toolbox should, pertinently, enable cooperation in different areas of migration and aid partners in achieving balanced approaches that, for instance, include both return and readmission and viable legal pathways. The implementation facets, similarly, should include multi-level cooperation and holistically integrate political, administrative and technical aspects of migration governance. While improved technical cooperation may not resolve diplomatic deadlocks, it could facilitate continued dialogue.

Migration partnerships need not be reimagined from scratch, though. The necessary experience and foundations for designing more reliable and robust migration partnerships are already in place. Certain additional measures should be considered, however, to ensure a more efficient use of the migration toolbox:

  1. Partnership proposals should be as broad-based as possible and include related policy areas (such as security, development and economic affairs) and relevant stakeholders to accommodate a wide range of institutional interests. This diversity can ensure that partnerships are more resilient despite institutional changes. The Swiss migration partnership model’s whole-of-government pillar, which promotes inter-ministerial cooperation and joint activities of diverse ministries, public administrations and public agencies, could be emulated.
  2. Migration routes and patterns increasingly connect and cut across different countries and regions and rarely concern only two countries or even one region. Yet partnerships, at present, are generally tailored to specific countries. The current moment, therefore, demands a shift to whole-of-migration-route approaches inclusive of all countries impacted by migratory movements. The next migration partnerships should, in other words, be attentive to the complexity of current migration flows to facilitate better and more flexible responses.  This reorientation would enable cooperation, if any problem were to arise, along segments of migratory routes where no partnership otherwise exists.
  3. Realizing the full potential of EU migration partnerships will require that objectives be better coordinated between the European Commission and EU Member States. The close historical links between some EU Member States and partner countries render bilateral migration partnerships often more attractive than any offer the EU can put on the table. And legal migration pathways remain a member state prerogative, preventing any agreements from being truly comprehensive in their implementation and proving to be disadvantageous to the bloc’s bargaining power. The EU, for example, lacks the ability to offer concessions on legal flows to balance out border control and readmission concerns in partnership building. Greater stakeholder alignment is now required to ensure that bilateral partnerships reinforce rather than weaken EU migration partnerships as reliable instruments for navigating the EU’s external migration dimensions. A Team Europe approach, as underlined by multiple participants at the VMC, can enable the EU’s Member States to better align their actions and offer more attractive prospective deals to partner countries. This alignment will require further coordination, underpinning calls for the creation of a new partnership coordinator position tasked with streamlining efforts and narratives in migration partnerships across Member States and the EU bureaucracy. The position could be modelled after the proposed return coordinator in the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum.

These recommendations, if followed, would all steer the EU towards making more effective use of existing and new migration policy tools and options. Yet if the bloc forgoes context- and partner-oriented designs, struggles to reach common internal positions and fails to foster inclusive models that garner the support of all parties involved, the EU and its Member States risk ceding some of the promise that partnerships hold for improving migration management.


Opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) alone.