Between a rock and a hard place: the EU’s transactional approach to migration

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2023 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author, Teresa Nogueira Pinto, is an expert on African affairs who frequently writes reports about the continent for Geopolitical Intelligence Services (GIS), a think tank based in Liechtenstein. She is also an assistant professor at the Universidade Lusófona – Centro Universitário Lisboa. She earned her PhD in global studies from the department of social and human sciences at Universidade Nova in Lisbon.


Since 2016, the combination of two trends—the increasing political importance of migration within the EU, and the volatile political and security outlook in Africa—continues to shape the draft of a broader European strategic vision for migration.

This essay will examine and explore the EU’s evolving and changing relationship with North Africa in terms of building migration policy and using North Africa to support the EU’s migration agenda.

For geographic and geopolitical reasons, countries in North Africa play a determinant role in the EU’s migration policy, and cooperation with third countries is an essential pillar of the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum. The EU has maintained and consolidated a transactional approach, as reflected by migration-related conditionality on development aid; the resort to incentives such as financial aid, trade relations and visa policies to secure the cooperation of third countries; and closer relations with states such as Egypt and Tunisia.

Setting the scene

The EU is redesigning its migration policy, as evidenced by the drafting and negotiation of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, first presented by the EU Commission in 2020. The drafting and negotiation process is being shaped by global, regional and internal circumstances. From a global perspective, this is a period of uncertainty for the international liberal order, as new actors emerge, rules are being redefined, multilateralism is facing multiple challenges and competing powers try to expand their spheres of influence. At the EU level, since 2015, migration has become a more relevant political issue and a strategic priority. The sense of anxiety, successfully exploited by some political actors, has contributed to deepen political cleavages within EU member states, and while an agreement is expected ahead of the 2024 European Parliamentary elections, migration will remain an important topic in polls where domestic cleavages and national politics are still expected to take precedence.

In this context, migration diplomacy became a determining feature of the EU external policy. Migration diplomacy refers to the way countries and other actors in the international arena deploy “diplomatic tools, processes and procedures to manage cross-border population mobility.” Migration policies and migration diplomacy are based on a strategy, oriented towards specific goals, and anchored in a selection of tools and procedures. The different positions of states within migration systems determine not only their interests (which are often divergent) but also their leverage.

But to understand the EU migration policy and how it impacts relations with countries in North Africa, it is necessary to consider two additional factors. First, while, from a European perspective, countries in North Africa are spaces of transit, they have also become countries of settlement for a significant number of migrants and refugees. Second, as evidenced by the cases of Libya, Türkiye, Tunisia, Belarus and Morocco, states may use migration as a foreign policy tool, either threatening or actually implementing what has been defined as “coercive engineered migrations”. This political weaponisation of migration has been successfully employed by some states to secure diplomatic, political, or economic gains.

The EU migration policy: understanding recent shifts

According to UNHCR, between January and June 2023, there were 82,228 Mediterranean migrant arrivals, the highest number for this period since 2016. The greatest increase was registered in the Central Mediterranean route that covers movements from North Africa to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea.

The main countries of origin of the migrants and refugees travelling across this route to Europe in 2023 are Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Syria. Libya remains a key transit country. Moreover, according to the European Union Agency for Asylum, in 2022 the EU received approximately 996,000 asylum applications, representing a 50 percent increase over the previous year, with the caseload of applications pending decision reaching the highest level since 2017.

These numbers, and how they are perceived and exploited by political actors and segments of the electorate, explain the growing convergence among EU member states, and within the EU itself, towards more restrictive approaches to migration. This approach was already reflected in 2018, when several European countries—including Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Italy—decided not to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and abstained from creating more legal and regular pathways for migration.

In various European countries, there has been a resurgence of anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies. In Italy, a front-line state, one of the main promises of the ruling coalition led by Giorgia Meloni was to halt flows of migrants across the Mediterranean. The Chamber of Deputies passed legislation limiting the activities of NGOs rescuing ships in the Mediterranean and eliminated a special protection status granted to migrants who do not qualify for refugee status or subsidiary protection.

In Austria, in 2019, Sebastian Kurz won the legislative elections. The leader of the Austrian People’s Party defended a more restrictive approach to migration and called for Austria, Germany and Italy to form an “axis of the willing” against illegal migration. At the time of writing this essay, the migration hardliner Freedom Party of Austria was leading the polls.

In Sweden, a country previously famed for its open-doors welcome to refugees and migrants, the national populist Sweden Democrats increased their political representation in 2022 and its parliamentary support became decisive to the government. Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderate Party, stated that immigration to Sweden had become “unsustainable” and the government announced a “paradigm shift”, including “efforts to reduce, in full compliance with Sweden’s international commitments, the number of migrants coming irregularly to Sweden”.

The Swedish approach is influenced by the case of Denmark where, in 2019, all refugee protection became temporary, with the focus of the strategy shifting from the integration of refugees, to their return to countries of origin. In 2023, the Danish Refugee Appeals Board moved to consider some regions of Syria safe for refugees to return. The Danish case suggests that centre-left (and centre-right) parties and governments across Europe may feel increasingly pressured to implement stricter migration policies, as a strategy to absorb the claims of more radical parties and contain their electoral growth.

In Greece, another front-line state, video footage of an alleged pushback of asylum seekers, which could be a violation of international law, and the disaster that killed hundreds of migrants off the coast of Greece in June 2023—considered the Mediterranean’s “worst ever tragedy”—did not prevent Prime Minister Kyriákos Mitsotákis from being re-elected for a second term in a landslide victory. Under his government, Greece has adopted a more restrictive approach to migration, which the prime minister describes as tough but fair. Mitsotákis called for the extension of border walls and suggested that the EU should fund it, while SYRIZA and PASOK, the two main parties on the left, committed to maintain the wall along the border with Türkiye. This approach has been criticised by human rights organisations. In 2022, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said that by framing migration as a matter of security and prevention, the Greek policy had a “suffocating effect” on civil society and human rights defenders.

In Germany, where the Alternative for Germany won its first district election and is surging to record highs in opinion polls, the government pledged to redefine its migration policy, in order “to manage, control, and limit” the immigration of foreigners to the country”. The new approach is based on a selective criteria. To combat labour shortages, the new policy aims to attract 400,000 skilled migrant workers to Germany through the introduction of a points-based system. But restrictive measures are also on the table. The special commissioner for migration agreements—a post created in 2023—is considering the transfer of asylum procedures to countries in Africa, following the controversial partnership announced between the UK and Rwanda. That partnership stood as a clear example of migration diplomacy and was ruled unlawful by a court of appeal.

In the Netherlands, the coalition government led by Mark Rutte resigned in July 2023 over a disagreement on asylum policies. As seen in Greece and in Denmark, the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy seems to be willing to absorb anti-immigration claims.

The shift towards more restrictive approaches to migration is also visible at the EU level. In February 2023, after a special European Council meeting, EU leaders condemned attempts to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes and called on the Commission “to immediately mobilise substantial EU funds to reduce pressure on external borders with protection capabilities and infrastructure, means of surveillance, including aerial surveillance, and equipment.” Enhanced cooperation with third countries on returns and readmissions was also mentioned. In April 2023, the EU Parliament approved an amendment, proposed by the European People’s Party Group, calling for the use of European funds to support border security and surveillance. While it did not specifically refer to “walls”, the amendment mentioned the funding of “border infrastructure”. Whereas the debate on border control has gained a sense of urgency since 2022, events on the ground evolved faster: according to the European Parliament, between 2014 and 2022, the aggregate length of borders, walls and fences at the EU’s external borders and within the EU/Schengen area increased from 315 to 2,048 kilometres.

These trends provide political context to the EU Migration Pact. Whereas, according to the pact, the aim is to “manage” and “normalise” migration in the long-term, its drafting process and negotiations are impacted by a sense of political urgency, felt by all actors across the political spectrum.

One of the most pressing issues is the management of asylum applications. As established by the Dublin II Regulation, the country of first entry is responsible for the process. The subject has created a geographic cleavage between Mediterranean countries, who demand a more equitable distribution, and other EU member states who oppose the establishment of quotas, including members of the Visegrád group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). To address the issue, the pact establishes a system of “mandatory solidarity”, under which member states must choose one of three options: accept and integrate relocated asylum seekers, assure their return to the country of origin, or pay a fee (€20,000) per rejected asylum seeker.

But in order to succeed, the EU migration policy depends on the cooperation of origin and transit countries in North Africa, and international partnerships are a key pillar of the EU migration strategy as designed in the pact. These partnerships, which aim to support other countries “hosting refugees and fighting migrant smuggling”, stand as an example of the EU’s transactional approach. In exchange for cooperation, the EU offers these countries “partnerships bringing together a wide range of policies on education, development, visas, trade, agriculture, job creation, research, energy, environment or climate change”.

To understand how this approach may impact the EU relationship with countries in North Africa, it is necessary to consider geopolitical factors, as well as the political, economic and security outlook of countries in the Maghreb region, and how they perceive human mobility.

EU, North Africa, and the geopolitics of migration

Territory and borders are a defining element of sovereignty. As such, the European integration process has been accompanied by the redefinition of notions of space and the rising relevance of a common (external) border, in a context where, reflecting both geographic and geopolitical factors, North African countries play a critical role.

Cooperation on migration, including migration dialogues between the EU and African countries—such as the Rabat and Khartoum processes—precede the 2015 “refugee crisis”, and the externalisation of migration control and responsibility has been a feature of European migration management since at least the 1980s.  Under the autocratic regime of Muammar Ghaddafi, and as established in the 2008 Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between Italy and Libya, Tripoli cooperated in containing irregular maritime migration flows. Events in 2015 and 2016 triggered a process of renegotiation and reconstitution of such partnerships. Amid the political disintegration in Libya and rising uncertainty across the North Africa and Sahel regions, the EU priority was to guarantee that countries in North Africa would maintain their role as gatekeepers.

The 2015-2016 events exposed the potential consequences of political disintegration in the European neighbourhood, and increased the leverage of transit countries, including authoritarian regimes like Sudan, vis-à-vis the EU and European states who feared the destabilising effects of regime change.

The rising number of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean in 2015 was a direct consequence of seismic events in North Africa and the Middle East, triggered by the Arab Spring, starting in 2011. The hopes that the Arab Spring would unleash a wave of democratisation in the region quickly faded. Libya, Yemen and Syria spiralled into protracted civil wars, leadership in Egypt paved the way for another personalised and authoritarian regime, and the reformist paths in Algeria and Morocco did not introduce substantial changes to the way power is distributed and exerted. Tunisia, the epicentre and hope of the Arab Spring, has recently been sliding back into authoritarianism, but this has not deterred European leaders from offering extensive support to the Tunisian president.

At the same time, human security has deteriorated over recent years in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. State fragility created power vacuums in the Sahel which have been exploited by armed Islamist groups, organised crime networks and paramilitary outfits such as Russia’s Wagner group. Rising levels of communal violence and food insecurity have led to a substantial increase in the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, refugee returnees, internally displaced people (IDP) and IDP returnees in the Sahelian region estimated as a combined total at almost 5.3 million people.

The humanitarian outlook has also deteriorated in the Horn of Africa, with civil wars in Ethiopia and Sudan, two states which are countries of settlement for many refugees. According to UNHCR data, Ethiopia hosts more than 823,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in 24 refugee camps established across five regions. Internal conflicts have also resulted in massive displacement, with 4.2 million IDPs plus over 1.5 million IDP returnees. Sudan, too, hosts approximately 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers from the region.

In fact, while Europe is the region in the world with the highest number of immigrants (estimated at 86.7 million), Africa is home to almost one third of the world’s refugee population. The continent is home to around 30 million IDPs, refugees and asylum-seekers. This figure illustrates how conflict, high poverty rates and food insecurity are driving displacement across the continent.

African countries, like European countries, act according to their interests, and compete for influence and resources in the regional and international spheres. Context is thus important to understand how these countries position themselves on Africa-EU migration dynamics. One of the tools that they have at their disposal is their position along mixed migration routes. The instrumentalisation (or weaponisation) of migration for political purposes is nothing new in history. It has been used by regimes many times and in different latitudes, either to secure domestic goals or to increase their regional or international leverage.

For example, between April and October 1980, more than 120,000 Cubans travelled from the port of Mariel to Florida, following an agreement between President Fidel Castro and Cuban Americans. For Castro, this mass movement was an escape valve amid a domestic economic and political crisis. More recently, in 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Türkiye threatened to “open the gates” for migrants to Europe, in order to pressure the EU and NATO to support the creation of a “safe zone” to repatriate Syrian refugees. And again, in 2021, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus sent thousands of migrants to the border with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, leaving them exposed to extreme temperatures in no-man’s-land in an effort to create a new migration and refugee crisis in Europe. In this case, the weaponisation of migration by President Lukashenko was a response to European sanctions and criticism.

The concept of “coercive migration” proposed by the migration analyst Kelly M. Greenhill distinguishes between “generators”, states that create or threaten to create cross-border movements; “agents provocateurs”, those actors who do not directly create crisis, but incite others to generate outflows of migrants and refugees; and “opportunists”, who exploit the anxiety provoked by potential crisis to secure political, strategic, or financial gains.

According to this typology, in 2021 Morocco acted as a generator when authorities there deliberately reduced surveillance along the border with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in retaliation against Spain, after the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, who is subject to a Moroccan arrest warrant for terrorist acts, was admitted for treatment in a Spanish hospital. In the case of Egypt, a member of the Khartoum Process and a country which has closely cooperated with the EU on irregular migration since 2017 under the Egypt-EU Migration Dialogue, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has acted as an agent provocateur. By recalling Egypt’s efforts to curb irregular migration flows and the fact that the country hosts 6 million refugees and “is keen to provide them with a decent life”, Egyptian authorities aim to dissuade criticism, and attract financial and diplomatic support from the EU.

The case of Tunisia is also illustrative. In an official statement in February 2023, President Saied claimed that there was a “criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape in Tunisia” and that “some individuals have received large sums of money to give residence to sub-Saharan migrants”. In July 2023, after clashes between residents and migrants, security forces expelled several hundred Black African migrants and asylum seekers from the coastal city of Sfax to a buffer zone along the border with Libya. But as the leader of a transit country, President Saied is aware of his leverage as a gatekeeper: in 2022, Tunisia was the second most important country of departure and of origin of migrants to Italy via the Central Mediterranean route. Shortly before this year’s clashes and expulsions, the EU announced a Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia to establish a “strategic partnership”. This comprehensive arrangement includes a generous assistance package of approximately €900 million in economic aid and €150 million in immediate budget assistance, to be delivered as part of a broader agreement which includes tougher action against illegal migration. The partnership was established as the country negotiated a difficult bailout agreement with the IMF.

These cases expose the dilemma facing the EU and some of its member states: while successful in containing mixed migration (according to IOM, migrant departures from Egypt’s coast have declined substantially since 2016), these partnerships may help perpetuate authoritarian regimes or, as in the case of Morocco and Spain, generate inconsistencies in foreign policy strategies. In 2022, after decades of neutrality, the Spanish government changed its position on the Western Sahara, announcing its support for the Moroccan autonomy proposal. The shift created a division within the ruling coalition between the socialists and their partners on the left.

Moreover, the identity of sending, transit, and destination states is neither singular nor static. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, often described as origin and transit countries of mixed migration, are also countries of settlement for millions of migrants and refugees.

This has created an implicit agreement between Europe and countries in North Africa: while the EU externalises migration management and border control, these countries allow migrants and refugees to join their informal economies (as in the case of Egypt) or establish detention camps (as in the case of Libya), while receiving funding, provision of services and diplomatic support.

The EU transactional approach

This transactional approach to migration, reflected in the decision to condition aid and trade to cooperation on migration, entails several challenges.

One of the pillars of the EU strategy to manage mixed migration outside EU borders is the use of “sticks and carrots” to influence the migratory policies of origin and transit countries and secure cooperation on three main fronts: reducing mixed migration, externalising border security, and increasing the efficiency of the return, readmission, and reintegration policy. The EU external migration policy includes different policies and instruments, from mobility partnerships to major aid and development programmes aimed at addressing the “root causes of migration”.

An important vehicle for this strategy was the European Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), established in 2015 after the Euro-African migration summit of Valletta. The five goals of the fund were to: address the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement; fight irregular migration, migrant smuggling and eradicate trafficking in human beings; improve protection and humanitarian assistance for people in flight; improve cooperation in the returns of migrants from Europe; and advance legal migration possibilities.

The implementation of the EUTF for Africa has been driven mostly by the first and second goals, reflecting the sense of urgency to reduce migratory pressure in the short term. Of the almost five billion euros allocated to approved programs by the EUTF until the end of 2022, 31 percent was channelled to programmes aimed at improving migration management (the majority of which in North Africa); 28 percent to strengthening the resilience of communities; 22 percent to improving governance and in conflict prevention; and 17 percent to increasing economic and employment opportunities.

In 2021, the Neighborhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument– Global Europe for the period 2021-2027 became the main EU external action financing instrument.  The instrument identifies migration and forced displacement as a crucial area for cooperation, and allocates eight billion euros to migration management.

These initiatives present two main problems. First, they assume that lower poverty rates would automatically decrease the push factors driving migration from origin and transit countries, thus reducing migratory pressure. However, one of the main drivers of migration is income disparities between origin and destination countries, which, in this case, will likely remain in place over the next decades. And one of the main obstacles to migration is the fact that it is not only a dangerous, but also an expensive endeavour that remains out of reach for most people in sub-Saharan and North Africa. Under a scenario of rising incomes, according to the migration transition theory, migration to Europe would actually increase, reflecting persisting and significant income disparities between the two regions.

Second, these initiatives are also forms of extra-territorial governance or “governance at a distance”, which compromise the agency and sovereignty of recipient/ partner countries. Resilient authoritarianism and the erosion of state sovereignty are two different but significant drivers of poverty and conflict in North Africa and the Sahel. In the case of North Africa, most of the EUTF funds were channelled to the UN and international non-governmental organisations operating in the region, thus further eroding the responsibility and agency of states. And when, as it was the case of Sudan and Tunisia, deals include direct financial or diplomatic support, they represent an advantage for authoritarian regimes, especially in contexts of economic deprivation.

In the long-term, however, it will be hard to transform these approaches into mutually beneficial alliances. While these deals may provide immediate advantages, they do not offer long-term solutions.

Struggling to consolidate its global power status in a changing world order, the EU relies mostly on soft power. Normative power, including the appeal of liberal democracy, remains a crucial tool of the EU diplomacy. But most of the origin and transit countries in North (and sub-Saharan) Africa with which the EU cooperates on migration management are authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes.

The case of Sudan illustrates the fragilities of this transactional approach. First, establishing transactional partnerships with such regimes may strengthen their power and reinforce their military capacities, which contravenes the rhetoric of the EU on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Second, while support for authoritarian regimes does do not always guarantee stability, processes of leadership change may lead to fragmentation and civil war. After an unlikely civil-military coalition briefly ruled Sudan after the 2019 overthrow of long-serving autocratic president Omar al-Bashir, with whom the EU had forged close cooperation ties on stemming migration, the country suffered another coup in October 2021 and, since February 2023, has been engulfed in a catastrophic civil war which further deteriorates human security in the region. The immediate cause of the current conflict is the tension between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Security Forces (RSF). The RSF were created in 2013 from the Janjaweed militias and used by Bashir as a counterweight to the power of the regular Sudanese military. The Bashir regime used this paramilitary force to contain migration flows under the agreement established with the EU. By doing so, the RSF received funds, training and eventually gained control over migration routes.

Moreover, for countries in North Africa such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, migration has become a critical source of economic revenue. Since 2015, remittances became the main source of external finance flows to low- and middle-income countries after China. For origin countries, remittances are a driver of economic growth and development, and a lifeline for many families. According to the World Bank, in 2021 remittances from Egyptians working abroad reached $31.5 billion, accounting for approximately eight percent of the country’s GDP.

Authoritarian and semi-authoritarian leaderships also see in migration a pressure relief valve. For strongmen in the region, the Arab Spring remains a cautionary tale, and its main determinants, broken social contracts and high youth unemployment rates, remain in place. This means that potential for unrest is high, especially in urban areas. At the end of the day, solving these problems is beyond the EU’s capacity, and mandate. But besides the tragic humanitarian consequences, the deterioration of the political and security outlook poses a direct challenge to the EU. If more countries in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and North Africa become engulfed in conflict and chronic violence, they may no longer be defined as “safe countries of origin”, opening the bloc to significant legal challenges from rights groups. The EU may even be forced to revise its refugee and asylum procedures, if it isn’t already through recent legislation and initiatives, including the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.


The political, security and economic outlook in North Africa and the Sahel creates concerns among European decision-makers, whereas political shifts across European countries suggest that pressure for restrictive policies will increase.

While it is possible for the EU to implement a transactional approach to migration, this entails significant risks, from both a normative and a procedural perspective.

Considering the political and electoral shifts across Europe, temporary agreements may provide short-term benefits for European governments and the EU itself. And for countries in North Africa, as evidenced by the case of Tunisia, such deals may be a lifeline, providing access to much needed financial and diplomatic support.

These deals, however, may have adverse collateral effects with negative consequences in the medium or longer term, as seen in the case of Sudan. European efforts to contain migration may indirectly feed instability and armed conflict in origin or transit countries, thus increasing displacement.

In addition, although temporary agreements may be reached, push factors of migration in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa will continue to increase. Also, for most of these countries, migration represents an important source of economic revenue, while it reduces the potential of unrest in urban areas. Restricting migration may not be the best option for these regimes, in a scenario of popular uprisings.

While there seems to be a convergence of interests among the EU and leaders in North African countries, the political and economic outlook in these countries—which is marked by volatility—suggests that in the medium and longer term, divergences on the issue of migration will be inevitable.