Self-interest and power politics were at play this week at the historic Valletta Summit where African and European leaders met for a discussion solely dedicated to cooperation on migration and asylum.
The outcome was a Political Declaration, an Action Plan and a Trust Fund launched by the EU to provide more than €1.8bn for implementation. Calling the Action Plan a big achievement is premature. It will have to be seen whether the formula may actually work this time around.
Joint ownership of the agenda?
This Summit would need to work on building trust and achieving a shared sense of commitment as a prerequisite for achieving impact on the ground, as recently pointed out by the UN Special Representative for Migration and Development Peter Sutherland.
Yet, during the preparations senior official meetings showed the cracks emerging in any sense of joint ownership. From the outset, the Summit was dominated by the European agenda and consultations with African partners started late. African delegates felt that their suggestions for extending invitations to other relevant actors, such as IGAD, were only approved with reluctance from Brussels.
“We go into the Summit with some apprehension” was the summation of an African official during a recent workshop organised by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Addis Ababa, ECDPM and the Southern African Liaison Office.
The diverse political landscape of Africa and Europe came to the fore.
There were divisions visible among the African states on cooperation with Europe as well as among European member states on internal migration policy.
Given these tensions, the turnout of African and European leaders in Valletta was a good sign. African states showed considerable skill and endurance in the negotiations and reportedly received “many concessions” from European states in the closed-door negotiations.
The ‘jointness' of efforts was undermined by the many bilateral deals that the EU aimed to strike with African countries separately - not all of which appeared transparent.
Why another Action Plan and what makes it different?
Political commitments have already been adopted through the Rabat Process (2014 Rome Ministerial Declaration), the Khartoum Process (2014 Ministerial Declaration of the Khartoum Process) and the existing Declaration on Migration and Mobility from the 2014 Africa-EU Summit. The Valletta Summit aimed to build on these.
The Valletta Action Plan is comprehensive and includes more than 80 sub-points to implement and 16 priority actions to be launched by the end of 2016 under five overarching headings, related to the development benefits of migration, legal migration, protection and asylum, irregular migration and smuggling as well as return and readmission.
As these areas are not new for EU-Africa relations and overlap with the existing declarations and action plans - we should ask if another plan is useful.
Part of the problem is that implementation of past plans has been slow and consensus on paper has not always been operationalised in practice. The Africa-EU Action Plan adopted in 2014 has seen no significant implementation to date.
The Valletta Summit aimed to change this. The new Action Plan wants to boost existing frameworks by outlining more concrete deliverables with a clearer timeline up to the end of 2016. It also gives examples of model projects that could be scaled-up or processes that should receive more support.
Monitoring and implementation will take place in the framework of the Rabat, Khartoum and Africa-EU partnership and a meeting of senior officials in 2017 will specifically assess progress on the Valletta Action Plan.
While it makes sense to use existing processes, the question is whether the current bottlenecks that impede implementation can be removed. Simply delegating the delivery of the Action Plan to European and African states without addressing the critical factors of member states' engagement, capacity and coordination (as pointed out in a previous blog) will mean a huge gap between ambition and actual implementation.
The elephant in the room: return and readmission
Negotiations at the Summit were not easy. The leaders meeting was preceded by a 20-hour marathon negotiation by senior officials that lasted well into the night. Here, discussions on security and readmission dominated - a traditionally sensitive topic between the two continents.
Negotiations between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states (ACP) on Article 13 of the Cotonou Agreement (which obliges countries to enter into negotiations to readmit their nationals) date back a long-time and have been dubbed the ‘dialogue of the deaf'.
At Valletta, African states would have liked to see voluntary return, as opposed to forced return, in the wording of the Action Plan. The EU could not accept this, as it is looking for ways to send back irregular migrants, not least because existing agreements, like Article 13 of the Cotonou Agreement which calls on all states to readmit their nationals, whether voluntarily or not.
A compromise was found in the negotiations that kept both, with agreement “to give preference to voluntary return” backed up by action on supporting reintegration. The EU's hope to see African states accept ‘laissez passer' documents to facilitate a swift return of irregular migrants once their nationality has been identified was also dropped after appearing in initial drafts of the Valletta Action Plan.
Some experts have already questioned whether real progress on readmission can be made in the short-term, as verification of nationality is often a huge challenge even with the help of African officials, as envisioned in the Action Plan pilot project.
For European countries, it won't reduce the pressure immediately. The current flows of people consist to a large extent of refugees with legitimate claims for protection under the International Refugee Convention, and who cannot be sent back due to the non-refoulment principle or other humanitarian concerns.
Despite this, the EU is serious about increasing the rate at which people return and is already using a variety of tools to encourage cooperation on readmission ranging from foreign policy, trade policy and development cooperation.
Making migration legal, with a catch
This is the area where the most gains could have been made at Valletta but where concrete commitments mainly relate to areas under the competence of the Commission. African organisations were also clear that their agenda is not to limit migration but to achieve better governance and support for implementing regional and sub-regional frameworks on migration and mobility - supported by the EU.
European member states openly admitted that in the current context they would not be able to provide many legal opportunities for African nationals. In order to keep up appearance of a logically balanced plan, sections of the plan include a number of more vaguely formulated items as well as three concrete deliverables due by the end of 2016. These include a doubling of Erasmus scholarships for students (under the competence of the EU Commission), vaguely formulated pilot projects of pooling offers by ‘some EU member states to selected African countries' on legal migration paths. Finally some workshops on visa facilitation were envisaged - which again, are linked to readmission.
Anna Knoll, a German national, is a Policy Officer in the Strengthening European External Action Programme at ECDPM.
This is part one of a two-part blog series on ECDPM's reaction to the EU-Africa Valletta Summit. Part two will focus on the EU's new Trust Fund for African states that aims to provide the leverage for cooperation and funding for implementation of the Action Plan.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.