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Negative Sanctions and the EU’s External Migration Policy

“Less for Less” Not Fit for Purpose

SWP Comment 2020/C 34, 26.06.2020, 4 Seiten



The European Commission has announced plans to present a new “Pact on Migration and Asylum” during the German EU Council Presidency. It is expected to provide im­petus for the long-overdue reform of the Common European Asylum System, for the strengthening of the EU’s external borders, and for improved cooperation on migra­tion policy with third countries. Many EU states see the latter as being particularly urgent in order to persuade countries of origin to readmit citizens who are obliged to leave the EU. In addition to positive incentives, sanctions against third countries that are unwilling to cooperate are increasingly being discussed. Although sanctions can have a short-term effect, they do not appear to be sustainable and can jeopardise more far-reaching goals of European foreign and development policy. Therefore, during its Presidency, Germany should instead advocate for migration policy instru­ments that aim to achieve a long-term and fair balance of interests between the EU and third countries.

Over the past 20 years, a common EU policy has developed in European border, asylum, and migration policy, at least in some areas. For a good decade, the European Commis­sion has, for example, been able to nego­tiate with third countries on behalf of the member states on the readmission of re­jected asylum seekers and irregular migrants, and it has already concluded 18 agreements to this end. Nevertheless, the return rate has fallen throughout the EU in recent years and, according to Eurostat, stood at 32 per cent in 2019. That means that only about one in three third-country nationals who were obliged to leave the country have returned to their country of origin. It is likely that the Commission will propose measures to increase the return rate within the framework of the announced “Pact on Migration and Asylum”. Apart from legal and administrative hurdles in the member states, the implementation of the obligation to leave the country often fails due to the unwillingness of third countries to take back their citizens. The question is how the readmission obligation under international law can be better enforced while maintaining human rights standards.

Positive and Negative Conditionality

The principle of conditionality is regarded as one lever to influence the behaviour of a state. A distinction is made between posi­tive and negative conditionality: The former aims to reward a state if it fulfils the im­pos­ed conditions (“more for more”); the latter con­centrates on punishing or sanc­tioning a state for the lack of – or no – cooperation, for example by reducing, sus­pending, or terminating benefits (“less for less”). How­ever, the effectiveness of restric­tive meas­ures is difficult to measure and is highly controversial in academic discourse.

The EU has been using the instrument in various policy areas for decades. For exam­ple, cooperation with third countries has been linked to political conditions such as the fulfilment of democratic or human rights standards. One important area of application is the EU enlargement policy, albeit with a mixed record: The prospect of EU membership could not motivate all accession countries to undertake sustain­able reforms.

Conditionality in Migration Policy

At the end of the 2000s, the Commission also transferred the principle of condition­ality to its external migration policy. It agreed so-called mobility partnerships, primarily with states in the eastern and southern neighbourhood. With these dia­logue processes it aimed, among other things, to improve the level of cooperation with partner countries in the readmission of rejected asylum seekers or irregular migrants by offering the prospect of visa facilitation. However, this succeeded almost exclusively with the eastern neighbouring countries, but not with other states such as the North African partner countries Morocco and Tunisia.

In the Migration Partnership Framework, newly established in 2016, agreements were reached with five more distant African coun­tries of transit and origin, namely Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, and Ethiopia. Here, the incentive in the form of visa facilitation was waived. Instead, these countries were to be persuaded to cooperate in the re­admis­sion of their citizens primarily by means of financial incentives from the newly estab­lished EU Trust Fund (EUTF) for Africa.

In addition, informal and legally non-binding readmission agreements have in­creasingly been concluded in recent years, namely with Afghanistan (2016), Ethiopia (2018), Bangladesh (2017), Côte d’Ivoire (2018), Guinea (2017), and Gambia (2018). In addition to positive incentives, in these cases the EU is increasingly relying on negative sanctions.

Sanction 1: Reduction of Development Cooperation

One lever in this respect is the reduction of development cooperation. However, whether such measures increase the readiness of partner countries for readmission depends strongly on the respective context. For exam­ple, at the beginning of 2018 – after delaying the disbursement of EUTF funds – the Commission succeeded in agreeing with Ethiopia on a legally non-binding readmis­sion protocol. As a result, the return rate rose from 8 per cent in 2017 to 17 per cent in 2019. Afghanistan, too, agreed to im­proved cooperation with the EU in 2016 in a declaration entitled “New Way Forward”. The EU’s implicit threat to cut financial aid, on which the national budget relies heavily, contributed to this. The new agreement enabled member states to significantly in­crease return rates in 2016, from 4 per cent across the EU in the previous year to 28 per cent.

Despite these increased rates of return, the EU’s action raises questions about its effectiveness, sustainability, and legitimacy. For example, if we look at the absolute number of returnees from EU countries to Ethiopia, it is striking that the number was only 205 in 2017 and 240 in 2019. In view of these small numbers, the question of pro­portionality arises. In Afghanistan, in turn, after a brief increase, the return rate decreased again already the following year and was only 8 per cent in 2019 (2,370 returnees). Deportations to Afghanistan are heavily criticised by both UNHCR and non-governmental organisations due to the dev­astating security situation on the ground. The example also illustrates the difficulties generally associated with the threat of negative sanctions in a fragile context: If finan­cial aid is cut off in the absence of cooperation, this can contribute to further destabili­sation of the country, counteract­ing the security and development policy interests of the EU.

In other cases, the leverage effect of Euro­pean development cooperation seems limited. For example, negotiations on a readmission agreement in 2016 failed due to Nigeria’s lack of interest. As a result, a planned vocational training project financed by the EUTF to the tune of €50 million was not implemented. However, Nigeria is not dependent on these development funds like other countries. Other sources of income play a far greater role. On the one hand, there are remittances from migrants. They contribute a much larger share to the national budget than the total volume of development cooperation. In 2018, for example, remittances to Nigeria amounted to $24.3 billion, whereas public development cooperation funds amounted to only $3.3 billion. On the other hand, the EU is not Nigeria’s only potential partner for cooperation: China in particular has become an important economic partner for Nigeria in recent years. Chinese invest­ments and construction contracts between 2015 and 2018 were estimated at $26.7 bil­lion. Against this background, the European threat to reduce development funds cannot generate strong pressure.

Sanction 2: Visa Restrictions

Ano­ther application area of negative con­ditionality is to link readmission to EU visa policy. As early as 2017, the Committee of Permanent Representatives of the member states created an informal mechanism in­tended to sanction third countries that did not cooperate in the readmission of migrants. In February 2020, it received a new legal basis with the amendments to the Schengen Visa Code. The new code stipulates that citizens of a country that does not cooper­ate sufficiently with the EU in the view of the Commission must accept longer visa processing times and higher fees.

However, it is not only unclear what “suf­ficient” cooperation will look like exact­ly. The overall effectiveness of a stricter visa policy must also be questioned. Visa restric­tions have led to readmission agreements with Bangladesh (2017) and Côte d’Ivoire (2018). However, the return rate has not risen since then: In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, it has remained largely unchanged, and in the case of Bangladesh, it has even fallen – from 17 per cent (2017) to 11 per cent (2019). There is therefore no evidence of a leverage effect from the more restrictive visa policy.

As a counter-example, a similar mecha­nism already introduced in 2016 in coopera­tion with the countries of the Western Balkans is often cited. Here, the threat to suspend visa-free travel in the absence of cooperation has greatly increased the num­ber of returns. However, what makes this example significantly different from other contexts is the geographical proximity of the cooperation countries to the EU, the intensity of cooperation in other areas, and the prospect of EU accession as a positive incentive.

In contrast, European visa requirements are already difficult to meet for many of the main African countries of origin of asylum seekers. Therefore, visa restrictions do not seem to be a particularly effective lever.

Sanctions in Other Policy Areas

In recent years, the Commission has repeatedly stated that it wants to use all policy areas for its migration policy objec­tives including mobility, energy, security, and digital policy. According to the EU trade strategy (Trade4All), the synergies between trade policy and migration are also to be explicitly strengthened. So far, how­ever, aspects of return policy have not been included in EU negotiations with third coun­tries. It is conceivable, however, that the pressure on the Commission, which is responsible for trade agreements, will continue to increase. This could be linked to demands to include conditionality clauses in agreements linking trade pref­er­ences to cooperation on readmission policy. Such an approach would not only contradict the World Trade Organization’s re­quire­ment for equal treatment, but would also have strategic disadvantages. Such measures could undermine important efforts such as intensified trade relations and dialogue on an equal footing with African partners announced with the reorientation of the EU-Africa Strategy. This, in turn, could further strengthen China’s influence on the continent.


Experience with negative conditionality shows that the threat of punitive measures has occasionally generated more cooperation on readmission. As a consequence, however, return rates have only risen tem­porarily, with overall very small absolute figures. Not only is the effectiveness of such a policy in question. It also often thwarts more far-reaching objectives of European foreign and development policy. This is the case when the threat of sanctions jeopard­ises partnership-based cooperation at eye level – partner countries reorient themselves as a result, and the EU therefore loses its ability to exert influence. Particularly against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is not advisable to cut develop­ment cooperation funds to partner coun­tries that are unwilling to cooperate. This would aggravate the negative consequences of the global recession and the declining re­mit­tances on the living conditions in those countries.

Instead of pursuing the idea of negative conditionality, the German government should, in accordance with its departmental approach, advocate for comprehensive co­opera­tion on migration policy during the German EU Council Presidency, based on a long-term and fair exchange of interests with third countries. This would also mean keeping an old promise and granting part­ner countries more legal migration oppor­tunities if they cooperate on return policy. At the same time, improved democratic control of external migration policy by the European Parliament is indispensable to ensure transparency and compliance with human rights standards.

David Kipp is Associate, Nadine Knapp is Student Assistant, and Amrei Meier is Associate in the Global Issues Division at SWP. This SWP Comment was developed within the framework of the research project “Forced Displacement, Migration, and Development – Challenges and opportunities for German and European politics”, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

© Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2020


Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

ISSN 1861-1761

(English version of SWP‑Aktuell 54/2020)