The European Union at a crossroads: Has the EU lost track of its development policy?

Andoni Hormaza is a 3rd year International Relations student from Spain. His interests include international development, global migration and international law. He is also passionate about music, photography and writing.

2020 was supposed to be a pivotal year for the EU, with the 6thsummit between the African Union and the EU taking place in October. The Summit would have constituted an opportunity for the EU to unveil its ‘comprehensive strategy with Africa’. This Strategy boasts a notable number of ambitious goals, from ‘digital transformation’ or ‘sustainable growth’, to partnerships on ‘migration and mobility’ and ‘peace, security and governance’. 

However, like many others, the European Union has not been immune to the effects of Covid-19. The Summit’s indefinite postponement due to the ongoing pandemic provides an opportunity to assess whether there is really anything novel about the EU’s ‘new’ Strategy.

Despite the ambitious rhetoric identified above, ‘security’ and ‘development’ remain two of the most cited words, with almost 40 and 60 respective mentions throughout the 18-page document. Their relationship as perceived by the EU is captured in the following statement: ‘Ensuring long-lasting peace and security in Africa is as much in Africa’s interest as it is in the EU’s. Peace and security are key conditions for sustainable development’.

Despite the lack of clarity regarding the exact, empirical connection between the two concepts, the EU has been making similar declarations for the past decade. While the origins of the so-called ‘development-security nexus’ can be traced further back, the concept as such appears for the first time in the 2011 EU ‘Agenda for Change’. In theory, this nexus means ensuring coherence between the EU’s different foreign policy objectives, particularly those relating to security and development.

The EU’s emphasis on coherence reflects a broader attempt to reorient ‘EU instruments from their institutionally specific rationales and objectives towards an explicitly EU-wide strategic interest’. By eliminating the pillar system, the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty emphasized this commitment and highlighted the EU’s perceived connection between coherence, comprehensiveness and its ability to constitute itself as a credible actor in the international system.

Rhetoric is all well and fine, but how does this translate in practice? The Sahel might be the region where the EU has most clearly made a case for a comprehensive foreign policy connecting development and security. Within the broader Sahel Strategy, Niger constitutes a particularly interesting case. Despite the outbreak of largescale conflict in neighbouring Mali and Libya after 2011, Niger has boasted a relative degree of stability. 

Hence, the EU’s increased ‘security’ interest in the country lies elsewhere. After all, Niger, and particularly the region of Agadez, is the main transit hub for migrants attempting to reach Europe from Western Africa. The number of migrants transiting through Agadez in 2016 was estimated to be 250,000, more than six times those of early 2010s. According to the International Organization on Migration (IOM), more than half of the migrants that reach Lampedusa pass through Agadez.

In its 2011 Sahel Strategy, migration was referenced only once. However, in 2015, the Nigerien parliament criminalized the transport of migrants for the first time, ‘including all forms of support facilitating the crossing of an international border’. Commentators argue that the law was passed with pressure from the EU, which conditioned its development assistance on a more robust immigration enforcement system.

Parallel shifts in the EU’s development policy confirm this assessment. Shortly after the law was passed, the EU launched its Emergency Trust Fund, with a specific focus on the Sahel. Its goals are to ensure ‘stability’ and to address the ‘root causes of irregular migration’ in Africa. Funded mostly with EU development assistance, more than 20% of the initial budget was allocated to Niger, with the aim of combating ‘irregular migration and migrant smuggling’.

Is this coherent with the EU’s avowed commitment to development goals such as poverty eradication or the UN Sustainable Development Goals? The transit migration hub in Agadez constitutes one of the few sectors of economic growth in the region. Since 2015, many citizens of the Agadez region have been imprisoned, while others have had their property confiscated. In an area with rampant corruption, it is not farfetched to hypothesize that the government will continue to imprison locals, if it perceives that it will get more aid out of the EU that way. 

Few would argue that an economy based on migrant smuggling is sustainable. However, dismantling an existing structure that secures the region’s livelihood is only possible if an alternative is offered. As a local citizen in Agadez stated: ‘Commitments have been made [by the EU], but they have not been respected. If not, you will create grievances that may undermine the fragile social stability that currently exists in Niger’. Paradoxically, Niger’s stability and ‘the perpetuation of irregular migration flows’ seem to be strongly intertwined. If the EU does not fulfil its economic promises, popular unrest can ensue, leading to broader instability in an already unstable region. 

In its rhetoric, the EU has repeatedly emphasised the need for greater coherence everywhere. Greater coherence between member states’ interests and EU institutions, between policies as varied as security, development or migration, and within each policy sub-field. The EU is right to do so. Greater coherence means greater actorness. This is particularly true in development policy, an area in which the EU remains ‘the venue in which a large number of policies affecting developing countries are decided’.

However, the EU shouldn’t expect to achieve long-term development goals through short-term measures such as pressuring target countries to criminalize migration. While the EU remains the biggest multilateral donor in the Sahel, it is increasingly using development aid for other purposes. Greater coherence and comprehensiveness between policy fields needn’t lead to the subordination of development goals to perceived security concerns. 

Hence, while 2020 was not the ‘pivotal year’ it was set out to be, extending the EU-Africa Summit could give the EU an opportunity to reflect on its rhetorical commitments. At stake is not only the credibility of the EU as a global actor, but the future of many countries facing serious development challenges.


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