(De)politicizing the migration development nexus in Europe


On 25 November 2020, in a surprising move away from its previous positions, the European Parliament voted in favour of making European Union (EU) aid conditional to developing countries’ compliance with migration management measures. This is only the most recent episode in a decade-long process whereby European policy-makers link migration and development policies. As part of a special issue of the Journal of Common Market Studies on the politicization of European development, we analyzed the migration-development nexus through parliamentary discussions around the EU Migration Trust Fund.

Migration has become a highly contested policy issue across Europe. Populist and radical right parties have played a key role in the politicization of the so-called refugee crisis. In contrast, development policy remains a largely technocratic area. To be sure, European aid has clearly become more ‘political’ in the sense of being subordinated to foreign and security policy goals. However, it has barely been ‘politicized’ defined as being a matter of public discussion and polarized opinions.

Then, what happens when both policy domains become intertwined? Following the logic of ‘horizontal politicization’ that the special issue advances, we had expected that the hotly debated domain of migration would contaminate the hitherto shielded discussions on foreign aid. In other words, we thought that the migration-development nexus would spur the politicization of development policy.

However, our research shows that the opposite has happened, and that development policy has instead served as a useful de-politicization device for mainstream political parties in Europe. The study also points to some nuances regarding the extent to which and the way in which the migration-development nexus has been politicized.

Empirically, we focus on debates the Migration Trust Fund – officially the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) – in eight European parliaments. The EUTF constitutes the most ambitious and comprehensive EU initiative that links migration and development. It was established at the 2015 Valetta Summit to address the ‘root causes of destabilization, forced displacement and irregular migration’ and has since then pooled 4.5 billion Euro of pledged contributions from EU institutions and member states.

First, there is significant variation in the extent to which the EUTF was politicized in European parliaments. Employing a two-dimensional framework that includes issue salience (i.e. the relative number of actors intervening) and the polarization of opinions (i.e. the scope of conflict), we can discern different degrees of politicization. Whereas the EUTF has been debated considerably in the Swedish and Dutch parliaments, politicization was only medium in Germany and Denmark, and even low in Italy, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

These differences between member states might be explained by various factors including variation in their financial contribution to the Migration Trust fund, in their identities as aid donors, and in their parliamentary debating culture. While this remains to be researched further, it seems that politicization has overall been limited compared to other domains of EU (external) policies such as migration and trade. Even in Sweden and the Netherlands, it would be vastly exaggerated to say that the EUTF debates have dominated the parliamentary agenda. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that parliamentarians in these countries not only had more discussions on the EUTF (‘salience’) but also and more importantly that they displayed more diverse views (‘polarization’) on the nexus than in the other countries of our study.

Second, there are indeed various understandings in Europe on how migration and development policy should be related. In the article we elaborate a framework with five views – discursive constructions or ‘argumentation lines’ – on the nexus. First, the ‘preventive development-oriented’ view stresses that underdevelopment leads to migration and advocates more ‘traditional’ aid. Second, the ‘restrictive migration-oriented’ view emphasizes that (irregular) migration leads to underdevelopment, thereby justifying restrictive migration and migration-oriented development policies. Third, the ‘dominance of national interests’ view problematizes both immigration and development policy, arguing for restrictive national migration governance and abolishment of development aid respectively. Fourth, the ‘development against migration’ view also argues for restrictive national migration governance although development policy can be continued if it becomes migration-oriented. Fifth, and final, the ‘migration as a catalyst for development’ view rejects restrictive migration policies and the use of aid for this purpose.

Interestingly, only the first and second view construct the nexus. At first sight these seem to represent opposing perspectives. Existing studies have indeed depicted ‘preventive’ versus ‘restrictive’ views as two extremes on a continuum. However, our findings suggest that they could constitute a coin with two sides. While the former is ambiguous on how restrictive migration policy should be, the latter allows for continuation of aid as long as it becomes encapsulated in restrictive migration governance. The former’s point that migration is caused by underdevelopment is not incompatible with the latter’s argument that migration causes underdevelopment.

These discursive ambiguities basically allow for the compromise that respectively centre-left and centre-right European parties in government have forged through initiatives such as the Migration Trust Fund: development aid combined with restrictive migration. Meanwhile, our analysis also shows that challenging parties at the right (third view, e.g. Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands and Swedish Democrats in Sweden; and fourth view, e.g. Vlaams Belang in Belgium, AfD in Germany and Lega Nord in Italy) and left (fifth view, e.g. GroenLinks in the Netherlands and Vänsterpartiet in Sweden) put less effort in constructing a nexus. To the extent that their members of parliament do politicize these matters, they rather seek to politicize both development and migration policies as separate policy domains, without spending too many efforts in spinning stories on how these should be interlinked.

Going back to the original puzzle, the nexus potentially de-politicizes debates on restrictive migration policies, thereby preventing the ‘horizontal politicization’ logic to occur. It remains to be researched under which conditions the de-politicization impact of nexus building takes place and how successful challenger parties’ attempts to politicize development policy may be in the long run.


This blog draws on the JCMS article ‘The Politicization of the Migration–Development Nexus: Parliamentary Discourse on the European Union Trust Fund on Migration’.



Nathan Lauwers is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University (Belgium). His research interests focus on EU external relations, in particular on the ‘nexuses’ between migration, security and development policies.Twitter handle: @Nathanlauwers



Jan Orbie is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University (Belgium). His research and teaching activities focus on EU external relations, in particular external trade, development, humanitarian aid, democracy, social and human rights promotion from critical and normative perspectives.

Twitter handle: @janorbie


Sarah Delputte is Assistant Professor at the Centre for EU Studies (CEUS) at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University. Her teaching and research interests concern the European Union’s policies and politics towards the so-called ‘Global South’, focusing in particular on  ‘development’ policy and the various ‘nexuses’ with other policy domains (e.g. migration, climate change, fisheries, …).

Twitter handle: @SarahDelputte
Twitter handle of institution: @UGent