How does the ‘Migration Crisis’ impact on EU Relations with African Countries?


In 2015, the EU declared a ‘migration crisis’ and signalled an intention to take swift and determined action in response to migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. By the end of 2015, the number of migrant arrivals and first-time asylum applicants in the EU reached over 1.25 million applications. The notion of crisis became firmly entrenched in EU public discourse. It is also from 2015 onwards that the EU took steps to scale up its engagement on migration governance, targeting several African regions. It is evident from the scale of intervention that the West African region in particular features prominently in the EU’s recent external migration agenda. While thirteen of the sixteen priority countries identified in the EU’s Partnership Framework are located in Africa, cooperation efforts are particularly intensive with respect to Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia.

What impact did the so-called crisis have on the EU’s engagement with African countries? The EU’s cooperation with African states on the topic of migration certainly precedes events that took place in 2015. However, the effect of a crisis-lens was a revitalisation of cooperation in this area. Assessing this adaptation, my research determines that two areas of engagement with African states were affected. Firstly, in terms of policy instrumentation, the introduction of the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) represents a significant investment in development financing in support of implementing the EU’s migration agenda. Secondly, an overall tightening of political cooperation and the adoption of a more restrictive bargaining stance on key migration topics with African states is clearly discernible.


Bringing a ‘migration lens’ into development interventions

The launch of the EUTF allowed the redirection of development funds to a more explicit focus on migration ‘outcomes’ in project interventions. The European Commission finds itself hampered in its ability to use traditional development instruments such as the European Development Fund (EDF) for development interventions that are explicitly migration focused. The emergency nature of the EUTF also allows for a faster implementation – where there is more emphasis on quicker procedures, and results – and a streamlining of project management processes compared to traditional instruments such as the EDF. The emphasis is on prompt project proposals, and prompt implementation. Implementation of the EUTF’s projects also goes primarily to EU Member State development agencies, who are active in proposing interventions in beneficiary countries. This is distinct from traditional instrumentation, where there is significantly less devolvement to agencies, producing a trend of ‘renationalisation’ of EU development policy. These developments in policy instrumentation are unambiguously aimed at addressing the ‘root causes’ of migration directly in African states.


Increased pressure to cooperate on returns

Introducing a tougher bargaining position with African states, the EU has sought to increase pressure on African states to cooperate in the area of migrant returns from European Member States. While past policy of the European Commission has generally favoured positive incentives to encourage cooperation on return and readmission, the use of visa policy as negative leverage appears in policy documents since 2017. The Commission wants to address non-cooperation on returns more systematically, mobilising ‘all incentives and leverages available’ at the EU and Member State level. By adopting the EU Action Plan on Return in 2015, a number of concrete actions are outlined to secure a higher return rate. Increasingly, these include additional informal arrangements (pursued alongside formal agreements on return) such as the creation of joint investigation teams, and the exchange of liaison officers. In effect, the EU’s exploration of informal agreements in returns and readmission cooperation with African states has occurred since at least 2007. More recently, the EU’s financing of projects in West African countries aimed at establishing functioning civil registries are found to promote EU interests in facilitating returns, as they allow for easier identification of migrants – a key obstacle in return and readmission.

My research aims to make sense of these developments in instrumentation and political cooperation in view of the broader evolution of the EU’s external migration governance. The analysis concludes that these ‘crisis’ adaptations, while in many ways significant, still fall short of a fundamental reconfiguration of the Commission’s migration policy approach towards African states. Instead, the extent of real novelty in the EU’s approach is limited. The EU can be seen to draw inspiration from previous policy frameworks – and its actions since 2015 are therefore not a significant departure from these earlier frameworks. Many key elements of past policy and strategy are revisited in the EU’s recent approach to engaging African counterparts on migration governance. As such, the 2015 Valletta Action Plan, which formed the backdrop for the launch of the EUTF, essentially represents broad continuity with the 2005 Global Approach to Migration.

Conceptually, this research reasserts the value of examining how actors in migration governance such as the EU ‘think’, and make decisions, by following and implementing organisational rationales. This includes analysing and seeking to understand an organisation’s own perceptions of its role, how it perceives the environment it operates in – and how this shapes decision-making.  This approach can offer migration policy analysts useful material for analysing decision-making and unpacking rationales for policy change or policy continuation. The research thus demonstrates the relevance of these organisational dynamics within the EU’s bureaucratic institutions as an important variable to be accounted for in the EU’s external migration action.


This blog draws on JCMS article ”Old Wine in New Bottles? The European Union’s Organizational Response to Reforming EU–African Migration Cooperation.”

The link to the original paper is



Author bio

Melissa Mouthaan holds a PhD in Development Studies (2020) from the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on the EU’s cooperation with West African countries in migration. She currently works as a research officer at a not-for-profit organisation at the University of Cambridge.

Author Twitter handle: @MelissaMouthaan

Department Twitter handle: @Dept_of_POLIS