The sight of hundreds of migrants swimming or climbing fences separating the Spanish enclave of Ceuta from the rest of Africa this week is a stark reminder of just how dependent the European Union can be on the whims of countries it chooses to pay to enforce its migration policy.
Since well over 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015, most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, the world’s biggest trading bloc has spent vast sums trying to ensure that migrants no longer set out for Europe on arduous overland treks or dangerous sea journeys.
The EU granted billions of euros and other incentives to Turkey, for instance, to stop people leaving for Europe. Yet, just over a year ago, the government in Ankara waved thousands of people through the land border to Greece, sparking violence that almost erupted into open conflict.
That dispute was over Turkey’s view that the EU had failed to amply support its invasion of northern Syria. Since then, the 27-nation bloc has quietly gone about reinvigorating the EU-Turkey deal, with an offer of yet more money and trade incentives.
Perhaps the authorities in Morocco are using the same playbook when an EU country takes action they, too, find unacceptable. “Morocco is playing with people’s lives. They must not use people, among them its own citizens, as pawns in a political game,” said Virginia Álvarez, Head of Internal Policy at Amnesty International Spain.
What is clear is that more than 8,000 people crossed into Spanish territory over two days this week. Many risked their lives by swimming around a breakwater to reach a beach on the European side.
Hanne Beirens, Director of the Migration Policy Institute, told The Associated Press that migration can feature very prominently at the negotiating table when the EU is drafting agreements with outside countries, whatever their nature.
“Today, if as a third country you hold a migration card in your hand, you’re a powerful player,” Beirens said.
The migrant influx in 2015 was a turning point for Europe. Arrivals overwhelmed reception centers and laid waste to the EU’s inadequate asylum policy. Nations bickered over who should take responsibility for people landing on Europe’s shore. Those disputes continue.
Entries these days are barely a trickle compared with 2015. In contrast, the load on small, poor Lebanon and Jordan, or Turkey, where around 3.7 million Syrian refugees are sheltering, is far greater.
But the inability of the EU, home to 27 of the richest countries in the world, to find a fair way to manage people seeking sanctuary or better lives is the source of one of its biggest political crises.
“The EU bloc of 2021 is one that still shivers at the idea of new waves of migrants arriving and having to deal with questions such as who will take them on, who will send them back. So this is really a big issue,” Beirens said.
Six years ago, the EU clinched the deal with Turkey that has been lauded for slowing migrant arrivals almost to a standstill. It’s since used that as a model for similar arrangements with Morocco and Tunisia, where the EU’s top migration official heads Thursday for more talks.
Hundreds of millions of euros have also been spent in lawless Libya, the departure point for many Europe-bound migrants.
Morocco is the second-largest beneficiary of migration aid in that region, receiving around 346 million euros ($422 million). But Rabat appears to have leveraged its control of the Ceuta border to punish Spain for permitting a militant group leader from Western Sahara, a region Morocco annexed in 1975, to receive medical treatment.
In the first public comments on the situation in Ceuta by a Moroccan official, Mostapha Hamid, minister for human rights, said in a Facebook post on Tuesday that Spain’s decision to receive the Polisario Front leader was “reckless, irresponsible and totally unacceptable.”
“What was Spain expecting from Morocco when it hosted an official from a group that is carrying arms against the kingdom?” Hamid wondered.
Beirens claims no insight into Rabat’s motives. But generally, she said, a “tit-for-tat approach has become a kind of a model for third countries in securing, on the one hand greater support for migration, but also — and this far more important — on scoring deals on trade, on foreign affairs and other policy domains.”
As events in Ceuta unfolded, Spain on Tuesday approved a 30-million-euro ($37 million) transfer to beef up Morocco’s policing of irregular migration flows. Madrid said the economic package was already budgeted before the latest developments.
European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas told Spanish National Radio Wednesday that “nobody can blackmail the European Union.”
He may believe what he says, but no one doubts that Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Turkey all hold strong migration cards.