Jul 03, 2023

Conditionality in Migration Cooperation

Five Ideas for Future Use Beyond Carrots, Sticks, and Delusions

This online text is the Executive Summary and introduction of the report. To view the full report and the footnotes, please download the full PDF version here and the executive summary here

Executive Summary

Effective migration partnerships with third countries are a declared goal of the European Union. But views diverge on what good migration cooperation looks like. Using carrots and sticks, also known as conditionality, is a controversial strategy to reach the EU’s migration goals. Politicians and experts either frame it as necessary and legitimate, or as post-colonial and counterproductive.

Whether one supports conditionality or not, positive and negative incentives have shaped the different types of migration agreements the EU and its Member States have struck in the last decade. Some are formal agreements binding under international law, but most are soft law or handshake deals. They may cover just one specific issue within migration policy, or tie migration to other policy areas. Some are public, others confidential. All these agreements reflect the interests and the leverage which the EU, Member States, and partner countries bring to the table.

The three most discussed levers the EU uses to nudge partner countries toward joint migration management are visas, development aid, and trade – the holy trinity of migration conditionality. But the exclusive focus on these three levers is artificial. Europe also uses other levers, such as police or military cooperation and training, diplomatic attention and high level visits, legal migration opportunities, and others.

When these levers are used, they generate three kinds of effects: the conclusion of an agreement, common document, or statement (paper), procedural or technical changes (process), and migratory movements (people). But they also bring unintended side effects, such as backlash from the citizens of third countries, or the phenomenon of reverse conditionality, when a third country reacts to threats by reducing border patrols or by supporting irregular onward migration. Lever use of one EU country can also worsen the migration relationship of its EU neighbors with that third country.

Despite these high stakes, Europe uses conditionality remarkably inconsistently. Its strategy to create coordination mechanisms to make Member States’ approaches more coherent is hobbled by entrenched realities: The cost of coordination is often disproportionate to its benefits, and turf demarcation hinders cooperation. Thus, the chase for coherent conditionality usage in the EU is at best an uphill battle and at worst a delusion.

This report puts forward five recommendations to improve Europe’s migration conditionality use and debate in the future. It draws on case studies that trace the EU’s use of incentives and threats toward Bangladesh, The Gambia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria, and distills lessons from them.

  1. Stop using conditionality as a rhetorical tool and start using it as a practical tool that has legitimate yet limited use. Politicians and experts alike should work to make the debate on conditionality less ideological and more pragmatic. Concretely, opponents of conditionality should acknowledge that applying carrots and sticks can indeed be effective and legitimate, while proponents of conditionality should acknowledge that it only works in specific cases, and that large-scale replicability of successful cases is unlikely. Rejecting or embracing conditionality categorically, as happens so often, prevents a meaningful and nuanced debate on incentives in migration cooperation.
  2. If you use conditionality, use it smartly. Policymakers should go through a checklist to use conditionality more effectively and credibly in the future. They should avoid path dependency and use of a lever just because it is there or has worked elsewhere, and instead find the levers a country is most receptive to. They should also adapt the timing and sequencing of their demands to the electoral calendar of the country they are engaging: the case studies show that elections and governmental changes are central determinants of countries’ behaviors, perhaps more so than the EU’s lever use itself. European policy-makers should also be more consistent in their demands. They should use threats more credibly, and negative levers consciously, not accidentally – as has happened in the past.
  3. Make the visa lever fairer and more daunting. The EU should try and make its visa lever fairer by adapting the indicators that measure readmission cooperation, and by monitoring the effects of visa restrictions more systematically. To date, restrictions under Article 25a are not used on the countries that cooperate the least, but on countries that depend most on the EU and do not have a strong veto player friend among Member States. At the same time, the EU should try and make its visa restrictions more daunting. The EU could consider increasing wait times by introducing delays longer than the maximum 45 days, and it could critically review the current visa fee increase structure. Alternatively, Member States should improve the speed and efficiency of their visa delivery to increase the impact of restrictions. The current visa process is so cumbersome that the added hassle brought by visa restrictions has little impact on applicants. A better baseline would make visa restrictions more potent.
  4. Let realism reign about development, trade, and legal pathways levers. Policy-makers should come to a more realistic assessment of the potential of the development, trade, and legal pathways levers, as expectations of these levers’ powers are overblown. Less for less aid conditionality is hotly debated in theory, but rare and easy to buffer in practice. The trade lever formalization is uncertain, and even if it is formalized, it is unlikely that it will be used. Legal pathways are now in the spotlight, but ways to use them as a positive incentive have either been discarded (resettlement) or are underdeveloped (skill-based schemes).
  5. Create alternatives to decrease dependency on conditionality. Europe should also go beyond conditionality and work to solve migration challenges with other or fewer external partners. European countries could piggyback on other countries’ established relations with third countries on readmissions, which would allow them to use a path already carved instead of having to carve new paths from scratch. Also, European countries could decrease the urgency to strike migration agreements through internal improvements, such as fixing dysfunctions in their national systems of migration, return, and visa processing, and decreasing their population of irregular migrants through alternative efforts like regularizations. They can also change their strategies at home to improve EU coordination, for instance when they sidestep the go-to solution of yet another coordination format, and instead bring in third-party moderators to create incentives for positive coordination.

Migration conditionality, like it or not, is here to stay. The EU will keep expanding its conditionality toolbox. But if it wants this toolbox to be more effective, coherent, and credible, it needs to use it more smartly and selectively than in the past. The use of carrots and sticks will continue. But it will hopefully be driven by more facts and fewer delusions. 


International migration cooperation matters more and more for the EU and its Member States. Politicians and experts alike constantly call for better and deeper partnerships, because they understand that good migration governance needs not just cooperation within Europe, but with key countries of origin and transit along migration routes to Europe.

But this coveted migration cooperation suffers from clashing goals and interests. Acutely aware of their own limited leverage at the negotiation table, the EU and its Member States have been developing a conditionality toolbox consisting of incentives and sanctions to use towards third countries. This trend has been gaining so much momentum in the last decade that, today, most EU Member States support the expansion of migration conditionality. The EU Commission has repeatedly endorsed using visa, development, and trade policies as levers to get closer to the elusive progress on returns and readmissions, first in the 2015 “Action Plan on Return” and again in the “New Pact” of 2020. The European Council also repeatedly confirmed political support for this approach, most recently in communications in 2021 and 2023.

The use of carrots and sticks in migration cooperation elicits heated debates. Many experts criticize the EU’s push towards migration conditionality. Opponents regularly argue that migration conditionality undermines diplomatic relations, crowds out more important or acute priorities of other policy fields, and that it undermines the effectiveness of development aid. Also, they claim that the resources spent are disproportional to the objective and that, worst of all, conditionality is ineffective. Many commentators thus argue that the EU should only use the “more for more” approach, i.e. improving access to visas or European markets or increasing development funds. In contrast, the “less for less” approach is perceived as harmful or ineffective, especially sanctions that cut development funding, make it harder to get visas, or reduce trade opportunities.

Yet this controversy around migration conditionality is often based on hypothetical scenarios and potential risks rather than on real-life experiences or case studies. Evidence on the use of conditionality and on the actual — as opposed to theoretical — effects rarely is publicly available. Systematic research on the formalization of the EU’s conditionality levers and on their use in practice is also scarce to date. This lack of reliable data and research complicates an evidence-based discussion.

This report aims to fill this gap. It is based on 53 confidential interviews, held between July 2022 and May 2023, with practitioners and experts from EU institutions, Member States, and select third countries on the real-life, practical costs and benefits of using migration conditionality. The findings from these interviews, alongside extensive desk research and an in-depth review of existing literature on migration cooperation, the external dimension of EU migration policy, and conditionality, were sharpened through two closed-door expert workshops on conditionality and migration partnerships, organized by DGAP in September 2022 with international participants and in November 2022 with German participants. A draft version of this study received checks and feedback through 13 external expert reviews.

This study answers the following five sets of questions:

  • What different types of migration cooperation has the EU pursued in the last decade? 
  • What role has conditionality played in these migration cooperation efforts so far? Which levers has the EU used and which effects has the EU’s conditionality use had to date?
  • How united are the EU and its Member States in their conditionality use? How useful are current strategies to reach coherent approaches?
  • Which lessons can be drawn from specific cases of conditionality use?
  • How can the EU and its Member States use conditionality more responsibly and effectively in the future?

Chapter 1 maps the types of migration cooperation the EU has pursued in the past to explain the context of the conditionality debate and use. Chapter 2 lists and analyzes available evidence on the use of conditionality levers in practice and the ongoing development of further policy tools; Chapter 3 highlights the EU’s incoherent conditionality use, and Chapter 4 draws practical lessons from five country cases. Chapter 5 provides recommendations to European policymakers on how different conditionality levers can and should be used in migration cooperation in the future – and when to steer clear of them.

The findings of this study come with a few limitations: Few practitioners the researchers interviewed and engaged with were willing to go on the record with their statements, either because they were not formally authorized to share certain information, or because they had concerns about backlash. This fact allowed for frank conversations, but also makes the interviewee list of this study untransparent (see annex). Also, the researchers could not always verify interviewees’ statements and assessments regarding the impacts of conditionality use through alternative sources, since the information interviewees cited was often confidential and not public. In the same vein, the authors had to exclude some relevant information they had at hand to honor their interviewees’ confidentiality. Further, since most interviews were held between August 2022 and October 2022, interviewees could not take into account some developments regarding the visa lever that have happened since (such as the finalization of the Commission’s third assessment report of third countries’ readmission cooperation, the new proposal for visa restrictions in December 2022, and the engagement with partner countries that followed). It is possible that these changes might have changed some judgments of interviewees and that interviews at a later stage might have yielded slightly different results. Another limitation are the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on migration patterns and cooperation, which complicates assessments of people’s movements and effects of conditionality use, as upward trends can be a sign of long-term change or just a return to pre-Covid levels of migration and a restoration of previously interrupted migration cooperation. Lastly, the fact that this study is a German effort, funded by the research center of Germany’s Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees, may have influenced the statements of some interviewees, especially those from third countries.

Aware of these limitations, this study is an attempt to provide information that is as balanced as possible, to make the heated debate about migration conditionality more fact-based, and to improve the use of conditionality in the future.



Report Launch

Bibliographic data

DGAP Report No. 7, July 3, 2023, 76 pp.

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