Dec 05, 2022

Migration Fears Are Misdirecting the EU’s Policies

Memo Migrant Weaponization


Moldova’s foreign minister last week warned his country’s western neighbors that they could face a wave of migration if the EU failed to link Moldova to the European energy grid. As a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine, daily life in Moldova has become hard to sustain. Gazprom has cut gas supplies to Moldova, and the Russian military has caused electricity blackouts with its recent missile strikes against the Ukrainian infrastructure that Moldova still depends on. Most EU capitals have paid too little attention to this, but Moldova’s threat of migration has now captured imaginations in Western Europe.

The incident shows that, while it is obvious that Russia, Belarus, or Morocco have been instrumentalizing the threat of migration for political purposes, much closer EU partners like Moldova will also try to use the specter of migration to steer EU behavior. The EU’s closest partners have long used the bloc’s susceptibility to migration crises to keep it aligned with their geopolitical concerns. Early on in the war, for instance, Moldova was keen for the EU to establish a greater physical presence in the region. It duly secured a Frontex operation on its border to Ukraine, placing the EU’s first uniformed service prominently on its territory.

This fine line between cooperation and coercion in migration instrumentalization was something we highlighted in our extensive analysis on the subject for the Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats [here]. Since we wrote that report, the EU has proposed a response to the phenomenon – measures which will allow member states to suspend their rules on refugee care. But our report showed that such measures are unlikely to work. They could further damage the EU’s reputation for migrant treatment, thus lowering the reputational costs for perpetrators. There are better ways to defeat the phenomenon – a mix of punishment and cooperation.

Patterns of Migrant Instrumentalization

The trouble, as we explained in our report, is that the EU based its whole approach to migrant instrumentalization on a faulty assumption: It has assumed that migrant instrumentalization (third parties demanding terms for closing off the flow of people to the EU, often having themselves generated the flow) is a low-cost form of action for the actors instigating it. Consequently, the EU believes it can do little beyond absorbing the impact. This was our starting assumption, too. But by the end of our analysis, we came to a very different conclusion, with far-reaching implications for EU policy.

We had been asked by the Center of Excellence to probe whether it was possible to create a taxonomy of migration instrumentalization to which the EU is typically subject. If the EU could begin to systematize the threat, the logic went, it could carry out risk assessments and make its own response more efficient, reducing obvious vulnerabilities. This would be an important step to tipping the tables. To our surprise, creating the taxonomy proved easy.

A trawl of 40 cases over the period 2014 to 2022 revealed that cases of migrant instrumentalization fall into very few categories. The defining factor in each episode, both in terms of tactics and motivation, was the type of actor behind the instrumentalization. Perpetrators could be sorted into four categories according to the strength of their capacities, and their relationship to the EU or a large third power. These were strong states like Turkey, proxy states like Belarus, weak states like Kosovo, and non-state actors like the Libyan militias which wanted official recognition in return for controlling migration towards the Mediterranean.

Is Deterrence an Option for the EU?

We then went on to ask how the EU should use this taxonomy to systematize its defenses and protect itself from migrant instrumentalization. We posed the classic question: Can the EU resort to “deterrence by denial” or is it stuck with “deterrence by punishment?” The former is preventive and involves anticipating a hostile action before it occurs, cutting off the vulnerability or the means of attack, while the latter is reactive and involves punishing an action once it has occurred, thus ratcheting up the costs to the perpetrator.

The preventive approach is usually ranked as more efficient for the target. However, we found that punishing perpetrators could be achieved cheaply, too. One reason was that, unlike (other) forms of “hybrid warfare”, migrant instrumentalization takes place in the open, with perpetrators having to signal to the EU both that they are capable of cutting off the flow and what their price is. More fundamentally, we found that migrant instrumentalization is already a high-cost tool for perpetrators, meaning that the EU does not have to do much to tip the balance and cut off the flow.

Even the most flagrant perpetrators, actors like Belarus that seem to have the least to lose from flouting international law, can only push people across borders for a short time before incurring huge costs: reputational costs with their own population and with the migrants and their countries of origin as well as risks to their own internal security. Belarus was typical of one of the four types of perpetrators we identified. As a typical “proxy state” it was pursuing geopolitical aims in two directions – toward the EU and toward its patron state, Russia. It had much to lose, potentially alienating its patron in Moscow without gaining concessions from Brussels.

Enticing Bad Behavior

But the real reason why migrants instrumentalization was so costly for perpetrators was due to the thin distinction in their motivation between cooperation and coercion: Almost all perpetrators in fact wanted deeper cooperation with the EU or at least greater recognition of their geopolitical and domestic concerns (in the case of a “proxy state” like Belarus, by gaining the EU’s attention and diversifying its international ties away from a third power like Russia or China). Morocco typified this fine dividing line– last year pushing people across the border to Spain with one arm of state and accepting them politely back with the other, all at the same time.

Such strange incidents beg the question why it is that the EU so often becomes the target of migration instrumentalization when this tactic is apparently far costlier for perpetrators than it first appears. The simple answer is that the EU invites this behavior, and not just through anti-coercion tools that reduce the reputational cost for perpetrators. Its Eurocentric threat perception becomes self-fulfilling: Often its defensive measures – deal-making with unscrupulous governments, the creation of artificial barriers around the EU that invite smugglers, and the institutionalization of pushbacks – make it more likely that more people come to Europe.

The European Commission has resorted to increasingly robust transactionalism as it has tried to get the EU member states to take it seriously as a migration deal-maker. Consequently, the Commission no longer seeks international cooperation on the basis of common interests but rather leverage. Its policies tend to dehumanize people and reduce the reputational risk for perpetrators. Worse, the Commission has enticed even close partners into bad behavior with the assumption that they will get a pay-off for correcting bad behavior.

No Goals, no Strategy

This highlights the underlying problem: The EU’s approach to migration is simply not strategic, and this leads to vulnerability. Europeans have a common migration policy, but it is not based on an assessment of common labor market and demographic needs or on a sense of shared humanitarian obligations. Rather, it is founded on the Schengen Area – a deepening of the EU’s customs union designed to get lorries and freight more quickly across borders, which accidentally made the EU hugely vulnerable to irregular migration. This renders the EU defensive, and it struggles to develop proactive policies to attract, steer, or absorb migration.

The accidental way that the EU moves into strategic fields like migration and its siloed treatment of them is the real problem. It does not join up its actions. At a very basic level, this became clear when the EU introduced sanctions against Belarus. It failed to properly consider that Belarus might retaliate by confecting a migration crisis, even though the country clearly needed to find a use for its sanction-hit national airline. The EU’s blindness is even more surprising given that Belarus had already tried to threaten the EU with migration in the early 2000s.

The perspective of the EU reducing its vulnerabilities across different but closely interlinked policy fields – labor market, tech, finance, energy – in a combined strategy seems illusive. Yet the cost of not having a strategy is high. The United States and China are strategically linking migration up to other fields to achieve access to human and natural resources, critical technology, or efficient energy. This would be a good place to start. But policymaking starts with setting goals, and the EU is notoriously bad at this.

In the meantime, the EU is turning fragile neighbors into a defensive “safety ring” by leveraging development and enlargement capital. With its transactional approach, it is paying neighbors like Turkey or Morocco to do something they should do anyway – get their borders under control, use regional migration as a vector of good faith, and boost their economies. And it is pushing states like Moldova into risky behavior: If Moldova feels it can gain support from the EU by threatening mass migration, it may accidentally find itself on the wrong side of protectionist tendencies in EU capitals.

Bibliographic data

This DGAP Memo was published on December 5, 2022.