How a Focus on Migration Could Weaken the EU’s Crisis Management Missions

How a Focus on Migration Could Weaken the EU’s Crisis Management Missions
A man enters a Red Cross refugee shelter in the outskirts of Milan, Italy, July 25, 2018 (AP photo by Luca Bruno).
Judging from the political priorities in Berlin, Rome or any other European capital these days, you’d think that migration control and border management are the only important issues facing policymakers. Everywhere you look, more and more policy tools are being used to “fight” or solve problems related to migration, with some repurposed for the task. The same has been true for the European Union in recent years. In Brussels, this trend can be traced back to the summer of 2016, when the EU published its updated doctrine for defense and security policy, called the European Union Global Strategy. The doctrine attempted to realign those policies more clearly with the internal security interests of EU member states. It would of course be naïve to say that EU foreign policy was never influenced by the interests of its member states. Take EU crisis management missions and post-conflict stabilization efforts in war-torn states. Though they were meant to build peace and prevent a relapse into crisis, they also served European interests by creating a stable and norms-based global order with free trade and limited migration. Nevertheless, the advent of the Global Strategy has clearly shifted the direction of European crisis management policy toward the first priority of the EU’s updated doctrine: the protection of the union, its citizens and its territory. As a result, European peace operations have begun to change, too. Previously, missions were mostly focused on supporting local partners in stabilization and peacebuilding efforts. Nowadays, they are advising them on how to close their borders and “manage” migration, with the clear aim to reduce migration into the EU. It seems as if the EU and some member states are trying to “sell” these EU operations to the populist governments in Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary, which are adamantly opposed to opening their borders to migrants and refugees, by advertising them as part of a global approach to curbing migration to Europe. Unfortunately, this trend might be reinforced through a current initiative called the Civilian CSDP Compact, whose underpinning strategic concept for the reform of EU civilian crisis missions was endorsed by the European Council on May 28. The final agreement is meant to be signed and endorsed by all EU member states by the end of 2018. Yet nobody knows exactly how it will work. In a rather regrettable coincidence, Austria’s new populist, conservative government holds the rotating presidency of the EU when the bloc will decide on the future focus of its external crisis missions. Meant to strengthen civilian crisis management operations, the compact stresses the need to align these missions with agencies of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs council, such as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex. The compact also identifies new tasks for civilian crisis missions, such as migration control, border management, cyber security, counterterrorism and organized crime. Some of these tasks have already been introduced into the mandates of EU missions deployed during the past two years, for example in Mali and Niger. The maritime military mission, Operation Sophia, has also supported European efforts to control migration by trying to interdict the smuggling of migrants in the Mediterranean. Why is this an issue? To begin with, migration is not the only pressing issue on the EU foreign policy agenda. Development aid, climate change and environmental concerns, and peace and security are all more salient. In addition, EU civilian crisis management missions have neither the expertise nor the capacity to fulfill the high expectations of member states for the new tasks they have been assigned. In isolation, crisis management missions will do little to solve the EU’s internal security threats. They can only work in concert with other policies, such as comprehensive EU approaches to immigration, climate change and development.

Migration is not the only pressing issue on the EU foreign policy agenda. Development aid, climate change and security are all more salient.

Moreover, the EU’s new priorities for its missions are out of step with the demands and priorities of local partners in post-conflict situations. The government of Mali, for example, needs support in peacebuilding, stabilization and development. Sealing its northern border to shut down migrant routes bound for Europe is not high on its agenda. The same is true for the United Nations and African Union peace operations that these EU missions are meant to complement. The U.N. mission in Mali, known by its acronym MINUSMA, needs the EU’s support for security sector reform. It has little interest in cooperating on migration control. This does not mean that the EU and its member states should not address migration and border issues. To the contrary, it must do so, in order to keep populists from Rome to Budapest from exploiting these issues. But it should use the instruments already designed for internal security, such as Frontex or Europol, rather than weaken its crisis management missions and peace operations by repurposing them for migration control and other issues. There is growing talk in Brussels of an “integrated approach” combining internal and external policy tools, with the European External Action Service—the EU’s diplomatic service—and crisis missions on the one hand, and the European Commission and the Justice and Home Affairs agencies on the other. But an integrated approach to migration issues must also include EU trade and climate policies, because poverty and desertification are some of the main drivers of migration. To take the case of Niger, a small crisis mission in the country’s north will deliver little of what EU member states are expecting when it comes to stopping people from migrating to Europe. Worse still, this focus on diverting smaller advisory teams to these “new” tasks could also lead to an atrophy of institutional knowledge when it comes to the “old” or traditional tasks. That would further reduce the bandwidth of future missions, after a lengthy period in which the EU has not deployed its full potential. Large civilian missions such as the ones the EU deployed to Kosovo, Georgia and Bosnia have long given way to smaller advising and capacity-building efforts. Realigning EU crisis management missions to serve internal interests might help the EU win over some of its euroskeptic and anti-migration member states, at least temporarily. But if future missions only operate on European self-interest without meeting local demands, they could damage the EU’s ability to manage global crises. In the past 15 years, EU crisis management operations have provided substantial benefits from the Western Balkans and the Caucasus to parts of Africa and Asia. The basic idea behind the Civilian CSDP Compact is sound: It is time to evaluate and strengthen how the EU deals with issues of international peace and security. But the current direction the process is taking might do just the opposite. Tobias Pietz is deputy head of the Analysis Division at the German Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF) in Berlin.

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