A view of the Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece. Photo by: Reuters

BRUSSELS — The battle over whether European Union development money should be tied to countries’ cooperation on migration is again center stage after the European Parliament passed a report containing new language on the issue.

Its author, Swedish center-right Member of European Parliament Tomas Tobé, who also chairs the parliament’s development committee, said it marked an “important shift” in the institution’s previous opposition to conditionality.

But left-wing groups rebuked that claim, arguing that Tobé would not succeed in undermining the institution’s joint position in tense talks underway on the 2021-2027 budget.

Parliament is currently negotiating with the European Commission and member states in the Council of the EU on the functioning of the future Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument, which will be the EU’s main funding instrument for development going forward and is worth around €70 billion ($84 billion).

The so-called “trilogues” are closed to the public, however all sides admit that one of the thorniest issues is that of conditionality — using development money to extract concessions from countries on other issues.

European heads of government have been calling for years for development dollars and other tools to be used as leverage to convince lower-income countries to more strongly police migration and cooperate in readmitting migrants who have been denied asylum in the EU. As a result, in the trilogues, the council is calling for the use of “all appropriate tools and the necessary leverage through a flexible incitative approach with, as appropriate within this context, possible changes in allocation of funding.”

By contrast, the parliament is calling for an approach “without conditioning the allocation of development aid to third countries to cooperation on migration management and in full respect of human rights, including the right of every individual to leave his or her country of origin.”

Last week’s report, which was largely about improving coordination between donors in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, contained two amendments from a version of the same report backed by the development committee in October.

The first removed a paragraph that had noted “grave concern that the EU and member states are currently attaching conditions to aid related to cooperation by developing countries on migration and border control efforts” and recalled that aid “must never be conditional on migration control.”

Instead, an amendment by Tobé, which was passed with the rest of the report in a plenary vote Wednesday, replaced that with the belief that EU aid should “promote joint priorities and policy objectives including eradicating poverty, climate and environmental action, economic and trade policies and migration management.”

The second amendment removed language reiterating that making aid conditional on cooperation on migration and security is not compatible with agreed development effectiveness principles. Instead, the new text stressed that humanitarian and emergency aid, specifically, should not be subject to conditionality.

Among those lobbying MEPs ahead of Wednesday’s vote was France, one of the strongest advocates of conditionality. In a letter to MEPs obtained by Devex French diplomats argued that conditionality is logical, necessary, already exists in some cases, and must be used carefully to avoid denying people access to necessary programs.

The report was finally approved with 331 in favor, 294 against, and 72 abstentions — potentially complicating parliament’s position in the trilogues.

The French Greens MEP Michèle Rivasi deplored the outcome, saying it broke with the international consensus that “employing ODA [official development assistance] as leverage over migration management goes against the very essence of this assistance.” The center-left Socialists & Democrats group of MEPs said it would not allow the “reckless move” to jeopardize European Parliament’s mandate on the NDICI negotiations.

The European NGO confederation CONCORD called the vote a “dangerous precedent” and called on the parliament not to alter its stance on NDICI, as “that mandate was democratically debated and voted on in the European Parliament in 2019.”

Tobé told Devex, however, that Wednesday’s vote “shows that the majority has changed in the European Parliament, that is for sure.”

He said that although the deputies from the S&D and Renew groups responsible for the NDICI negotiation were adamant that parliament’s position on conditionality in the talks would not change, “it is quite clear that there is another majority now in the Renew group, so of course in the long run this affects things.”

He added: “Of course in a way it affects the policy ... Since I’m chair also leading the trilogues, I still want to work together with the rapporteurs [who] are doing from my point of view a good job defending the positions of the European Parliament. But of course this is a topic that moves things ... For me, it is quite clear that this is going to be the new reality. If we want to build a new partnership with Africa, this is going to be one of the elements.”

Asked whether he would support conditionality applying only to the 10% of NDICI likely to be assigned to tackling the root causes of irregular migration, Tobé said: “I wouldn’t go into that now because now you are going into the exact hot topics in the negotiations.”

A commission spokesperson declined to comment for this story, citing the need to preserve the secrecy of the ongoing trilogues. The German rotating presidency of the Council of the EU also did not comment.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.