Neven Mimica on migration: Off-track or off the beaten path?

Neven Mimica, European commissioner for international cooperation and development. Photo by: Martijn Beekman / Dutch Government / CC BY

Neven Mimica, the European commissioner for international development, insists that addressing the root causes of migration and pursuing — even doubling down — on the European Commission’s current development goals aren’t mutually exclusive.

The European Commission’s aid portfolio in West Africa is “pivoting” toward migration, he told the African Leaders Summit in Dakar, Senegal, last week. But the new 1.8 billion euro ($2.05 billion) EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, he said, is an opportunity to “accelerate the [Commission’s] current efforts in West Africa,” which, together with EU partners, amount to about 1.2 billion euros for the period until 2020, not including the new fund.

Mimica has the tough job of trying to balance the migration-focused politics of the EU with a broad portfolio of development goals. He says it’s a win-win, but critics question whether the Commissioner can use his solid — if largely untested — track record to achieve real impact under a potentially politicized aid agenda. Shadowing Mimica in Senegal as he toured new and ongoing projects slated to receive support under the new migration fund, it was clear that the initiatives ran the gamut of sectors. From education; to water, sanitation and hygiene; to agriculture and water infrastructure; the range of projects gave Mimica the opportunity emphasize the cross-sector potential of migration-driven development.

Mimica told Devex he’d stressed to Senegal President Macky Sall that the “migration and development nexus is to be strengthened, in order to have migration working for development and development working for migration.”

“This is possible. I explained to the president, our migration-related actions are not meant to stop or eradicate migration as a phenomenon, our ultimate goal is to translate irregular migration into legal migration, and this is where our development projects could help,” he said.

Doubling down

Mimica’s determination to use the political steam of migration to drive forward current aid priorities doesn’t surprise those familiar with his under-the-radar political record.

“The current political climate and the member states’ wishes for quick cosmetic fixes for the challenges in Europe, such as migration, may help explain why Commissioner Mimica’s profile is not as high as some of the other commissioners,” Sabine Terlecki, head of policy and advocacy at the European NGO Confederation for Development and Relief told Devex.

Mimica tends, at least outwardly, to go with the flow of European Union currents. But, to his credit, he sometimes manages to bend the status quo at the Commission without appearing to break ranks with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker or the European Union agenda.

Terlecki pointed to Mimica’s vocal work on gender as an example. “[We] hold him to a high standard on the issue,” she said, “but he also seems very personally committed to it.”

On the programmatic level, Mimica also sticks to what he believes works best for development, even when other large donors waver, for example on the question of budget support. While some donors, like the U.K. Department for International Development, are divesting from the use of budget support as an aid modality — pointing to troublesome impact evaluation and the likelihood that funds given with few conditions could encourage government corruption — Mimica is doubling down on budget support in countries with strong records in governance, including Senegal. Here, the Commission is experimenting with sector-specific budget support, using reform-based benchmarks.

“For us it’s important to move toward budget support, toward using and enhancing their development capacities through budget support programs, something that Senegal is more ready for than perhaps other countries in the region,” he told Devex.

“That’s why the second part of our 347 million euro … program for 2018-2020 would be channeled toward budget support programs, not so much on a project based-program.”

Senegal’s portfolio comprises almost twice as much budget support as project funding, and with more than 1.3 billion euros pledged for the 2018-2020 period, budget support is likely to increase, he said.

Mimica has also broken ranks with other top donors in his approach to energy in Africa. While the United States hasn’t yet guaranteed it will prohibit the use of fossil fuels in energy generation under its Power Africa scheme, Mimica said he will forbid it.

“We would like to make our energy facilities in Africa only under one condition: it must be renewable, no other sources of energy generation will be supported financially, [whether] blended finance or other finance, it’s renewables only,” he said.

Still, it’s hard to say whether his more recent rhetoric on migration goes as far, and whether Mimica can deliver on promises during his early days as commissioner to push against political powers at the EU. At his confirmation hearing in 2014, when asked what kind of commissioner he would be, Mimica responded that he intended “to be a political commissioner, not one that would just accept something that comes from the vice presidents.”

An aide close to Mimica insists the commissioner is “still committed to change things within the term of his tenure.” She told Devex he is “convinced that the EU huge financial means combined with its political soft power can be a real game changer.”

When it comes to migration, the aide said, Mimica views the new fund as an opportunity to innovate at the Commission at a time when, she said, it has “had to deal with issues for which it didn't necessarily have the corresponding tools. We could however show our flexibility and our political leadership by establishing a new instrument, the [Trust Fund] for Africa, in a record time, with a record amount, and combining — for the first time in history — various sources of funding.”

Terlecki however, pointed out that Mimica still has a lot to prove. Upcoming policy decisions, including the revision of the European Consensus on Development, the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the new Cotonou Partnership Agreement and the Multi-Annual Financial Framework will be “key tests” for Mimica, she told Devex, and are likely to “define his legacy as commissioner.”

Pivoting to migration

During Mimica’s four day trip to Senegal, he spent much of his time visiting projects and reimagining them as migration-focused. At a project site in northern Senegal, where he signed on to another funding cycle, Mimica stressed the importance of cross-sector development. He views it as especially necessary in relatively stable countries where experimenting is less risky. He also pointed out the goals of the project — which tackles malnutrition through a combination of education and agricultural initiatives — as complimentary in stemming the national and regional flow of migrants away from rural areas into cities and in some cases, after dangerous illegal crossings, into Europe.

Shadowing Mimica in Senegal was relatively easy. Despite frequent field visits and what one aide called “a tendency to zip around” Brussels, Mimica moved carefully in the 113-degree heat. Once seated and chatting, he grew vivid. He speaks softly and smiles sideways, like a friendly co-conspirator, and can be frank to the point of frustrating his cadre of helpers and communications officials. After a speaking engagement to local officials in the northern Senegalese city of Matam, Mimica’s exasperated translator complained that he kept “going off script” in his remarks. During an interview, an aide’s jaw clenched when Mimica described the new migration fund with the phrase, “not a game changer.”

Mimica, born the same year as Yugoslavia’s fourth constitution, grew up in an antagonistic political environment. When asked how the turbulence affected his views of development, Mimica pointed out that the conflict of his childhood Yugoslavia, now Croatia, never quite settled during his time there.

“Not only then, I’ve lived through a very interesting time for Croatia,” he told Devex. Mimica spent his teenage years under Yugoslav President Josep Broz Tito, a firm-handed autocrat. As the country tilted toward war in 1991, he served the then-Croatian government in capacities related to both foreign relations and trade. Mimica then eased Croatia’s entry into both the World Trade Organization and the EU, as the administration’s chief negotiator. Later, he became minister of European integration under Prime Minister Ivica Racan.

Coming of age in a country which, at one point, seemed stuck in a presidential merry-go-round (former Yugoslavia saw ten presidents in as many years, when Mimica was in his teens and twenties), it’s no surprise Mimica is compelled by the need for the development industry to bridge the gap between humanitarian response and governance-focused sustainable development. He hopes to turn emergency assistance into the scaffolding of new and better institutions in post-conflict and post-disaster areas.

And in drought-prone Senegal, where 75 percent of the workforce relies on rain-fed agriculture, Mimica pointed again to the irregular flood of rural Senegalese away from their farms and families in search of opportunities abroad. In Matam, Mimica sat in front of a group of local women and their children, beneficiaries of the new migration fund, via cross-sector agriculture and nutrition projects in the region. Many of the women’s husbands have left Mataam for Dakar, a first step that could eventually lead them to Europe’s shores, legally or otherwise.

Stemming the flows

Mimica’s approach to the new measures aimed at countering migration to Europe appears unthreatening to the Commission’s status quo. He is unlikely to ruffle feathers by reinforcing current programs, like those around renewables and budget support. This could be a result of the toothless rhetoric around migration, rife with phrases like “stemming the flows” and “root causes,” which Mimica has easily explained are the same objectives of Commission programming: tackling extreme poverty, improving governance, battling under- and unemployment. Some of the nuances of the issue remain unexplored. When asked how he approach any hesitation from African leaders whose countries rely on remittances, and could even stand to benefit from increased migration, Mimica was uncharacteristically vague.

“We understand that legal migration for them means a lot in terms of economic, social development, remittances coming from Europe are higher than what we can provide in our ODA to them, so it’s not about stopping migration, it’s about explaining, making it clear, to understand and believe what we’re trying to do,” he said in a joint interview ahead of the African Leaders Summit in Dakar.

“In the next month or two you will witness the European Commission’s proposal for this legal migration agenda in Europe. So therefore they understand, our partners in Africa, that we have to work together to stop irregular smuggling, because of economic and not political and refugee reasons,” he said.

Usually trigger-ready with specifics, Mimica demurred, leaving the public to wonder whether the Commission can deliver the line-item details for a still somewhat nebulous, politically entangled agenda on migration.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.