Immigration and the Evolving Relationship Between the EU and the Maghreb

Immigration and the Evolving Relationship between the EU and the Maghreb (July 26, 2011) by Jennifer Bubke

Traditionally, Europe has always attracted migrants from the Maghreb, but the number of Sub-Saharan Africans travelling through Maghrebi states with the goal of reaching Europe has gradually increased since the early 1990s.  European governments have had to take a larger role in countering this trend, as North African governments have been relatively uninvolved in stopping or regulating migration. This lack of involvement on the part of North African governments can be explained by the fact that emigrants tend to be unemployed people from politically and economically marginalized areas. Since the mid-1990s, however, all North African countries have become destination countries themselves for migrants, while this used to be the case for Libya only. Also, emigrants from North Africa now reflect all skill levels, employment categories, and regions of the Maghreb.  More women are also beginning to migrate autonomously.[1]


European cooperation on migration issues with the countries of the Maghreb began in the early 1970s, and has slowly been gaining momentum.  In the 1980s and 1990s, the European Union (EU) involvement in migration policy-making consisted primarily of advice to North African governments and was not based on legal requirements. This changed with the Treaty of Amsterdam, which was signed on May 1, 1999.  The agreement empowered the European Commission to draft binding legislation on migration and asylum issues.  Since then, the notion of a partnership between the EU and the Maghreb has been determined primarily via EU regional policies.  After that, two influential multilateral forums to discuss issues of migration and asylum in the Maghreb emerged: the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the “5+5” Western Mediterranean Dialogue.[2]

The EU-Mediterranean Partnership, also known as the Barcelona Process, has its origins in Cooperation Agreements signed between Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and the EU (then called the European Common Market) in the 1970s.  The Barcelona Process is based on new Association Agreements that were signed with each participating country – Tunisia in 1995, Morocco in 1996, and Algeria in 2002.  All three Association Agreements identify illegal immigration as a major problem, but each agreement offers different solutions.  In the Moroccan and Tunisian agreements, the Maghreb is seen as a principal source area of migration and indicates that more development means less migration.  The Algerian agreement focuses on readmission of Algerian nationals, which is not mentioned in either the Moroccan or Tunisian agreements.[3]

The economic policy aspects are the most detailed and comprehensive aspect of the Barcelona Process.  New policies based on principles of various forms of economic integration are included, but this is not extended to the free movement of labor.  Further, borders are kept the way they were for both economic and political reasons.  Thus, one can say that the Barcelona Process failed to resolve the contradiction between closer economic cooperation and the lack of it on the political front, which made controlling migration more or less a failure.   However, the failure to control migration was not the only failure of the Barcelona Process.[4]

The other important component of Europe’s policy in North Africa is referred to as “5+5”, which offers a possibility for group discussion and meetings that bring together officials from France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.  The initial “5+5” conference was held in 1990 but meetings faded with the embargo placed against Libya in 1992.  Meetings were reinstalled again in May 2002 and the last conference was held in September 2004.[5]


The most recent stage in the EU’s Mediterranean policy, the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), picks up where the Barcelona Process and “5+5” discussions left off.  The ENP is rooted in Action Plans that are written for countries on an individual basis.  Morocco and Tunisia’s Action Plans were both written in December of 2004.  Readmission of migrants and concerns regarding visas remain key issues that are addressed in both Action Plans.[6]  “The succession of documents, from the Association of Agreements in the mid-1990s to the 2004 European Neighborhood Policy Action Plans, reveals a developing vision of the Maghreb as the most important region of origin for illegal migration, then as a transit region for illegal migrants (from Sub-Saharan Africa) and finally as a transit region for potential refugees,” states Collyer.[7]


The uprisings of the Arab Spring have forced Europe to reconsider how it views the Maghreb as it has resulted in an intense immigration debate within the EU.  The debate highlights multiple issues.  First, the recent European economic crisis has emphasized anti-immigration resentment across the EU.  Second, Europeans were faced with the potential of Libya sending scores of Libyans, other North Africans, and sub-Saharan African refugees.  Third, Europeans are struggling with ethnic tensions with the existing immigrant minorities and feel saturated with asylum-seekers.  In reality though, the number of potential migrants and refugees turned out to be lower than expected.[8]

There have been several responses by the European Union.  The European Commission published its original suggestions on a partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with North Africa on March 8th, and the proposals were endorsed by the European Councils later on in the same month.  The proposal formed the framework of Europe’s initial policy response to the migration crisis, which is based on the following pillars: democratic transformation and institution-building; fundamental freedoms; constitutional reforms; reform of the judiciary and corruption; support to civil society; enhanced opportunities for exchanges; and sustainable and inclusive growth and economic development.[9]

The next step was for the EU to respond to the harder side of policy on migration – a discussion of the Schengen space.[10]  One initial suggestion on this latter aspect came from Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Mamstroem who suggested the introduction of internal border controls.[11]  This essentially is a call to eradicate the Schengen space, which allows for crossing of most borders within Europe for work or pleasure without going through a border cross point.[12]  Another solution was put to EU ministers May 12, 2011 and to a summit in late June and proposed intensify policing of the EU’s external frontiers and the creation of a European system of border guards.[13]

The European Commission released a new response after the summit held on May 12ththat puts forth the highest level of engagement that is politically feasible at the time being and rethinks the ENP.  First, the response provides a much stronger commitment to supporting political reform, pluralism, and processes that may lead to democratization via focused objectives and benchmarks that were jointly negotiated with partner governments.  Second, the EU proposes to have increased attention to NGOs through a new Civil Society Facility and by creating a new Endowment for Democracy.  The latter would serve as a grant-making body for non-registered NGOs and political parties.  Third, it has been proposed to support reform efforts and reward those making the most progress with renewed incentives of money, market access, and mobility partnerships. [14]

In regards to money, the EU decided to pledge another 1.2 billion Euros to the region in addition to the previously pledged 5.7 billion Euros.  Also, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will look to add another 2 to 2.5 billion Euros a year, each year, over the next few years.  Lastly in regards to money, the EU has decided to push the European Investment Bank to work with others in order to add another billion Euros a year.  For mobility, the EU has decided to offer support so that young people and business people can take full advantage of education and business opportunities in the EU.  Lastly in regards to market access, the EU will further support the region via trade[15].


Actions by individual states have also been taken.  For example, France responded to the crisis by stopping trains from Italy carrying immigrants by citing risks to public order.[16]  An Italian-French summit in Rome on April 27th also called for Schengen’s rules to be revised so European governments can more easily reinstate border controls.  However, when the two countries cosigned a letter, not much was proposed that had not already been by foreseen by the European Commission.  Italy also had to back down on internal border controls than they desired in order to gain support for its call for greater solidarity on the issue.  The further border controls are reinstalled the more Italy will have to bear the burden of the tide of migrants from North Africa by itself, as it is the main entry point into Europe for Tunisia and Libya and some Sub-Saharan African countries.  Italy accepted the compromise because France recognized that eventually a more even burden-sharing should be achieved and Italy acknowledged that in normal years France absorbs five times as many migrants as Italy per year.[17]


An emphasis on internal and external borders will not solve Europe’s qualms over the migration crisis, and other solutions will provide better long-lasting results.  First and foremost, Europe should help ensure a stable transition in the region.  This should include the following:

  1. Aiding security sector reform to restore security to the region
  2. Providing assistance in attracting foreign investment by reducing debt to create jobs
  3. Sharing experience and expertise in creating the main pillars of democracy[18]

In regards to the second point, it is important that job creation be focused on creating jobs for the youth.

Second, a focus on controlling the level of emigration must be exchanged for a focus on removing the ills of the region that led to the revolutions and increased emigration.  This includes:

  1. A further and improved emphasis on economic development
  2. Support for better education and training

The first point will help establish positive incentives and practical means for potential migrants to remain at home.[19]  This economic development, however, must include more attention towards the less fortunate regions rather than a focus simply on the capital and big cities.  Economists must also play a larger role in the policy decision-making process.[20]

Jennifer Bubke is a graduate student at American University, in the International Politics program at the School of International Service (Class of 2012). Her area of focus is international organizations with a related field in international development. 

[1] Collyer, Michael. “Emigration, Immigration, and Transit in the Maghreb: Externalization of EU Policy?” North Africa: Politics, Region, and the Limits of Transformation. Ed. Yahia H. Zoubir and Haizam Amirah-Fernandez. New York: Routledge, 2008. Chapter 8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joffé, George. “European Policy and the Southern Mediterranean.” North Africa: Politics, Region, and the Limits of Transformation. Ed. Yahia H. Zoubi and Haizam Amirah-Fernández. New York: Routledge, 2008. Chapter 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Gillespie, Paul. “Opinion & Analysis: EU must act constructively over Arab crisis.” 30 April 2011. Irish Times. July 2011 <;.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Arab Spring sparks review of symbolic EU border-free area .” 4 May 2011. EU Business. July 2011 <;.

[12]Charlemagne. “Another project in trouble.” 28 April 2011. The Economist. July 2011 <;.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Balfour, Rosa. “Policy Brief: The Arab Spring, the changing Mediterranean, and the EU: tools as a substitute for strategy?” June 2011. European Policy Centre. July 2011 < >.

[15] Ashton, Catherine. The European Union Response to the Arab Spring. with Martin Indyk. Brookings Institute. 12 July 2011.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Dennison, Susi. “The bigger picture: North Africa, Europe, and Migration.” 21 February 2011. The European Council on Foreign Relations. June 2011 <;.; Wahish, Niveen. “Business: Egypt and Tunisia: two economies in the same boat.” 22 July 2011. ahram online. July 2011 <;.

[19] Sutherland, Peter. “Europe’s test in North Africa.” 5 June 2011. European Voice. June 2011 <;.

[20] Ibid.

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